Cloisonné is one of the most beautiful crafts in the Chinese artisan tradition. This delicate craft is formed by painting multicoloured enamels onto a piece of metalware. It is embellished with silver filigree, fired and polished, resulting in an elegant piece of décor.
The cloisonné technique was first developed in the Near East and spread to China via the Silk Road sometime during the Yuan Dynasty (1271 – 1368 AD). The first known examples of the craft come from Egypt and Greece, but by far the most famous styles of cloisonné are Chinese and Russian.
During the XuanDe period (1426 – 1435), the art of making cloisonné was popularized within China, as the Jingtai emperor of the time was very interested in the delicate ornaments that could be made using the fired enamel technique. Since blue was a fashionable color for the enamel of that time, cloisonné is known in Chinese as “blue of Jingtai”.
The process of making Chinese cloisonné is precise and difficult. First, a piece of metal is shaped into the vessel by base hammering. Copper is commonly used because it is easy to shape and stretch into many different forms. Cloisonné can take on many different shapes, though the most typical are vases and bowls. Small decorative beads are also sometimes formed using Chinese cloisonné.
Once the container has taken shape, thin wires made of copper or silver filigree are formed into intricate patterns and soldered onto the outside of the vessel. These create the basis for the motif or picture that will grace the container’s exterior.
The third and most important step in creating cloisonné is the filling and firing of the enamel. Colored enamel is filled into the filigree shapes by hand, and then the whole vessel is placed inside a crucible, where the enamels melt and fully fill each filigree shape. As the final step in the process, the vessel is polished and the extra exposed metal (such as the handles and filigree) is then gilded with gold or silver to prevent corrosion or oxidation.
Chinese cloisonné pieces have become true collectors items, particularly antiques dating to the Ming or Qing Dynasties, when the craft was in its heyday. Today, cloisonné is still a beloved artisan skill in China, and particularly beautiful or well-made cloisonné pieces are highly valued and well sought after.