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The Chinese Art of Cloisonné
Cloisonné is a unique combination of copper and porcelain working skills, traditional painting, sculpting, and etching skills. Originating in Beijing during the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), cloisonné is an intricate process that requires many years of training for an artisan to master.
Cloisonné underwent a major change during the Ming Dynasty around 1426-1456 when a blue enamel was discovered, which gives cloisonné its gorgeous look, and is still used today. Ming Dynasty cloisonné is considered the most intricate.
Cloisonné pieces can be found in large objects, such as vases and other large utensils and decorative items, as well as small items like earrings, bracelets, chopsticks, or jars.
The Making of a Masterpiece
When visiting China, be sure to visit a cloisonné factory. It’s an experience you won’t soon forget. Cloisonné requires many hours of pain-staking labor, and Chinese artisans have mastered the entire process. It’s amazing to watch each of the artisans in deep concentration creating these beautiful pieces.
Step 1: Cloisonné Design
The first step in creating one of these lustrous cloisonné pieces is to create the design. Artists draw the design on a piece of paper, which is then handed off to the next artisan in the process.
Step 2: Base Hammering
In this step, copper sheets are hammered on to an enamel piece, whether it is a large vase or a small bracelet. The seams are sealed with copper solder and then the piece is put into a stove to weld it. This is a time-consuming step and must be done perfectly to achieve the desired effect.
Step 3: Copper Wire Curving
Unbeknownst to most people, cloisonné is not constructed of a single piece of enamel. It is constructed instead of hundreds, and sometimes thousands of small copper wires glued to the copper base.
Workers shape a small red copper wire to make the design as the designer has instructed. These small, intricate designs can be birds, flowers, or any of hundreds of other types of designs. The wires are attached using small tweezers and pliers. The copper wires are then pasted on the surface of the copper body. Then another worker puts silver solder between the red copper wire and the red copper body. The piece is then put in the stove where the copper wires are welded onto the base.
Step 4: Enamel Filling
When cooled, workers polish the piece and then fill in the wire design with enamel materials according to the color design. Workers sit in front of a table using a small suction pipe to suck the enamel from the colored dishes into the pipe.
After filling the wires with enamel, workers absorb any remaining moisture with cotton. The piece is then put in a kiln for the first firing. During the firing process, the enamel shrinks. So when cooled, workers fill with more materials and fire again. This entire process is repeated three times until the enamel completely fills the copper wires.
Step 5: Polishing
The final step in this involved process is polishing. Workers use emery stone to polish the cloisonné until it is very smooth. They even up the color enamel material with the copper wire. If there are places where the enamel doesn’t quite match evenly with the copper wires, more enamel is added and the piece is fired again. The polishing process will begin again. Then a soft yellow stone is used to grind off any larger imperfections. Charcoal is used last to grind the piece to a high sheen.
Creating the gorgeous cloisonné pieces we see today takes time, patience, and ingenuity. Regardless of the type of cloisonné piece that you have, it is sure to add beauty and elegance to your home or office.
About the Author: Jane S. Roseen is the Owner and President of Harmony Sweets, an international gourmet chocolate shop. Harmony Sweets' mission focuses on individual consumers purchasing gourmet chocolates from around the world for their friends and relatives, as well as corporate gift giving. Gourmet chocolate gift baskets and personalized chocolates are also available.