Jewelry Enameling: Merle’s Top 5 Enamel Techniques
Before I got into colored stones, I loved colored glass. For the same reasons: color, light, and especially the way translucent or transparent materials show off color in a good light. So when I discovered that jewelry enamels were actually glass, it all made perfect sense. Those pools of rich colors, the sense of looking into the depths, the mesmerizing glossy finishes floating on copper, silver, or gold . . . these are jewels that use glass not as a stone substitute but simply to its best, beautiful effect.
While stones are cut, polished, and then set as finished, three-dimensional objects in metal, jewelry artisans start with enamel powders, apply them in a more painterly fashion to metal, and then apply heat, which gives the enamel its polished look as well as fixing it in place on the metal. Most jewelry makers buy finished stones to use, but like inlay artists who cut the stone to fit perfectly with the metal, enamelists create their own enamelwork that must fit their metalwork, too. Some of it can be astonishingly intricate and carefully controlled by the artist, as cloisonné can be, that best known of traditional enameling techniques. Many of the newer enamel techniques involve torch- rather than kiln-firing and are looser, more spontaneous, and much more forgiving.
Here are a few of my favorite kinds of enamelwork.
This work is so difficult it shouldn’t even be possible, but some artists produce breathtaking pieces this way. The name is French for letting in the day, meaning daylight can come through the enamel as it does through a stained-glass window. The enamel is not backed, and open to the light on both sides, suspended between areas or lines of metal. You may or may not want to try this yourself, but you must look at it. One of the premiere plique-à-jour artists today is Valeri Timofeev. Her vases, glasses and other larger work is or has been on display in major museums around the world, including the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
2. Contemporary cloisonné
When I was growing up, cloisonné was the only enameling technique most people could name (still true I think). It was all sweetness and light: little flowers outlined in gold wires, filled in with pretty pastels, all repeated, symmetric, and totally predictable. That wasn’t me then and it isn’t me now. But some of the artists using this traditional technique today are doing work that is beautiful, bold, abstract, unexpected, sometimes intricate but never fussy. Magick’s Falcher Fusager with his vivid and imaginative abstracts or hearts and Amy Roper Lyons with her sea life motifs have been trailblazing for decades.
3. Torch firing
This is one of the hottest trends in jewelry making, pun intended. Torch fired enamel takes a pretty intense and painstaking suite of jewelry techniques and broadens it to include a technically easier and equipment-wise less expensive approach. Torch firing enamels is a largely unpredictable enterprise. While you can test and have some clue of what will happen, the idea is not to try to control it with the precision that plique-à-jour or cloisonné artists demand. Instead, you just see what happens. Torch firing’s popularity has also led to the development of many new approaches to enameling that can be used for either torch or kiln firing. Now enamelists are using pencils, rubber stamps, stencils and all kinds of things borrowed from other crafts. It’s revolutionary!
It’s hard to believe that something as simple as drawing with pencil can work on enamel, but it does! You do need to prep the surface a little for the graphite to stick to it, but it isn’t very complicated. Kirsten Denbow uses a little etching cream or recommends stoning the surface before drawing, and then you’re good to go. Even better, if you don’t like your first (or second or third) attempt, wipe it off with water and try again. It is the simplest, most direct way to add graphic elements to a design, which you can carry into your metalwork, too, if you so desire.
5. On dapped surfaces
Because enamels can be used in such a painterly way, creating a design across a broad surface, I find it especially interesting when the metalsmith domes the underlying surface first. Besides producing a more dynamic, three-dimensional piece, dapping invites the enamelist to concentrate color in interior spaces and gradiate toward less saturated color in areas that have been stretched out. Unlike spreading an etched pattern on metal by dapping after etching, though, where causing the pattern to break apart a bit produces an interesting effect, if you’re enameling a 3D surface, you want to get it to its final dimensions first, then mimic that effect: otherwise you’ll ruin your enameling when it breaks apart!
Even in kindergarten, my favorite thing was fingerpainting because I loved playing with colors. Enamels are like the most sophisticated fingerpaints in the world. You can mix your own colors and add them to jewelry in any pattern or palette you like. What could be better!
In addition to the projects shown above, which are from How to Enamel Jewelry and Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist April 2016, you can buy any of our individual projects and patterns – here are just a few:
- Pauline Warg’s Enameled, Fold Formed Earrings, a fabulous tutorial on torch firing that also demonstrates the popular metal technique of fold forming.
- Kirsten Denbow’s Colorful Enamel Dome Ring, which combines torch firing with dapping and bezel setting.
- Jo Ann Wadler’s Techniques for Graphite & Enamel demo, that shows you how to draw on enamel with pencil to make beautiful focals like these pendants!
Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist
Read: Enameling: Create Flower Jewelry with Enamels, for Color That Lasts Forever for more on enameling.
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