Enamel, this glassy material with its rare opulence, is one of the decorative elements that can present the most ancient claims of nobility. Indeed, the oldest specimens of enameled jewelry we know of have been unearthed from Etruscan tombs.
However, it was not until the 3rd century AD that enamel truly gained recognition, and it did so in Gaul. The Celtic enamellers have left us numerous testimonies of their craftsmanship: coat clasps, belt buckles, and so on.
The metal that was then used as a base for enamel was bronze. With the fall of the Roman Empire, the art of enamel took refuge in Byzantium. It was from there that we re-imported this art, which was however born on our soil, during the Middle Ages.
The Middle Ages, as was the case with stained glass, was also the great era of enamel; the era when it took on its most characteristic aspects; the era when a technique was formed that has hardly varied since.
The art of the enameller essentially involves covering a plate of metal - red copper, silver or gold - with one or several layers of glass powders of different colors due to copper or iron oxides. A quick high-temperature firing transforms these powders into a vitreous glaze of great hardness.
Starting from this constant principle of vitrification on metal, we distinguish several types of enamels, among which are "cloisonné" enamels, the earliest and which reigned from the 3rd to the 13th century; "champlevé" enamels, from the 11th to the 15th century, which reached their perfection in the 13th century; "basse taille" enamels, which mainly spanned the 14th and 15th centuries; and finally "painted" enamels, which appeared in the 15th century and established the reputation of Limoges enamelers.
However, the art of painted enamel is today unfortunately in decline, despite the efforts of well-inspired artists like Dr. Jouhaud and Mr. Bonnaud.
For their part, artists like Mr. Serrière and Mrs. Martineau-Dausset, whose works we are reproducing, are striving to create original works in Paris bearing the mark of their respective temperaments while staying within the orthodoxy of the process. Generally, a plate of red copper a few tenths of a millimeter thick is used. This plate is worked with a hammer until it acquires a certain curvature, without ceasing to bear on all points of its circumference. It is then heated to a moderate temperature (about 500 degrees), and then decapped in nitric acid.
It then undergoes a first firing between 800 and 1,000 degrees, after having been previously coated, on both sides, with a "fondant" or base layer made of a very fusible glass powder. This powder is roughly adhered to the metal using a very light solution of gum arabic.
This vitrification on both sides of the plate, although only one side will be worked on later, is intended to prevent the metal from warping during successive firings.
The plate comes out of the oven coated with a whitish or translucent enamel that corresponds to the ground coating of a painting. It is on this ground that the design is transferred in greasy ink, sanguine, grisaille, or otherwise. The enameller then begins to cover the different parts of the pattern with layers of crushed glass of appropriate colors, with or without the addition of metallic oxides.
This crushed glass must generally be washed to eliminate the too fine powder and keep only the material that still retains the form of small crystals. This glass grit is applied to the plate with a spatula. As the presence of any binder would mar the purity of the tones, only distilled water can be used to give the crushed glass enough cohesion for its placement. At most, this water can be mixed with a touch of gum. One can imagine the skill required to compose a decorative motif with such an unstable material, to prevent the colors from overlapping, to constantly drain off the excess water, etc.
One also has to consider the different melting points of the various types of glass and design the pattern accordingly. The hardest glasses will be used first. The retouching of the eight to nine successive firings that generally make up the treatment of enamel will employ glasses of decreasing hardness. This is to prevent the oldest layers from running.
All retouching must be done practically by the addition of material, as vitrification does not allow for scraping. Firing is done today in an electric oven. The most beautiful enamels are obtained from a high fire. Despite this, sometimes the tones remain dull, muffled due to impurities incorporated in the paste. In this case, a quick decapping in a bath of hydrofluoric acid is usually enough to restore the colors to their purity. For these works, two types of enamels are used: translucent enamels, which are used almost exclusively by Mr. Serrière, and which allow all the underlying layers to be seen; opaque enamels, which are favored by Mrs. Martineau-Dausset, whose tones perhaps gain in brilliance what they lose in depth.
Certain happy effects are obtained by the combination of these two processes. These are, briefly summarized, the elements that make up the palette of the master enameller. The rest is a matter of taste, of a sense of harmony and balance; in a word: talent.
It is to be hoped that many young artists in search of a path will turn to enamel. It is a beautiful material, a material that lends itself to the most
Texte : :arcel Lasseaux
Photos : Jahan