Plique-à-jour enamelling is where ribbons of precious gold and silver filigree wire are fused with specially formulated glass to create breathtaking vessels, jewellery, and objets d'art. It is also used for scale miniature stained glass windows, lamps, and panels for use by dollhouse collectors and enthusiasts, as well as in architectural models.
Plique-à-jour enamelling was used by the skilled craftsmanship of great Art Nouveau jewellers and artists such as Rene Lalique, Louis Comfort Tiffany, and Peter Carl Faberge. This type of enamelling is considered to be a technical "tour de force". It is the most beautiful and most difficult of enamelling techniques. Plique-à-jour, (which loosely translates as "light of day"), is sometimes referred to as "backless cloisonné" because of the appearance of the fine silver or gold filigree wire "veins" running through areas of transparent and translucent glass (vitreous) enamel.
What is enamel?
The technical definition of enamel is glass fused to metal but what is plique-a-Jour? The Dictionary of Enamelling by Erika Speel (ISBN 1-85928-272-5) defines plique-a-Jour as "Translucent or Opalescent Enamels fused to span across a network of cells formed with gold, silver, silvered copper, or copper, without a backing under the glazed areas. The fused enamel is an integral part of the finished surface, with the glaze forming a shell veined with metal outlines. Plique-a-jour is seen to best effect when lit strongly from the back. Lacking such illumination the enamels tend to look dense or semi-opaque."
She also states "Plique-a-jour has been in fashion since the late 19th century for jewellery and small decorative articles. Although visually very alluring, plique-a-jour pieces are more fragile than other types of enamel work and require careful handling in use. Making these pieces is more time-consuming than other enamel work and there is a potentially higher failure rate." "Therefore the worth of these pieces resides in the inspirational designs and high quality of craftsmanship rather than in the intrinsic value of the metal base."
Plique-a-jour is made in tree ways.
Filigree plique-a-jour: This is a building up process whereby a planned design is interpreted using gold or silver wires which are worked over a metal form (i.e. bowl). The wires are soldered together. Enamels are ground and applied to each "cell" created by the metal wirework. The piece is fired in a kiln. This process of placing and firing the enamels is repeated until all cells are completely filled.
Pierced plique-a-jour: A sheet of gold or silver is pierced and sawed, cutting out a desired design. This leaves empty spaces or "cells" to fill with enamel powders (ground glass) as described above.
Japanese plique-a-jour (Shotai shippo) is where a layer of flux (clear enamel) is fired over a copper form. Wires are fired onto the flux (similar to cloisonné) and the resulting areas are enamelled in the colours of choice. When all the enamelling is finished, the copper base is etched away leaving a translucent shell of plique-a-jour.
Today Plique à Jour remains the most difficult enamelling technique produced by silversmiths. After a brief history, I will explain the differences between the three main enamelling techniques: cloisonné, painted enamel and basse-taille. In this first part I will focus specifically on Plique à Jour (a type of cloisonné) and will share a few rare silver examples. In the second part of this article I will follow with a few Cloisonné silver collectibles to help you better understand this amazing silver technique.
One of the oldest examples of enamel work dates to around the 13th century BC during the Mycennaean period. Six gold rings decorated in an enamelled technique were found in a Mycennaean tomb in Cyprus in 1952. After examination, it was found to be smooth edged masses laid down side by side before fusion: pieces of several different coloured enamels appear in a cell separated by a cloison. Even before this time, the Egyptians used cloisonné methods to set semi-precious stones into jewellery by cold cementing. One of the most famous pieces to date is the solid gold Tutankhamen mask which its maker used a technique resembling cloisonné work: the mask was striped with transversal bans of glass paste imitating lapis lazuli and was adorned with a wide collar inlaid with semi-precious stones and coloured glasses. Several other treasures from the same royal tomb were designed with small pieces of glass and semi-precious stones that were fitted into gold cloisons. The cloisons at this time were made out of small strips of gold sheet fitted to a base either by colloid hard soldering or soft soldering. Cloisonné is French for compartments or cells; and these compartment walls are made with silver or gold with a backing in metal (most modern enamelling is done in silver and gold). It was only in the 1500's that enamelling became popular in France and Europe. Beginning in the Medieval period, Limoges produced masses of enamelled religious objects and artisans perfected the champlevé techniques. Following this time, during the renaissance period, their enamelling technique changed, and the Limoges and Limousin ateliers were using what is called the painted enamel method. In the 15th century, Venetian glass makers were painting enamels on glass, and so this skill was quickly adapted in Limoges and in other areas. This technique has stayed relatively the same as with what we see today with enamel painted pieces. During this time, the enamel technique called Plique à Jour was becoming known: this type of enamelling resembles the cloisonné technique but without the backing. Plique à Jour was quickly adopted by the Russians during the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century as we see with the Fabergé collections. René Lalique (1860-1945) was one of France's most recognized Art Nouveau jewellery designers who recreated and perfected this rare Plique à Jour technique. Lalique worked not only with silver, but also gold, iron, copper, aluminium, ivory and other innovative materials. In addition, he preferred using jade, opal, coral, amethyst and chrysolite gemstones because they married better with his glass colour palettes. His glass colours were produced by adding metal oxides to the powdered formula and then casting them in silver moulds. Many of Laliques earlier pieces were individually created in silver and transparent Plique à Jour with Egyptian and Japanese design influence. The silver framing was chosen as one of the best complementary colours and material to highlight his pieces being created. Today in France, this enamel technique remains the most difficult to perfect and proves to be very costly to produce. PROCESS Enamel is applied in three main ways: cloisonné, painted and basse-taille: Cloisonné: This enamel technique involves creating the cells by soldering flat silver strips to the surface of the piece creating mini compartments ready to be filled with enamel. Many examples of this technique are known since 11th century BC, but the most popular today is with the Russians and Japanese objects. The photo below shows a pair of Russian silver cloisonné salt cellars and will be discussed further in Part 2 of this article.
Plique à Jour is very similar to cloisonné but without a backing so the vitreous glass is translucent and we can see through it like stained glass windows. This is the most difficult enamel technique to achieve, and because of its fragility, there are not many pieces saved before the 19th century.
Painted Enamels: This method involves a plain foundation of silver metal, in a slightly domed design, in which the colours are either painted on or applied with a palette knife. Limoges, France, is one of the most famous enamelling areas in Europe of which this method is popular even today. The item illustrated below is an example of a vintage Limoges silver painted enamel dish; encrusted with beautiful pieces of glass finished with a gold painted rim. The original stamp is still attached and reads "Enamel on Silver, entirely handmade following the traditional enamelling procedures of Limoges".
The second example of painted enamel is the antique silver butterfly brooch illustrated below. We can see the lovely wing colors in tones of orange and yellow outlined in black. The brooch is hallmarked "Silver", JB&S and number 2237. My research indicated a probable match with Archibald Knox who designed for Liberty & Co, Art Nouveau, and marked John Baker Bennett & Co. Their silver enamel brooches were often just hallmarked SILVER and JBB&Co. I would appreciate any information on its origin.
Basse-taille: after making an outline of the piece to be created, the interior part of the design is chiselled, hammered or punched rather than cut in order to form a shallow recess. The enamel is finished evenly with the top of the silver surface. This was very popular during the renaissance to create religious objects and jewellery. Translucent materials were used with this technique. Today we see a similar technique called Guilloché where underneath the enamel coating is an engraved design. With this method, a more transparent multi-shaded enamel can be used to see the lovely guilloché carved underneath the enamel finish. During the end of the 19th century, Russia adopted this method, and we see many Fabergé pieces that perfect this technique. This antique silver pendant was created by Henry Perrichon (French, 1910-1977) using the basse-taille method. The antelope design was carved out in the silver and then filled with brown and black enamel. This pendant is hallmarked 925 silver and signed HENRY on the reverse side.
The antique silver button below shows the detailed guilloché technique with intricate zigzagging carvings underneath the translucent blue enamel.
Champlevé: "raised field" in French, this technique involves carving or casting troughs into the surface of a metal object and then filling the troughs with vitreous enamel. Unlike cloisonné where the side cells are built up with silver wire dividers, this champlevé process lowers the area to be enamelled. The bottoms of the recesses for the enamel are rough, and so only opaque colours are used. This antique cross is an interesting example of the champlevé method: the areas to be filled were carved out and blues, purples, pink and white opaque enamels were applied to decorate this cross.
PLIQUE-À-JOUR The following are details on two antique silver plique-à-jour pieces from a private collection.
This silver antique dragonfly brooch was created using the plique-à-jour technique. To make a plique-à-jour brooch such as this example, the shape of the dragonfly wings is made by forming narrow strips of silver bent to the correct shape and soldering them within each wing and then to the body of the frame. Enamel is a soft glass made from flint of sand, red lead and soda or potash. Each mass of powdered glass containing its unique colouring agents (from metallic oxides) is placed in a separate compartment formed from the strips of silver metal to which the enamel is fused. The silversmith uses an oblong sectioned wire (flattened from a square piece of wire) by passing it between the rolls or by hammering it on the stake. This leaves the silversmith a four-sided strip of metal which is then bent into shape. This brooch is silver gilt "vermeil", and the maker alternated engraved silver and vermeil patterns on the dragonfly's back. The photo below shows that with this brooch, the cloisonné walls were made with miniscule round beaded cells; and the colours of the enamel range from yellow to green. The wing design is then placed on a material that doesn't stick when fired: aluminium or bronze for instance. The wires are tied or clamped down so not to move when firing. PAJ is a very difficult process, and must not be exposed directly to flames: the pieces are fired in a furnace at temperatures between 650°C/1200°F and 800°C/1472°F. Once fired, the piece is polished very carefully and added pieces like the red glass eyes may be inlayed.