The union of chance and material. This describes perfectly the ancient process for the ethereal art of enamel. To realize our signature pieces, we work with Joan Strott Alvini, an experienced artist and one of the first women to work on Philadelphia’s Historic Jeweler’s Row. Part art, part science, the look of each drop of color is as important to us as the form.
Contemporary Enamel: An ancient art gets a modern update.
Like a ceramicist searching for the perfect glaze, our enamelist experiments with a cabinet of potions to create the colors, which react to each metal differently when fired. Once the chemical combination is perfect, forming the exact shade also depends on the translucent suspension of colored glass. Then, like the metal itself, the molten liquid becomes a solid as the glass flows into our grooved, organic forms, reflecting light under the surface like a pool of water.
The Senna collection began as a single sleek black circle.
Though our enamel designs are modern, this process is ancient. Enameled rings from the 13th century B.C. were found during the 1952 excavation of a tomb in Kouklia, Cyprus. Believe it or not, the process hasn’t changed much in the last 3,000 years!
Enamel is glass fused to a metal surface. Most often, the glass is a blend of silica (or sand), soda, lime, and borax. This mix creates a clear, colorless enamel called flux. It can be transparent, opaque or opalescent (translucent), and an enormous range of colors can be made by adding metal oxides to the flux.
Enamel was applied to pottery and stone in ancient Egypt, and used on metal by ancient Greek, Roman, Russian, Chinese, and Celtic cultures.
The color range and handcrafted quality of glass enamel, aka vitreous enamel, makes it a beautiful and long-lasting choice. Because the glass binds to the metal when fired, glass enamel can only adhere to specific alloys of precious metals. When worn with care, it can last for several lifetimes. The less durable, cheaper alternative, Resin enamel– not so much. More of a fashion than a forever choice, Resin, aka cold enamel, is essentially plastic and scratches easily.
Alvini reminds us that many of the color we see today are made with the same pigments as those used by early Byzantine artists. Transparent cobalt blue, for example, is created from black oxide of cobalt and powdered flint glass. Opalescent colors require the addition of more oxide of tin. After the enamel is applied, the entire piece is fired in a kiln. During firing, the enamel powder melts, flows, and hardens to form a smooth and durable surface.
Enameling metal surfaces uses a variety of techniques. A few of the most common techniques used in jewelry are:
- Champlevé, where troughs or cells carved into the surface of a metal object and filled with vitreous enamel.
- Cloissoné, which uses thin wires to form raised barriers which contain different areas of enamel above the metal base.
- Limoges & Grisaille, where enamel is painted on.
- Plique-à-jour, in which enamel is applied in cells, with no backing, like stained-glass.
Production process of a Cloissoné vase by Ando Cloisonné Company in Nagoya.
We asked Alvini a few questions about her own studio practices and how she works safely with substances like cadmium and barium. Most of what Joan describes are common-sense safety measures:
“Don’t eat, drink, or smoke in the studio. Always wash hands frequently and clean work benches with wet towels or rags. Always wear a mask when sifting powders and grind under water.”
Many enamelists have struggled lately with tighter restrictions on metal oxides and other substances used in the process. In particular, lead-bearing vs. lead-free enamels is an industry debate worth noting. U.S. regulations made it difficult to produce lead-bearing enamels. The last domestic supplier, Thompson Enamel stopped making them in 1990. But with this art, it’s the preferences and needs of the artist that determine the success of the materials.
“The important thing is to teach people how to work with these materials correctly and safely.” –Joan Strott Alvini
Another important element of working with enamels is controlling the waste stream. Alvini uses a precious metal drain trap to catch all the waste she generates while grinding wet. Along with metal dust, this is sent to a refiner to trap all waste and filter out toxic materials.
We made a short video of Alvini in her Jeweler’s Row workshop. Watch below to see this talented artist’s process:
Shop our entire line of enamel jewelry here. Interested in using this colorful, ancient technique in a Custom Design or personalizing one of ours? Just get in touch with your idea via our Custom Design Questionnaire.