Enamelling Techniques: Cloisonné

November 06, 2020

Enamelling has a long and illustrious history, with its first known traces dating back to Mycenaean Greece in 1500 BC. In our previous journal posts, Everything You Need to Know About Enamel Parts I & II, we delved into how enamel is used for making dials, some of the challenges faced when working with the material, as well as a brief exploration of the different types of enamel. In the next few features, we’re going to take a closer look at various enamelling methods, kicking off with cloisonné. 

One of anOrdain's own talented enamellers, Morna Darling, applying the wettened enamel to a cloisonné base before it is sanded and fired to finish

The term cloisonné comes from the French ‘cloison’ which translates to mean ‘partition’. It is the process by which different colours of enamel are, as the name suggests, separated by partitions made of thin metal ribbons. These ribbons are usually gold or silver, sometimes no thicker than a strand of hair, and are fused onto a base layer of enamel to form intricate designs. This can be done by hand, or by using tweezers or pliers. Once in place, the partitions are then filled with layers of enamel, until level with the top of the ribbons. The metal remains visible, allowing the beautiful patterns to shine through.  

Although cloisonné wires are all extremely fine, they are available in different widths. It is possible to use wires of various thicknesses within the one design or, alternatively, a thicker wire may be hammered flat, allowing for the same strand of metal's density to change. This means that the wire will, as Linda Darty suggests in her book The Art of Enamel, ‘subtly change in quality, like a pencil line that goes from light to dark’ when seen within the enamel.

Cloisonné is widely considered to be the first enamelling method to come into existence. In 1952, during a British archaeological expedition to Kouklia, a small village in southwest Cyprus, six gold rings decorated with cloisonné enamel were excavated from an ancient tomb.


An example of early Byzantine jewellery, 9th Century AD. The ring consists of gold, filigree and cloisonné enamel

In an article for Glass on Metal in April 1989 (Vol. 8, No. 2), doctor and master enameller, Dr Panikos Michaelides recalls his conversation with Dr G.R.H. Wright, the archaeologist who led the 1952 expedition. Wright explains that they established the material within the rings as enamel for several reasons, including the absence of cement traces and the presence of trapped air bubbles. With the gold wires soldered to the metal base below, the rings are believed to date back to the thirteenth century BC, suggesting Cyprus as the home of cloisonné.

By the 10th Century AD, enamel’s popularity had spread to Europe thanks to the Byzantine Empire’s widespread practise of cloisonné on gold. They were the first craftsmen to use the technique with a more decorative function, arranging the golden ribbons to form patterns and images and often portraying biblical scenes. Before this, it is thought cloisonné wires served more practical functions, such as strengthening the metal base below or helping to prevent the glass from cracking. 


A ritual object of Tibetan Buddhism, this cloisonné disc was the base for a three-dimensional mandala. Ming Dynasty cloisonné mandala base, ca. early 15th Century AD

Cloisonné reached China in the fourteenth century, the first recorded pieces dating back to the later years of the Yuan dynasty (1333-1368). However, it wasn’t until the Ming dynasty, later in the century and the early fifteenth century, that the cloisonné enamelling industry flourished in China. During this time, the distinctive rich colour of the Jingtai blue was developed. Named after the reigning Ming emperor, Jingtai blue was often used to decorate large ornaments and vases. To this day, Chinese cloisonné is considered some of the finest in the world.

Making a Cloisonné dial:

  • Powdered clear enamel flux is sifted onto a silver dial and then fused in the kiln at 830ºC.

  • Cloisonné wires are applied and the dial is fired again in the kiln allowing the wires to sink into the flux.

  • Enamel is then applied wet using a fine paintbrush and fired. The wires acting as cells to separate the colours. This is repeated until the enamel is brought to the height of the wires.

  • The dial is then sanded to an even finish before a final fire in the kiln brings the dial to a smooth sheen.