An introduction to cloisonné

Cloisonné is a famous traditional enamelware with a history of over 500 years.  It is known as the ‘Blue of Jingtai’ in China because blue was the first colour used for enamelling and Jingtai was the title of the 7th Ming Emperor during whose reign cloisonné became widely popular.
A wide variety of luxury goods can be made from cloisonné, including vases, jars, bowls, plates, boxes, ashtrays and jewellery. The articles are brilliant in colour and splendid in design.
 Cloisonné is one of Beijing’s most famous arts and crafts and it is known for its excellent quality. The skill and workmanship have been handed down from the Ming Dynasty, and the process for making cloisonné is elaborate and complicated.  The process includes base-hammering, copper-strip inlaying, soldering, enamel-filling, enamel firing, polishing and gilding.  And although the process is steeped in tradition, artisans have added their innovative touches throughout the years, so that there are a number of new varieties in existence today.


Making cloisonné


The first step is making the ‘body. The material used for making the body is copper, because copper is easily hammered and stretched. The copper must be uniform in thickness and weight, and the artist must use sound judgement when shaping it.  This is the same kind of work as done by a copper smith, the only difference being that once the article has been shaped, the copper smith’s work is finished, whereas the cloisonné craftsman’s work has just begun.


The second step is filigree soldering. This step requires great care and a great deal of creativity. The artisan adheres copper strips onto the body. These strips are of 1/16 inch in diameter and of whatever length the artisan desires. The strips or filigree thus adhered make up a complicated but complete pattern. The artisan has a blueprint in mind and he can make full use of his experience, imagination and aesthetic vision when applying the copper strips on the body.


The third step is to apply the colour, which is known as enamel filling. The colour or enamel is like the glaze on ceramics. It is called falang. Its basic elements are boric acid, saltpetre and alkaline. The colour
 differs according to the amount and types of minerals used. Usually one with a lot of iron will turn grey; with uranium, yellow; with chromium, green; with zinc, white; with bronze, blue, with gold or iodine, red. When it is time to do the filling, all of the colours, ground beforehand into a minute powder and placed in
 plates, are set in front of the workers and are then applied to the little compartments separated by filigree.


The fourth step is enamel firing. This is done by putting the article, with its enamel fillings, to the crucible. In just a short time, the copper body will turn red. But after firing, the enamel in the little compartment will sink down a bit. That will require refilling. This process will go on repeatedly until the little compartments are finally filled.


The fifth step is polishing. The first polish is done vigorously.  Its  aim is to make the filigree and the filled compartments even. The  whole piece is returned to the fire and afterwards polished once more with a sharpened stone. Finally, a piece of hard carbon is used to polish it again to give the surface added lustre.


The sixth step is gilding. This is done by placing the article in a gold or silver bath and then subjecting it to an electric current. The exposed parts of  the filigree and the metal fringes of the article will be smoothly  and evenly gilded. After that, the metal part of the article will  not get rusty. Then the article will again undergo another  electroplating and be given a final light polishing.

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