Today’s enamel jewelry has a beautiful finish and comes in hundreds of wonderful colors. Recently the “new enamel” has emerged; bright epoxy paints that embrace the color spectrum and can turn a plain piece of pewter jewelry into something stunningly original.
True enamel jewelry making involves fusing colored, powdered glass to metals using heat. In the 1950s my parents kept a small kiln in the old coal cellar of our house where they created masterpieces in ashtrays and screw-on earrings. (Both of them were artists, but this was just a side hobby) I still have some lovely examples of copper earrings with intricately patterned enameling in warm colors and designs.
Perhaps the epoxy paints used to produce so many of today’s masterpieces shouldn’t strictly be called enamel, but at first glance there isn’t much difference. Purists may differ, but materials used to produce various effects do alter through time.
I find it fascinating that some enamel work has been found as early as the Hellenistic epoch, a period of time from Alexander the Great’s death in 323 B.C. to 146 B.C. when the Romans conquered Greece. By the end of this time period, enameling and use of colored stones in jewelry making was becoming more popular than work done by the gold and silversmiths of the day. I think people of all times have loved color, and the brilliance of a ruby or even an earring inset with colorful but inexpensive enamel began competing with the precious metals for the eye of the rich shopper centuries ago.
The 5th century Byzantine world saw the creation of very ornate jewelry. Enameling was liberally used in the designs, along with peals and precious stones. There was much beautiful jewelry created during this time period, all the way up to 1204 when Constantinople, capital of the Byzantine empire fell during the Crusades and so many gorgeous objects of art were melted down for their worth in gold and silver alone.
The Anglo-Saxons of the 7th century created some intricate cloisonné enamel work, much of it polychrome, meaning “many colors”. These were detailed designs reminiscent of Celtic knot work and must have been incredibly time consuming.
Moving forward into the early Renaissance, enamel continued as a favorite medium for many jewelry artists. I’m looking at a photo of a lovely enamel pendant in gold and blue depicting a branch with many-hued birds. It seems to be a locket, although the shape is irregular so it certainly didn’t hold a painted portrait. Perhaps it was used to keep herbs or gemstones inside.
Wherever artists create jewelry, enamel will be found. From detailed cloisonné work in ancient China to today’s epoxy enamel earrings and pins, color will always evoke emotion and excitement. Enamel has long been a way to enter color into designs without having to supply the expensive and limited variations of precious and semiprecious stones.