Rare Antique and Estate Jewelry & Fine Collections of Precious Gems
May 04, 2017
Enameling has been around for a long time, with evidence that the ancient Egyptians used the technique to decorate all kinds of different objects, including jewelry. The more complex process of producing plique ajour enamel is thought to have originated in Byzantine Empire in the 6th century. This area, centered around modern day Istanbul and extending into the Middle East was a region famous for its intricate stone and jewelry work, using brightly colored materials as a sign of wealth and ambition.
Basic enameling involves the kiln firing of powdered glass onto an underlying layer, with metal, glass or ceramic usually being the basis for items that will have enamel applied. A simple example is ceramic tiles as you would see in almost any home. The glaze on the surface of the tile is created by coating with the powdered glass, which melts under heating, flows out to cover the tile, fuses to the ceramic itself, and then cools and hardens to a smooth finish.
Jewelry manufacture and decoration is one of the most popular applications for enameling, and is benefited by the fact that the color in enameling doesn’t fade, thereby adding considerable longevity to the beauty of the piece.
Plique-a-jour (or Plique ajour) enamel is produced in exactly the same way, but is intended to have the underlying base layer removed by burning or rubbing, once fired. This leaves what is, in effect, the jewelry version of a stained glass window, as enamel allows light to pass through it easily. The name, plique ajour, comes from the French phrase “letting in light”. The process however, regardless of how closely it might be related to standard enameling, is fraught with difficulties and has a high failure rate due to the need for the removable lower surface. Often this surface fails during firing, letting the enamel flow away from the target area, or damage is done to the finished plique ajour during the later removal of the supporting layer.
Because of the difficulty in producing consistently marketable plique ajour objects, the process had become much less practiced by the end of the 11th century, with only small pockets of craftsmen still involved in the work across Europe. As a result, most surviving pieces from before the revival of plique ajour in the 19th century are small ornamental objects, most of which still exhibit almost perfect color renditions, comparable to the day they were first made.
In the late 19th century, the use of plique ajour was revived by craftsmen in Russia and Scandinavia, with legendary St Petersburg jewelers Fabergé quickly becoming the acknowledged masters of creations containing plique ajour. With the designs of the Art Nouveau period lending itself very well to the style of plique ajour, it once again became very popular, especially for intricate, highly decorated brooches or other clothing decoration.
Plique ajour is also practiced in Japan, where it is known as shotai shippo. The technique is slightly different from western methods, in that it uses a copper base instead of gold or silver but, otherwise, the end product is very similar and, like all good plique ajour, highly prized.
Plique ajour continues to be popular today, but the necessity of the complexity of the process means that it is still the preserve of true master craftsmen. The production levels, already small in comparison to other jewelry techniques, ebb and flow as delays are experienced during the training of new generations of plique ajour masters.
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