Crafts of China: beautiful enamelware

Vase, Qing dynasty, 18th century, Cloisonné enamel. The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Enameling is a technique of fusing powdered glass to a bronze, copper or sometimes silver body by firing. The powder melts, flows and then hardens to a smooth, durable coating. Such metal vessels with a glassy coating on their surfaces are known as enamelwares. Enamelware which has the sturdiness of metal, the smoothness and corrosion-resistance of glass, is practical and beautiful. To day the earliest known enamel object made in China is the Tang Dynasty (618-907) gold-inlaid silver-base enamel mirror kept in the Shosoin Repository of Nara, Japan. Chinese enamels can be classified today into cloisonné, champleve, and painted enamels according to their production methods. In terms of bases there are gold-base, copper-base, porcelain-base, glass-base and purple-clay enamel. Among them the copper-base enamel is the most popular because the copper price is lower and enamel is easier to adhere to the copper surface.

Dish with scalloped rim, Ming dynasty, early 15th century. The Metropolitan Museum of Art 

Falang or jingtailan enamel known as cloisonné in the West was the first type to be invented. Its techniques were brought to China from Persia in the fourteenth century. The techniques were developed further in the Ming Dynasty and cloisonné enamel work was produced in large quantities in Beijing during the Jingtai Reign. Incense burners, dishes, boxes, birds and animals - the designs of the period are bold, vigorous and endlessly varied.

Gilt copper vase decorated with coiled dragons and painted enameled peonies on a yellow ground, Qing dynasty Yongzheng reign (1723-1735). The National Palace Museum, Taipei  

Cloisonné is the technique of creating designs using enclosures (cloisons) made of copper or bronze wires, which have been bent or hammered into the desired pattern. These cloisons were filled with a glass paste that was mixed with various metals or metal oxides (cobalt for blue, manganese for purple, uranium for yellow or green, and so forth) to create colorful enamels. Firing these pieces was a multiple-step process since the enamel shrunk and had to be filled in after each firing. Once this process was complete, the surface of the vessel was rubbed until the edges of the cloisons were not visible. Cloisonné objects were intended primarily for the furnishing of temples and lady's chambers due to their flamboyant splendor. However, by the period of Emperor Xuande, this ware came to be greatly prized at court.

Hexagonal enameled vases, Yongzheng reign (1723-1735), Qing dynasty. The Shanghai Museum  

Cloisonné remained very popular in China until the 19th century and is still produced today. The most elaborate and most highly valued pieces are from the early Ming Dynasty, especially the reigns of the Xuande Emperor and Jingtai Emperor, although 19th century or modern pieces are far more common.

Snuff bottle, Qing dynasty, 18th century, painted enamel on copper. The Metropolitan Museum of Art  

In the reign of Emperor Kangxi an enamel factory was set up in the court making wire-inlay and base-engraving enamel wares at first as a continuation from the late Ming Dynasty. In the later part of the period, however, production were focused on painted enamels. White enamel glaze was applied on base (bronze or copper ) at first, then fired in the kiln and smoothed. After that enamel glaze of different colours was used to paint ornamental patterns on the surface and again fired in the kiln. Painted enamel which is often applied on small objects is heavy and thick in colour.

Incense burner, cloisonne enamel on copper, Ming dynasty, 1400-1450. The British Museum

In the reign of Emperor Qianlong painted enamel craft was booming. The works made in court featured neat design, meticulous painting and elevated style, using mostly bright yellow colour. Decorations mainly consisted of drawings of nature and floral patterns. Aside from the court, Guangzhou was the major place of painted enamel making. Works made there had bold and unstrained lines, decorated with European style roll-up leaves design using glaze material imported from western countries that is gorgeous in colour and sparkling in luster.

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