The Chinese have been making Cloisonne enamelware since the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368). The name comes from the French “cloison” meaning “partition” or “dividing band”. A pattern is made from wire or thin copper strips which is attached to a metal base. The resulting partitions, or cloisons, are filled with enamel and then fired in a kiln. This process is repeated until the cloisons are filled and then the surface is polished smooth. The object is then plated with gold which stops the exposed metal from tarnishing.
Beijing cloisonne enamelware factory
No trip to Beijing is complete without visiting the Beijing Enamel Factory which is the largest producer of cloisonne enamelware in China. You are taken on a fascinating guided tour of the processes involved in creating cloisonne enamelware. After being educated in the finer points of the process you are led (surprise surprise!) to the vast showroom of cloisonne enamelware which is simply breathtaking. I resisted buying but feasted on the beauty of the merchandise.
Step 1 – Making the pattern
Firstly small copper strips are cut and bent into shapes according to the particular design. These strips are then glued to the copper vase with gum. You can see the gum in the closeup photo of part of the design. After the design has been laid out flux is applied and when the vase is heated solder flows around all the joins and fastens the pattern to the vase surface.
Step 2 – Applying the pigments
Next artists fill each cloison with coloured pigments according the the design. These come in a multitude of colours and shades. The vase on the right is ready for firing with its first application of enamel pigments.
Step 3 – Firing the vase
The objects to be fired are placed in a kiln and heated until red hot. The pigments melt and are drawn into the cloisons by capillary action and meld with the metal. The left photo shows the red hot vases when removed from the kiln. When they have cooled (right) the colours of the pigments can be seen.
Step 4- Filling the cloisons
Steps 2 and 3 are repeated several times until the cloisons have been filled with enamel.
Step 5 – Polishing
The vase is held firmly in a special lathe and various grades of abrasive blocks are used to smooth the surface. Once the operator is happy with the finish the vase is removed revealing the brilliant finish.
The last step, which our guide said we couldn’t see because it was a secret process (duh?), was to gild the vase with gold to stop the exposed copper from tarnishing. Electroplating would be expensive and messy so, knowing that the Chinese are masters of mass production, I would say they use the electroless process of gold plating which simply involves immersing the object to be plated in a chemical (albeit toxic) solution for a few minutes. The gold adds the finishing touch to the completed item.