Cloisonné is an ancient technique for decorating metalwork objects, in recent centuries using vitreous enamel, and in older periods also inlays of cut gemstones, glass, and other materials. The resulting objects can also be called cloisonné.
«Gold would not give so complex neither so wonderful drawings, no jewel would shine with so varied and so marvellous colours ", state an art master looking at a Beijing cloisonné.
This technique was in ancient times principally used for jewellery and small fittings for clothes, weapons or similar small objects decorated with geometric or schematic designs, with thick cloison walls. In the Byzantine Empire methods using thinner wires were developed to allow more pictorial images to be produced, mostly used for religious images and jewellery, and by then always using enamel.
As recorded in Chinese archives, cloisonné was called «inlay works Ta Che"; Ta Che being the Chinese name of Arabia during the Middle Ages.
Introduced into the Middle Kingdom in the 13th century, this technique became, after a long period of development, a typically Chinese art, where it was soon used for much larger vessels such as bowls and vases; the technique remains common in China to the present day, and cloisonné enamel objects using Chinese-derived styles were produced in the West from the 18th century.
At first the wished shape is given in a plate of red copper to form the basis. The decoration is formed by first adding compartments (cloisons in French) to the metal object by soldering or adhering silver or gold wires or thin strips placed on their edges with a pair of tweezers. It is the "partitioning" which creates the features of the drawing.
Strips are of a different thickness and width according to the piece to be divided up. We can thus have an idea of the patience and the skill required if we think that, sometimes, hundred strips are necessary to the drawing of an object.
Threads and strips adhere at the bottom thanks to roots plant glue. After spraying, a mixture of silver powder, copper and borax is poured in the sieve of the work before submitting this one to a light fire.
Enamel dough of diverse colours is set between partitions by means of a tool similar to a feather. Several cooking are necessary, all the colouring agents having not the same melting point; several layer of colouring agents have to be applied to obtain the wished effect.
The work is then polished with a buhr-stone and some charcoal. The polishing brings the abasement of enamel and compartments (cloisons). After this the article is dived into a golden solution where an electric current passes. An original work full of brightness is so obtained.
The folding of the metal strips requires a lot of dexterity. An experimented craftsman can, with a simple pair of tweezers, form by heart magnificent and very complex drawings.
This art was prosperous at the time of King Tai (1450-56) in the Ming dynasty and under the reign of Kien Long (1736-95) during Tsing dynasty. But it declined from the beginning of the 20th century, as almost all other Chinese arts.
It was at birth of New China that situation changes. Today the cloisonné Factory of Beijing occupies about two thousand craftsmen. Its products are wide-ranging, next to traditional articles: vases, bowls, plates, treasure chests. More than 40 colouring agents are available. And technique of application of various colouring agents to produce a differentiating gradation of tones perfected. The motives are all drawn by experienced draftsmen.
The first Chinese cloisonné under Ming dynasty arise from imperial orders executed for the Tibetan worship. The enamels colours were turquoise blue and lapis lazuli blue, black, white, green. In the 16th century, colour palette grows to pink, purple, and light brown; the differentiating greens, the vegetable and animal representations reflect the Taoist influence. Functional and ornamental objects in enamels and golden bronze were fashioned.
In the 18th century, new techniques gave birth to bigger realization more precise in details. The grace of the drawing and the charm of enamels executed in the workshops of the imperial palace or in Guangdong under the reign of the Emperors, Kangxi, Yongzheng and Qianlong, and executed to their intention, nowhere find their equal.
Among the various processes of enamelling on metallic basis, it is cloisonné which knew the biggest success.The tint colouring master's degree by addition of metallic oxides acquired by Chinese in the field of ceramic, gave them the opportunity to develop a range of differentiating colours. The cloisonné success at imperial court entailed a massive production of ornamental dishes and also ritual objects (temples and graves altar dishes).
Chinese enamels cloisonné are a part of Chinese traditional art today and are sold all over the world.