Learn more about the craft of enamelling
Enamelling has a long history dating back to the Mycenaeans. But what exactly is it, what equipment do you need and how does the process work? As part of our Exploring Techniques series, jeweller Marion Miller delves into the craft of enamelling to trace its origins and share her techniques.
What is enamel?
Enamel is basically a type of powdered glass that is specially manufactured for enamelling. It can be sieved directly or ground and washed, then applied to a metal surface and fired in a kiln. The enamel then melts and fuses to the metal, which can create the most stunning jewellery or decorative pieces.
Depending on the composition of the glass, enamel can be clear, opaque or opalescent. I mostly use transparent enamel, as I find the colours more vibrant, and texturing the metal first creates lovely light reflections.
History of enamel
Enamelling is an ancient technique, and the earliest colours were meant to replicate specific gemstones. The earliest-known enamel pieces dates back as far as the 13th Century BC, when Mycenaean goldsmiths inlaid enamels into gold rings. Over time, with the fusion of cultures and increased knowledge, new methods of fusing enamel into metal were formulated.
Enamel work occurred across the Roman Empire, and examples were found with the Sutton Hoo treasure (featured in the film The Dig) dating back to the 7th Century. There are also many stunning examples of Champlevé enamel at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London.
Enamel has gone in and out of fashion over the centuries, but was famously revived by Peter Carl Fabergé, known for his enamelled Easter Eggs. The 1900s were also a peak time for enamel, with the rise of the Art Nouveau movement. Parisian designers such as René Lalique produced some amazing enamelled work.
The mechanical side of enamelling has naturally seen significant changes since the Mycenaes of Ancient Greece made their gold rings inset with enamel. For example, kilns that were once heated by charcoal have given way to modern electric kilns. However the basic techniques are still pretty much the same. The basic process of preparing the enamel and the laying, firing and finishing remains virtually unaltered.
Basic enamelling techniques
Enamel is a bit like petrol: it comes with or without lead. So why use leaded enamel when you can use it without? Essentially, leaded enamels come in a greater range of colours and I find them much better to work with. But this can be a personal choice. However, extra care must obviously be taken when using enamels containing lead and if using dry enamels for sifting, I’d advise using lead-free enamel and wearing a mask.
Enamelling techniques bear French names, probably because the city of Limoges in France was a centre of enamelling for many years. Three techniques are:
Champlevé – The surface of the metal is cut away to form a recess where the enamel is placed. This can be done by etching, die stamping, engraving or high-quality casting.
Cloisonné – This is thought to be the oldest enamel technique. It involves fusing very fine wires to a base coat of enamel, using either fine silver wires or 18ct or 24ct gold wires.
Plique a jour – This creates a stained glass window effect. The most common method is to pierce the cells out of sheet metal. Transparent enamels are always used here.
Basic equipment needed for enamelling
- Pestle and mortar (not marble or steel)
- Heat proof gloves
- Firing fork
- Steel mesh
- Fibre board
- Pallet knife
- Glass brush emery paper carborundum sticks, diagrit pads
- Fine paint brushes, quill
- Tiny pots
- Distilled Water
Inspiration and planning
If you want to try enamelling, it’s always good to get some books (you’ll find a reading list at the end of this article), look online and research ideas first. I also recommend gathering inspiration from the world around you. Mine comes mainly from the endless blues of the sky and sea in Orkney where I live.
Sketch your ideas and plan the colours that you need. I always keep a sort of diary when I enamel, so I know what worked and what didn’t. Also if I want to make similar pieces in the future, I need to know what colours I used in what coats.
Preparation of the enamels and metal is paramount. I cannot say this enough! It’s not possible to use any short cuts here without affecting the end result.
Enamels can be used wet or dry. The technique I describe here is called wet packing, which is the method I use in my work.
Enamels can be bought in lump or powder form – both types require preparation. Each type is placed in a mortar with a covering of water and ground with a pestle as finely as possible. This may take some time, so be patient. Keep checking for a really smooth feel.
The enamels should then be rinsed until the water is clear. In areas with hard water having a final rinse with distilled water is very important.
The ready enamels should then be covered in distilled water and stored in small sealed pots until you’re ready to use them. They will keep like this for a few weeks. I keep mine in the fridge.
Preparing the metal
Preparing the surface of the metal is equally important. The area to be enamelled must be free from dirt, grease, solder or fire stain. If any of these are present it will affect the colours and give a disappointing result.
For those wishing to try enamelling on silver, follow the usual steps to remove fire stain, then clean the metal with a glass brush or soft bristle brush under running water. Dry and degrease. The best degreaser (and it’s free too) is actually saliva! Yuk, some might say… but it actually works really well.
I always make a colour sample first, as the shades of colour of the powder and the fired enamel can be slightly different.
Now it starts getting exciting!
Switch the kiln on! I have mine set to 825 degrees celsius. This is rather hot, so great care must be taken. Make sure your kiln sits on a fire-safe surface and follow the manufacturer’s instruction. You also need a heat-proof surface to set the mesh support on after your enamelled pieces come out of the kiln, as they will be red hot.
It’s important to work in a clean environment when laying the enamels. I work on a clean large tile. The enamels are applied with a fine brush or quill. You can remove any excess water using the edge of a paper towel carefully placed just up to the enamel (kitchen roll is perfect).
The enamel is applied in a series of thin layers, and fired in between. Any cloisonné wires or fine silver or gold foils are added during this process.
Stages of firing
- Put on your protective glove and open the door.
- Place the firing fork under the wire mesh and place in the kiln, removing the fork.
- Close the door and keep an eye in the peephole most kilns have. Do not be tempted to get on with something else in the meantime.
- As the enamel starts to melt it will turn darker. First it will take on a mottled effect, followed by a rippled effect. If left longer this will flatten out but this can be done in the final firing.
- Open the door and take out the piece using your fork. Place on a heat-proof surface.
- Let it cool down slowly. Do not be tempted to handle!
I love this part of the process: building up the colours. Before the final firing the surface can be given a light sanding with wet and dry paper, diagrit strips or carborundum stones. The parts that need to be filled with more enamel will show up as shiny.
After stoning and before re-firing, the enamel must be cleaned under running water using the glass brush/soft bristle brush. Cleaning is so important!
As with any jewellery making, finishing the metal is also important. There is the added difficulty that the enamel must not be scratched or damaged in any way.
The piece will need to be pickled, but care must be taken as some enamels react with pickle and it can affect the surface. So a short pickle is good and also using clear nail varnish to protect softer enamels. This must be removed before the final polish (with nail polish remover).
The back of the piece can now be sanded and polished, as per normal jewellery finishing steps, and any edges near the enamel need to be carefully filed and sanded. Enamel and metal can be polished using polishing mops and compound, but take care that the piece doesn’t go flying, as it is coated in glass, after all!
This article barely scratches the surface of the wonderful world of enamelling but I hope that it will give you the basic flavour and create a desire to delve deeper.
- The Art of Enamelling by Linda Darty
- Enamelling by Ruth Ball
- First Steps in Enamelling by Jinks McGarth
- Engraving and Enamelling by Phil Barnes
A special thank you to Sheila Macdonald for your help and support
This article only includes very basic instructions and before trying any of the steps above, we highly recommended studying the subject of enamelling more thoroughly. Folksy and the author cannot take any responsibility for any injuries or mistakes associated with the process.