A large part of the art I create at Studio Raza is fabricated using a method called “enameling”. In the art world, “enamel” can refer to a few different things, which can make it confusing for customers who want to understand what their jewelry is made of and why it is a certain price point.
“Enamel” can refer to:
– Overglaze decoration in pottery, also called “china paints”.
– Enameled paint, a commercial paint that dries to a hard finish. These products are often used for industrial protective coatings, model building, floors, and most commonly factory-produced enamel pins.
– Vitreous enamel, a powdered glass that is fused to a substrate by firing at high temperatures.
Here at Studio Raza, all of our enamel work is done with vitreous enamel. These powdered glass materials can be used in a variety of different techniques in order to add color and design to copper, silver, and steel.
The earliest known enamelled objects were made in Cyprus in around the 13th century BC during the Mycenæan period (1). Since then, enamel as an art form and sturdy surface decoration has been used in many cultures including Celtic, Greek, Byzantine, and European works (2).
In the USA, enameling became popular at the beginning of the 20th century as part of the Arts and Crafts movement. By the 1960s, enameling was taught in many schools and enjoyed at home in kitchens using small tabletop kilns (3).
I love when customers come to my table and tell me about the enamel work they made in school growing up; I wish we had such varied mediums taught in art schools today! One reason for the dissolution of enameling education in standard classrooms was a diminishing of popularity of the medium. However, another was increased understanding of the health hazards associated with the enameling process.
Older vitreous enamel powder is leaded, and such compounds can still be purchased in other parts of the world such as Europe and Japan. In the U.S., however, any new enamels produced are unleaded. While this certainly improves one aspect of enameling safety, it also means that some vibrant colors are no longer as easily available, such as intense pinks.
Enamel work in jewelry requires that the enamel powder be fired either with a torch or a kiln. For either technique, the metal must first be prepared such that enameling and polishing are the only remaining steps. This means cutting shapes, drilling holes, forming any three-dimension aspects of the pieces, soldering, and then cleaning the piece so it is free from any oils or residue.
Then, the piece of metal is lightly coated with a bonding agent and enamel powder is sifted onto the metal. Some more advanced enameling techniques involve mixing the enamel powder with water and packing it onto the piece, or immersing a red-hot piece into a container of enamel, but those are explanations for a later post.
Once the enamel powder has been sifted onto the metal, the piece is placed on a trivet and then either hit from the underside with a hot torch flame, or placed in a kiln at anywhere from 1350-1500 degrees F. The powder goes through a few fusing stages before fully fusing into a smooth, glassy surface.
The piece is removed from the kiln or the torch, and any oxides (called “firescale”) are cleaned off of the piece. Then, more rounds of sifting and firing are done until the artist decides the piece is complete.
Because the enamel and the metal expand at different rates, the back of most pieces must also be enameled; this is called counter-enameling. This process keeps the stresses on the metal from shattering the enamel after it is fired.
Finally, once the enamel on a piece is complete, it is often cleaned up by filing the edges or running a special stone along any areas which may not be flush with the rest of the piece. A final quick firing is done to smooth out these areas to a glassy finish, and then the piece can be placed into its final setting.