Cloisonne

Cloisonné enameling refers to a very specific type of metal decoration. The enameling is created by welding silver or gold wires according to a set pattern to form compartments on the surface of a metal object. The spaces in-between the pattern are filled with colored glass paste. Once the entire object has been decorated and filled, it is fired in a kiln. This melts the glass paste creating the typical enameled pattern on top of the object. The metal wires are still retained in the form of raised borders in-between the pattern. The technique was very popular in France and it was traditionally used to create unique jewelry and small decorative items. However, during the Byzantine Empire, the technique spread from the Mediterranean over to Persia and from there to China. Both the Persians and the Chinese modified and adapted the basic pattern to create unique local techniques which make it very easy to identify. Chinese cloisonné is very popular at present and the same technique is used to create beautiful pieces.

Cloisonné came to China in the early fourteenth to the late fifteenth century. The process became very popular with court artisans and the earliest recorded piece is from the Ming Xuande Emperor's reign in 1426. According to researchers, the Yuan Dynasty of China was established in Yunan by the Mongol king Kublai Khan. The Yunan province was the first to produce unique pieces as it was under the Mongol rule. It is supposed that Islamic artisans taught the locals the tricks of the trade. Palace artisans quickly adapted the technique on to large utensils resulting in intricate patterns that were considered ideal for the luxurious Chinese Imperial quarters. Due to the Islamic influences, most of the pieces were in green, blue and gold and subtle Islamic tweaks could be seen. However, early Chinese cloisonné was so delicate that very few imperial pieces have survived to date. Most of these pieces are now stored with the Palace Museum

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As time passed, the enamelware became very popular. By the late Yuan Dynasty, this type of enamelware became very popular with locals and in the royal court. The emperors KangXi and QianLong were fascinated with the beauty of cloisonné and they encouraged their artisans to work with the material. The procedure was refined and perfected resulting in wonderful new styles and patterns. By the late Quig Dynasty, the style had percolated down to the lower classes and cloisonné artisans started to make commercial pieces that could be purchased by the Chinese middle class. Artists like Lao Tian Li, Bao Hua Sheng, De Xing Cheng, Jing Yuan Tang etc switched over from elaborate imperial styles to functional everyday patterns that could be used in every household.

Very soon, by the early 19th Century, cheaper pieces were impressing Western merchants and from there, they were quickly exported to the Western world. The Western World was so impressed by the simpler pieces that demand for the artwork doubled. Initially, the traders used to purchase enamelware in bulk but they quickly started giving artisans individual contracts and the artwork improved considerably. Over the next decade, demand for high quality Chinese cloisonne increased by leaps and bounds.