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Traditional Art - Cloisonné



Cloisonné, also known as the "Blue of Jingtai", is a famous traditional enamel with an over 500-year history. It received its nickname because "blue" was the typical color used for enameling and "Jingtai" was the reign title of the 7th Ming emperor. Enamel ware became very popular during this emperor's period of rule.

There is a great variety of products made from Cloisonné, such as the traditional vase, jar, bowl, plate, box and ash-tray; a great number of new product categories, moreover, have also been created. They are brilliant in colors, splendid in design, and enjoy a high reputation both at home and abroad. Cloisonné is one of the famous arts and crafts of Beijing.

The making of Cloisonné requires rather elaborate and complicated processes: base-hammering, copper-strip inlay, soldering, enamel-filling, enamel-firing, polishing and gilding.

Base-hammering is the first step in the making of Cloisonné. The material used for creating the body of the intended product is copper, because copper can be is easily hammered and stretched. This step requires sound judgment in the shaping of the body and in the creation of uniformity in the product’s thickness and weight. This work, in fact, is similar to that of a copper-smith. The only difference between a copper-smith and Cloisonné artisan is that after a product is shaped, the copper-smith's work is finished; in contrast, the Cloisonné craftsman's work has only just begun.

The second step is filigree soldering. This step requires great care and creativity. During this step, the artisan adheres copper strips onto the body of the product. These copper strips are 1/16 inch in diameter and can vary in length, according to the desires of the artisan. The strips of filigree are subsequently adhered to make up a complicated but complete pattern. The artisan—who usually already has a blueprint in mind—can make full use of his experience, imagination, and aesthetic view in setting the copper strips on the body.

The third step is to apply color, which is known as enamel filling. The color or enamel, called falang, is not unlike the glaze on ceramics. Its basic elements are boric acid, saltpeter, and alkaline. Owing to the differences in the minerals added, the colors differ accordingly. Usually a falang with much iron will turn gray; with uranium, yellow; with chromium, green; with zinc, white; with bronze, blue; with gold or iodine, red. During the time of filling, all the colors, ground beforehand into fine powder and placed into plates, are set in front of the workers and are then applied on the little compartments separated by filigree.

The fourth step is enamel firing. This is done by putting the product, with its enamel filling, into the crucible. After a short while, the copper body will turn red. After firing, however, the enamel in the little compartments will sink down a bit. This calls for a re-filling, and the same process will go on repeatedly until all the small compartments are finally filled.

The fifth step is polishing. The first polish is done with emery, in order to even out the filigree and the filled compartments. The whole piece is subsequently re-fired in the crucible, before being polished again with a whet-stone. Finally, a piece of hard carbon is used to polish the entire piece, in order to obtain some luster on the surface of the article.

The sixth and final step is gilding. This is done by placing the article in liquid gold or silver, then charging with an electric current. The exposed parts of the filigree and the metal fringes of the article will then again undergo another electroplating and a slight polish before the product can finally be called finished.

Revised June 20, 2011