Enameled Antiques and Vintage Jewelry

Identifying Enameling Techniques on Decorative Objects

Russian card case with Guilloché enamel
Russian card case with Guilloché enamel, diamonds and rubies. Photo courtesy of Morphy Auctions

Many different types of enameling techniques have been used on jewelry and decorative objects through the centuries. Enameling imparts color primarily to metals, but can also be applied to other varied materials. Enamelwork is basically glass that is fused to a surface using high heat thus giving it durability. As durable as they are, however, these beautiful finishes can be chipped when they are not handled with care.

Not all techniques described as such in relation to antiques and collectibles are truly enamels though, as is the case with “cold painted” work as described below. There are also varying levels of quality to consider among the varied techniques.

Read about a few of the enameling techniques used to add color to varied types of vintage jewelry and decorative arts. 

  • 01 of 05

    Champlevé Enamel

    French Champleve Onyx Marble and Bronze Jardiniere on a Stand (Stand Not Shown), c. 19th Century
    French Champleve Onyx Marble and Bronze Jardiniere on a Stand (Stand Not Shown), c. 19th Century. Stephen's Antiques on 1stDibs.com

    Champleve is the French term for “raised field.” While cloisonné (learn more below) uses small pieces of wire attached to metal to form fields for filling with enamel, this technique is a bit different. Depressions are made in metal forming the cells instead, usually by etching or carving the surface. The metal left showing once the enameling is complete, therefore, is usually thicker and more obviously part of the pattern in comparison. Sometimes the terms cloisonné and champlevé are used together to describe the same item by marketers, although that's not quite accurate. 

  • 02 of 05

    Cloisonné

    Cloisonné enamel and gold locket
    Cloisonné Enamel and Gold Locket, French by Alexis Falize, ca. 1867. Photo © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

    For this enameling technique, a design is created using fine metal wires fixed to a metal plate. The spaces, or cells, are then inlaid with colored enamel that is fused to the background (in contrast to plique-à-jour described below, which lacks any backing). While the cloisonne method is a very old one - dating back to ancient Greece, Rome and Egypt, as well as 4th-century Byzantium - the term originated in the 1860s (cloisonné means "compartmentalized" or "partitioned" in French). European interest in Asian decorative arts during this period sparked a vogue in enameled jewelry, though the Chinese and Japanese often used the technique on tableware and art objects as well.

  • 03 of 05

    Cold Painted

    Victorian Black Glass and Cold Paint Enamel Sash Pin, c. 1890s
    Victorian Black Glass and Cold Paint Enamel Sash Pin, c. 1890s. Photo by Jay B. Siegel for ChicAntiques.com

    Sometimes referenced simply as cold enamel, this type of décor is applied to give jewelry the look of enameling with economy in mind. Whether accomplished by using paint or some type of plastic (rather than glass as with other kinds of enameling), this is a technique most often used on late 19th- and 20th-century costume jewelry that was relatively inexpensive when it was new. Cold painted color basically sits on the surface of an object. It is not fired on so it generally does not wear as well as other enameling techniques. This type of décor can scratch and chip fairly easily, even when coloring sterling silver pieces.

  • 04 of 05

    Guilloché

    Russian card case with Guilloché enamel
    Russian Card Case with Guilloché Enamel, Diamonds and Rubies. Photo courtesy of Morphy Auctions

    The design in this type of enameling is created by machine engraving geometric patterns or wavy lines into a metal surface and topping it with transparent colored enamel in shades ranging from pastels to bright, vivid hues. It was used on fine jewelry and decorative objects made during the Victorian and Edwardian eras. Pieces can be painted on the surface to add additional embellishment, or metal findings can be affixed over the enameling to further adorn them.

    In the 1920s and ‘30s, similar techniques were used to make loose powder compacts. Lower quality costume jewelry made in Victorian and Edwardian revival styles and lower quality powder compacts can have simulated guilloché enameling. These are most often made using a thin plastic overlay, and can be detected upon close inspection. True guilloché will have a glossy finish to the surface where pieces made with plastic will often have a dull look about them due to wear scratching that comes with age.   

    Continue to 5 of 5 below.
  • 05 of 05

    Plique-à-jour

    Plique-à-jour Enameled Butterfly Brooch
    Plique-à-jour Enameled Brooch Crafted of Gold and Diamonds. Photo courtesy of Morphy Auctions

    This is a technique in which translucent enamels are fitted into a pattern created by an open lattice of thin wires or metal work, sometimes resembling honeycombs. Because the latticework has no backing, light can shine through the enameled design creating the effect of a stained glass window.

    This technique was developed during the Renaissance - Cellini created many pieces - and was rediscovered in the mid-19th century (Russian craftsmen used it to adorn many pieces of tableware), and is highly typical of jewelry made by Rene Lalique and other Art Nouveau jewelry craftsmen. It is one of the most difficult enameling techniques to master, and highly prized among collectors of fine antique jewelry.