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A Brief Guide to – Cloisonné

Blog by Debra Palmen

Cloisonné (in English Clo-so-nee) is an ancient technique in which small cells are created from thin strips of wire and stuck all over a metal object to create a decorative pattern. The small cells, called cloisons, are then filled with coloured material. The wire usually remains visible in the finished piece, separating the different coloured cloisons.

Cloisonné is believed to have been invented in Mesopotamia by an artisan with a lot of time on their hands, about 6,000 years ago. Today, the wire is brass, but was originally gold or silver. Today, the coloured material is enamel, which is glass crushed into a powder, mixed into a paste and then fired to harden. But originally, the cloisons were inlaid with gemstones using a labour-intensive process of cutting and grinding each stone into the shape of each tiny cloison. 

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[Above: Lot 105, 19th Century, Chinese Cloisonne Incense Burner 19 cm, sold for $715 AUD at The Auction Barn]

The ancient Egyptians liked the look, but often used glass rather than gemstones to achieve a luxurious-looking result with much cheaper material. Tutankhamun’s tomb (c1325BC) contained cloisonné jewellery, although the cloisons contained glass paste rather than true enamel. Despite their extraordinary ability to inlay gemstones into gold, the Egyptian’s control over the similar melting points of glass and gold wasn’t sufficiently developed at that time for them to make glass enamel a viable product. Some Egyptian examples exist from around 1070BC, but they’re rare.

Part of the problem with excavating ancient cloisonné artefacts is that the cloisons’ fillings have often long since fallen out. The Anglo-Saxon site of Sutton Hoo, one of the most famous archaeological digs in Britain, contained many cloisonné pieces. Most were inlaid with garnets, but the occasional special example shows that enamel was sometimes added to create stunning, important pieces. In many excavations, cloison fillings are lost. But from the numbers of complete pieces retrieved from medieval digs, we know enamel became increasingly common in European cloisonné after about 600AD and was the predominant material in cloisons by 1000AD.

By the time of the Byzantine Empire, the wire was much thinner, which allowed fine enamel pictures to be produced. It’s thought that in 1453, Byzantine artisans brought the technique to China as they fled the fall of Constantinople. The Chinese probably already knew of the technique from their trade in the Middle East, but Byzantine expertise helped them to perfect it.

Chinese cloisonné vessels were much larger than any previously produced. Their earliest datable pieces are from the reign of the Ming Dynasty Emperor Xuande (1425-35), but they’re sophisticated and suggest the artisans were well-experienced by then. Cloisonné from this period, and from the reign of the Ming Dynasty Emperor Jingtai (1450-57), are the most elaborate and by far the most expensive pieces you can find. Not that you’ll find many – museums and multi-million dollar collectors have gotten there before you.

By the 18th century, the Qing Dynasty Emperor Kangxi had established an Imperial cloisonné workshop. The predominant colour in Chinese cloisonné from this period was blue on heavy bronze or brass bodies, with the wires soldered on. But for collectors who are not museums or gob-smackingly rich, pieces from the 19th century and later are by far the most commonly found. They don’t have the same quality as the earlier pieces, with the bodies often made from lighter metals and the wire glued rather than soldered. But artisans still made them, in often complex and beautiful designs.

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In the 18th century, as artisans experimented with production methods, sometimes the wire did not always surround the cloisons but was instead used simply for decorative effect. This approach doesn’t have a specific name, it’s still called cloisonné. But it’s sometimes mistaken for Canton enamel, where pigment is painted freehand onto copper. Canton enamel looks like porcelain and has no cloisons. Cloisonné is also sometimes confused with champlevé, although in champlevé the surface is cut away to create raised cells and channels, or the metal is stamped to create the depressions. Powdered enamel fills all or some of the channels and is fused. The cells in champlevé therefore can have a distinctly raised appearance, or be ground flat to resemble cloisonné.

When cleaning cloisonné, always use a soft cloth and avoid any type of chemical, citrus-based or abrasive cleaner. Remember, enamel is actually glass, so can be scratched and dulled. Never soak cloisonné, as the older pieces in particular can be porous and will absorb the liquid. If the piece is very dirty, take your time and carefully use a damp cloth to gently rub the dirt away.

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[Above: Lot 83, A Large Antique Cloisonné & Polished Brass Incense Burner, sold for $395 AUD at The Auction Barn]

Dropping cloisonné on a hard surface will almost certainly result in exactly what you’d expect from dropping glass. The body is metal, so it will not shatter. But it can still be dented, and when this happens, the cloisons can crack and sometimes fall out. If the piece is seriously old, seek help from a specialist restorer. It’s going to cost a lot. And a full-on repair that returns the piece to an undamaged-looking condition is almost impossible to achieve. So be careful with your cloisonné!

For more modern and less valuable pieces where you want to prevent further enamel loss from the area surrounding a dent, try this:

-   With a needle and syringe, carefully squirt a tiny smear of epoxy into the cracks and dents. Do this slowly until the epoxy is level with the surface.

-   The way to ensure a smooth finish is to proceed carefully. Immediately wipe away any excess - but you’ve just been told to be slow and careful so you shouldn’t have much excess.

-   When the epoxy dries, it will harden to become a clear resin and should prevent the damage from spreading. Optical epoxy is best for this type of fine work, but it’s difficult to obtain – your local spectacles maker might be able to help.

-   And remember, do not try this at home if your piece is old and valuable.

You don’t have to be wealthy to amass a stunning collection of cloisonné. It will take time to hunt down older pieces, but part of the fun of collecting is the thrill of the hunt. Don’t dismiss damaged pieces out of hand, but remember they’re worth less than perfect pieces – as with any collectable. Cloisonné might be an ancient artisan technique, but the vessels often feature simple, elegant lines that sit well in modern interiors.