The first thing that strikes you about enamel is the colour. Glorious, saturated colour, so rich it is worthy of ancient royalty. The Persians of the Sasanian empire (224-651AD) made an enamel hue called “the azure colour of heaven”, which is sky blue to you and me. But the name gives you an idea of the reverence enamel inspired—and still inspires. Its unmistakable vividness and gloss can be found on Byzantine plaques, “pectorals” worn by pharaohs, Ming Dynasty vases and Fabergé eggs.
Enamelling was one of the crafts under the spotlight at this month’s London Craft Week. By inviting the public to see craftspeople at work and learn about their skills, Guy Salter, the organiser, hopes to foster a new generation of master craftsmen and ensure traditional techniques, such as enamelling, continue to flourish. "It can get pigeon-holed as being a little bit old-fashioned," says Salter.
Liquid enamel is generally made by grinding “frit” (glass particles) into a fine powder, and mixing it with china clay, water and metallic oxides, which create luscious pigments—like cooking with colour. This is then applied to a base metal, porcelain or glass which has been washed and prepared before being fired at around 800°C to fuse the enamel and base material together. This process is repeated at least five times to build up an intensity of colour. Intricate designs can then be painted on top, or, by using a technique called cloisonné, metal outlines can be fixed onto the base material before the enamel is poured into the cavities.
There were two makers showcasing enamel at London Craft Week; both have a foot in tradition but are also at the forefront of their craft. First, I visited Vacheron Constantin, the oldest watch company in continuous production in the world. Its artistic director, Christian Selmoni, ushered me into a dimly lit room and revealed an ornate watch from under a black velvet shroud. The design was inspired by a medieval Celtic manuscript called the “Aberdeen Bestiary”, and the case has three layers beneath its sapphire crystal window: a gold dial engraved with Latin text, a semi-circle of numerals, which indicate the time, and, covering the left half of the dial, two vultures with fire-red feathers and blue beaks—a lavish yet graceful lesson in the art of enamel.
"There is something about enamel that is almost magic," Selmoni said as I held the watch, examining it from different angles. They used a technique called grand feu, which means “great fire” due to the 840°C required to fuse the enamel powder to the dial's base plate. Colours were then applied under a microscope to enable the craftsman to paint a detailed design in miniature with an extremely fine brush or needle. It was such intricate work that they created only three designs and made just 60 pieces for the “Savoirs Enluminés” collection: "Craftsmen, they love the challenge!" laughed Selmoni, before admitting that enamel is one of the most difficult crafts Vacheron has mastered.
My second stop was Halcyon Days, a luxury-gift company founded in 1950 that specialises in enamel boxes, and is known as “The Guardian of Enamelling”. Its boss, Pamela Harper, showed me some exquisite hand-painted boxes, palm-sized and adorned with enamel in colours like Edinburgh Green and Darling Pink. The designs draw on history, royalty and fine art: Winston Churchill and the Queen looking masterful; landscapes by Van Gogh and Turner; and, my favourite, a greyhound guarding a top hat based on a painting by the English artist Edwin Landseer. Queen Victoria commissioned the painting as a gift for Prince Albert, who had great affection for his greyhound, Eos.
Halcyon Days have their boxes enamelled in their Tipton factory using a network of artisans. Some have 40 years' experience and Harper is keen to encourage a flow of young craftsmen into the trade. "We are here as a brand protecting a craft," she points out. "We feel it’s part of our responsibility, if you like, to support what Guy and his team [at London Craft Week] are doing."
The more technology soaks up our lives, the more we should fight to hang on to the pleasures that come from crafting, and owning, objet d'art. Metal dipped in liquid glass and born from fire—the azure colour of heaven just isn't the same in pixels.
Intelligent Life is a media partner of London Craft Week