Integrating the old and the new is common across many design disciplines. Think an Art Deco chest of drawers in a high-tech living room, a vintage Chanel bag worn with a brand-new Max Mara outfit, an antique watch with a modern leather strap. Ever on the hunt for ways to make ancient techniques relevant, today’s more daring jewellers bring bang up to date the art of enamelling.
The first use of enamel dates back to Mycenae in the XIIIth century BC where traces of the material were found in archeological sites. The technique of vitreous or hot enamel is based on fusing powdered glass on to metal, ceramic or glass. The pigmented powder melts and coats the surface with a smooth and glossy finish. The durability and vibrancy of the colour rely on a closely-controlled high temperature during the firing the piece, which also affects the texture and opacity of the enamel. French jeweller and enamel specialist, Joséphine de Staël explains: ‘Colour and material is really key to vitreous enamel, you have to use fine silver or gold to obtain the best translucency, and the finest powdered glass colours come from Japan.’ Guilloché, champlevé and cloisonné are just a few of the various enamelling techniques that have evolved over the centuries. During the Art Nouveau period plique-à-jour enamel was very popular. The enamel has no backing allowing the light to shine through like a stained-glass window and was skillfully used by jewellers such as René Lalique. Ms de Staël continues: ‘It takes years of training to master both the colours - with their distinct and unique firing points- and the kiln. It is both a highly technical art form requiring real scientific knowledge of melting points and also highly intuitive, requiring a sensitivity for the material.’
In contrast, lacquer and cold enamel are simpler techniques, which don't have a vitreous finish but a dense, opaque colour block appearance. Instead of starting with a powder, a resin is applied to the piece and then fired at low temperatures (150 degrees Centigrade) to make it set. Ms de Staël explains: ‘It’s a bit like comparing the finest oil painting (vitreous enamel) to a painting made with poster paints (lacquer/cold enamel). Lacquer is much easier to do and there is less jeopardy involved as with vitreous enamel you never know what might happen in the kiln but it won’t last as long.’
We take a look at jewellers from around the world who are using both hot and cold enamel in eye-searing bright colours with dazzling results.
Bea Bongiasca, who graduated in Jewellery Design at Central Saint Martins in London, leads the way in using enamel in exciting, contemporary forms. She started her company in Milan in 2013 and is known for playing with all the colours of the rainbow with a focus on daring contrasts. Her fashionable Vine collection brings together gemstones and vividly coloured enamels: aquamarine is paired with candy pink enamel, rock crystal stands out against burgundy and amethyst clashes with bright orange for a playful effect.
In April 2022, Boodles unveiled the Florentine collection. The UK-based jeweller subtlety uses enamel in light pink, navy and baby blue hues as well as plain white coatings. A touch of deep blue enamel enhances an Ashoka-cut diamond, which is a patented 62-facet diamond-cut available exclusively at Boodles in the United Kingdom. The Florentine collection also includes high jewellery pieces with impressive octagonal-cut emeralds and diamonds.
If you are looking to brighten up your outfit, opt for neon-coloured jewellery by the New Yorker Melissa Kaye. Winner of the Next Generation Award for Fine Jewelry from the Accessories Council in the USA, Melissa’s creations don’t go unnoticed with their vivacious yellow, pink and green tones. Forget about traditional diamond jewellery, Melissa creates dynamic and pop-bright treasures to be worn at all times - even better if layered and stacked.
Selim Mouzannar of Beirut, integrates enamel into several of his iconic collections such as the Aïda and Gemma rings. Taking inspiration from the designer’s Middle Eastern origins the Aïda features a diamond star set into a bombé-shape ring covered in enamel. The enamel has a shimmery and translucent finish imitating the reflections seen in water. In the Gemma jewels, opaque enamels in an infinite variety of colours surround and highlight the clear center stones which range from morganite and tourmaline to aquamarine.
Austy Lee, the Chinese jeweller, is inspired by all things psychedelic and uses electrifyingly bright enamel to enhance the intensity of the stone in either the same hue or a complimentary colour. Lee’s creations are a balance between architectural lines and striking colour combinations. The Neon Amoeba ring offers a punchy contrast between a spessartite garnet and orange enamel and an indigolite paired with purple enamel. This young and talented designer keeps surprising with his bold and creative colour palette.
A colour lover, Sarah Ho applies enamel to many of her statement pieces. Splitting her time between London and Monaco, the award-winning designer is inspired by flowers and their many colour variations which she translates into her exotic creations. The thin enamel lines both create a visual connection between the gemstones as well as colour contrasts for a fascinating optical effect.
These contemporary jewellers who celebrate colour in their joyful creations are helping to keep the craft of enamel alive. And even if this technique has existed for millenniums we won’t get tired of it anytime soon.