Sep 07, 2013

One of China’s most treasured traditional art forms is Beijing’s cloisonné. Cloisonné and enamel art is often sought after by tourists and collectors from around the world. Enamel and Cloisonné metal art has adopted the skills and techniques of other famous traditional folk crafts including traditional painting, carving, encrusting, metallurgy and glass smelting.

The Cloisonné Art Museum in Beijing features many different pieces from cloisonné’s six hundred year old history. The Classic Works and Collection Show Centre also displays a wide range of cloisonné works including many which have won international awards and reproductions of pieces from the Yuan (1271-1368), Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1912) Dynasties kept in the imperial palace museum.

It is believed that basic enameling techniques were first introduced to China by missionaries from Central Asia in the Yuan Dynasty. Both enamel and cloisonné became popular in the Ming Dynasty, especially during the Xuande period (1426-1436). During this time, Beijing cloisonné and enamel ware were made only for the use of the imperial family. The imperial palaces were heavily adorned with all sorts of cloisonné objects.


During the Jingtai period (1450-1457) of the Ming Dynasty, Beijing cloisonné entered a new wave of creation with craftsmen focusing on the development of dark-blue enamel. This style of enamel ware flourished during this period and was named “blue of Jingtai” after the emperor who encouraged its production. 

Enamel art involves applying enamel of different colours to a copper or bronze vessel. It is then fired in a kiln which vitrifies the enamel and forms a smooth, bright coating. Enamel is created from boric acid, vitreous powder and other chemical compounds. Metallic compounds are added to enamel which changes the colour after oxidation. Cloisonné is similar to enamel, however, the enamel pigments are separated by soldered wire.

The methods involved in producing Beijing cloisonné art are elaborate and require graceful skills and patience. The metal vessel is usually constructed by hammering and stretching soldered pieces of copper into the required shape. A pattern is then pinned onto carbon paper and carefully traced on the surface of the vessel. The tiny Cloisonné compartments are made from copper wire that is bent with pliers to form the desired pattern.


The copper wire is usually between 0.10 inches and 0.40 inches. The bottom edge of the cloisonné is dipped into glue and placed on the vessel with tweezers. They are then filled with enamel paste which feature coloured pigments grounded into a powder and mixed with alkaline, boric acid and saltpeter. Different colours are created from different minerals. Bronze is used to make blue, chromium produces green, iodine can be made into red and zinc can produce white pigments.

Coloured pigments are added to each compartment by hand. The whole vessel is then fired in the kiln. The enamel must be applied each time after the vessel has been fired as the heat causes the cloisonné to shrink and need refilling. This step is repeated until the cloisonné covers the whole pattern. The surface of the vessel is then grounded smooth on a motorized wheel with water and emery stones.

It is then polished with whetstone and carbon. Gilding is the last step in the process and involves electroplating the remaining exposed copper with gold or silver to prevent oxidation from dulling the design.

The traditional arts of cloisonné and enamel are used for many objects including vases, jars, bowls, plates, ash trays and many more practical objects. It is also highly valued as art and is a prominent feature in many museums and private art collections.

Beijing Cloisonné and enamel art is ranked as one of the eight “consummate arts of Beijing” and regarded as the definitive artwork of the capital city. It is highly valued for its amazing designs and fine detailing which are complemented by bright and vivid colours. This traditional art form is one of the finest among the world’s metal arts.


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