Enamelling Techniques: Champlevé

by Hannah  - December 22, 2020

In our previous journal post, we explored cloisonné enamelling, looking at both the process and its history as one of the first enamelling techniques to have been developed by the Byzantine Empire. Proceeding along the enamelling timeline, we now move on to examine champlevé, a method with an equally historic, if slightly more dramatic, story.

The term ‘champlevé’ translates from French to mean ‘raised field’. It is the process by which cavities are cut into a metal base and subsequently filled with enamel, until flush with the top of the uncarved metal. The metal then creates patterns on the enamel’s surface, acting as a barrier between cells, much like the fine wires of cloisonné enamelling.

When working with champlevé, there are many factors to take into consideration, perhaps none more important than the choice of base metal. As the enamelling process can take as many as eight firings to complete, the metal base on which the enamel sits also becomes exposed to the intense heat of the kiln. Metal, of course, expands when heated and, often, this can lead to problems. 

A silver dial blank marked out and engraved to later be filled with enamel. A personal project of enameller Sally Morrison.

Metal and enamel have different melting points and expansion rates, and while fired enamel remains hot for a while, it solidifies quickly. If the enamel solidifies before the metal has cooled and contracted, tension occurs between the two materials. As a result, the enamel may pull on the metal base, causing it to warp, or even dome. If such warpage occurs, this can lead to the enamel cracking, or chipping away entirely from its metal base.

In his book Engraving and Enamelling: The Fine Art of Champlevé, Phil Barnes explains that ‘as a general rule, the finer the metal, the more movement it will have, and that is found across the board, with silver, gold, even copper’. He notes that ‘the higher the percentage of alloy that is introduced into the mix, the more resilient the metal will be to movement’. Therefore, a silver base that has a small percentage of copper in it, for example, would demonstrate less movement when heated than a base of just pure silver.

There are several ways to minimise warpage. One method is to counter-enamel the underside of the base. The presence of enamel on both sides of the metal neutralises any pull from one side or another that may arise, making the metal base more resilient to warpage or doming.

Champlevé enamel’s history spans centuries, with the earliest known pieces dating back to 400 BCE. Celtic metalworkers of Central Europe employed the method to decorate a wide variety of objects, from jewellery and chariots to tools, weapons and harnesses. With most items from this time employing inexpensive copper as the base metal, historians believe champlevé to have gained widespread popularity as an economical alternative to cloisonné enamelling, which required ample use of expensive noble metals, such as gold and silver.

Production of champlevé enamel truly flourished in the 12th Century. Limoges, a city in south-west central France, became the epicentre of champlevé enamelling in the 1100s, with workshops set up all over the city dedicated to the craft. Limoges, known as the global capital of ‘the arts of fire’, was already a city of strong artistic heritage as a result of centuries worth of production of beautifully illustrated religious manuscripts at St. Martial’s abbey. Local artists were, therefore, already familiar with the production and use of beautiful, vibrant colours - just one of the qualities that would subsequently define Limoges champlevé enamel as some of the finest in the world.

For two centuries, enamelling workshops in Limoges thrived and the region became renowned for both the quality and quantity of its enamel production. Many of the earliest pieces depicted biblical narratives and adorned religious artefacts. Indeed, the church heavily endorsed Limoges enamelling industry.

However, it all came to an abrupt halt in 1370 with a siege on the city during the 100 Years War. Led by the Black Prince, English soldiers destroyed the last remaining enamelling workshops. Champlevé enamelling was already witnessing a decline in the region, but historians believe that the siege of 1370 dealt the industry its final blow. It would take another 100 years for the region’s traditional practice to recover. 

Copper and alloy with champlevé enamel dragon-shaped Celtic brooch, 100-300 ADCitation: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Rogers Fund, 1980, www.metmuseum.org

Champlevé’s popularity, like all enamelling, has gone through peaks and troughs throughout the centuries, seeing revivals with Fabergé’s exquisite eggs and later again with the birth of Art Nouveau. Indeed, we are presently practising and experimenting with champlevé enamel here at anOrdain. 

Although the practice has become increasingly sophisticated over the years with technological advancements, the method itself remains largely unchanged. The earliest champlevé enamellers, for example, would have chiselled or gouged the cells into the metal using rudimentary tools. Now, there are various techniques to choose from that offer enamellers better precision, including engraving, etching, embossing and acid bathing.  

Copper engraved, chiselled and gilt champlevé chasse with the Crucifixion and Christ in Majesty, ca. 1180-90, Limoges, France. Citation: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of J. Pierpont Morgan, 1917, www.metmuseum.org

Champlevé enamelling, especially that of Limoges, is revered around the world to this day. This ancient technique has not only survived throughout the centuries but has changed little along the way and, as our enamellers continue to practise champlevé in the studio, it is the perfect embodiment of an old craft well and truly passed onto new hands.

Champlevé: The Process:

  • The design is marked out and the first cuts are made by pushing a sharp graver across the surface of the dial.

  • The design is now half-way engraved. Any slips of the graver are burnished over at this point, as visible in the centre of the dial in the picture above.

  • The dial is now fully engraved and ready to be enamelled.

  • The engraved cavities are filled with enamel. The uncarved metal acts as a partition between the different sections of enamel to produce the final design.

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