ASCAS Association of Small Collectors of Antique Silver



Article # 236 by Katherine Palthey
(click on images to enlarge)

(PART 1)

"Plique à jour" (PAJ) is French for "letting in daylight" and is a vitreous enameling technique used since the 6th century AD. Enamel is colored glass or silica with which the addition of different chemical substances allows it to become this transparent or translucent material. In PAJ, this translucent enamel is applied in individual silver cells using a temporary backing. Once finished, the backing is removed by dissolving in acid or by rubbing off leaving the piece translucent. This allows the sunlight to shine through the glass projecting a colorful unique piece.

Today Plique à Jour remains the most difficult enameling technique produced by silversmiths. After a brief history, I will explain the differences between the three main enameling techniques: cloisonné, painted enamel and basse-taille. In this first part I will focus specifically on Plique à Jour (a type of cloisonné) and will share a few rare silver examples. In the second part of this article I will follow with a few Cloisonné silver collectibles to help you better understand this amazing silver technique.

Silver Enamel Jewelry examples


One of the oldest examples of enamel work dates to around the 13th century BC during the Mycennaean period. Six gold rings decorated in an enameled technique were found in a Mycennaean tomb in Cyprus in 1952. After examination, it was found to be smooth edged masses laid down side by side before fusion: pieces of several different colored enamels appear in a cell separated by a cloison. Even before this time, the Egyptians used cloisonné methods to set semi-precious stones into jewelry by cold cementing. One of the most famous pieces to date is the solid gold Tutankhamen mask which its maker used a technique resembling cloisonné work: the mask was striped with transversal bans of glass paste imitating lapis lazuli and was adorned with a wide collar inlaid with semi-precious stones and colored glasses. Several other treasures from the same royal tomb were designed with small pieces of glass and semi-precious stones that were fitted into gold cloisons. The cloisons at this time were made out of small strips of gold sheet fitted to a base either by colloid hard soldering or soft soldering. Cloisonné is French for compartments or cells; and these compartment walls are made with silver or gold with a backing in metal (most modern enameling is done in silver and gold).

It was only in the 1500's that enameling became popular in France and Europe. Beginning in the Medieval period, Limoges produced masses of enameled religious objects and artisans perfected the champlevé techniques. Following this time, during the renaissance period, their enameling technique changed, and the Limoges and Limousin ateliers were using what is called the painted enamel method. In the 15th century, Venetian glass makers were painting enamels on glass, and so this skill was quickly adapted in Limoges and in other areas. This technique has stayed relatively the same as with what we see today with enamel painted pieces.

During this time, the enamel technique called Plique à Jour was becoming known: this type of enameling resembles the cloisonné technique but without the backing. Plique à Jour was quickly adopted by the Russians during the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century as we see with the Fabergé collections.

René Lalique (1860-1945) was one of France's most recognized Art Nouveau jewelry designers who recreated and perfected this rare Plique à Jour technique. Lalique worked not only with silver, but also gold, iron, copper, aluminum, ivory and other innovative materials. In addition, he preferred using jade, opal, coral, amethyst and chrysolite gemstones because they married better with his glass color palettes. His glass colors were produced by adding metal oxides to the powdered formula and then casting them in silver molds. Many of Laliques earlier pieces were individually created in silver and transparent Plique à Jour with Egyptian and Japanese design influence. The silver framing was chosen as one of the best complementary colors and material to highlight his pieces being created. Today in France, this enamel technique remains the most difficult to perfect and proves to be very costly to produce.

Enamel is applied in three main ways: cloisonné, painted and basse-taille:

Cloisonné: This enamel technique involves creating the cells by soldering flat silver strips to the surface of the piece creating mini compartments ready to be filled with enamel. Many examples of this technique are known since 11th century BC, but the most popular today is with the Russians and Japanese objects. The photo below shows a pair of Russian silver cloisonné salt cellars and will be discussed further in Part 2 of this article.

Antique Silver Cloisonné salt cellars:
Russia 1893 by silversmith Gustav KLINGERT

Plique à Jour is very similar to cloisonné but without a backing so the vitreous glass is translucent and we can see through it like stained glass windows. This is the most difficult enamel technique to achieve, and because of its fragility, there are not many pieces saved before the 19th century. Below is a silver Plique à Jour brooch that is examined further in detail below.

Antique Silver Plique a Jour Brooch

Painted Enamels: This method involves a plain foundation of silver metal, in a slightly domed design, in which the colors are either painted on or applied with a palette knife. Limoges, France, is one of the most famous enameling areas in Europe of which this method is popular even today. The item illustrated below is an example of a vintage Limoges silver painted enamel dish; encrusted with beautiful pieces of glass finished with a gold painted rim. The original stamp is still attached and reads "Enamel on Silver, entirely handmade following the traditional enameling procedures of Limoges".

Silver painted enamel Limoges dish: Louise Arnaud Manufacturing

Close-up of enamel work: painted enamel on silver, incrusted with glass

The second example of painted enamel is the antique silver butterfly brooch illustrated below. We can see the lovely wing colors in tones of orange and yellow outlined in black. The brooch is hallmarked "Silver", JB&S and number 2237. My research indicated a probable match with Archibald Knox who designed for Liberty & Co, Art Nouveau, and marked John Baker Bennett & Co. Their silver enamel brooches were often just hallmarked SILVER and JBB&Co. I would appreciate any information on its origin.

Silver painted enamel butterfly brooch

Silver brooch backside and close-up of silver hallmarks

Basse-taille: after making an outline of the piece to be created, the interior part of the design is chiseled, hammered or punched rather than cut in order to form a shallow recess. The enamel is finished evenly with the top of the silver surface. This was very popular during the renaissance to create religious objects and jewelry. Translucent materials were used with this technique. Today we see a similar technique called Guilloché where underneath the enamel coating is an engraved design. With this method, a more transparent multishaded enamel can be used to see the lovely guilloché carved underneath the enamel finish. During the end of the 19th century, Russia adopted this method, and we see many Fabergé pieces that perfect this technique.

This antique silver pendant was created by Henry Perrichon (French, 1910-1977) using the basse-taille method. The antelope design was carved out in the silver and then filled with brown and black enamel. This pendant is hallmarked 925 silver and signed HENRY on the reverse side.

Silver pendant basse-taille method

The antique silver button below shows the detailed guilloché technique with intricate zigzagging carvings underneath the translucent blue enamel. Silver button and close up of enamel guilloché

Champlevé: "raised field" in French, this technique involves carving or casting troughs into the surface of a metal object and then filling the troughs with vitreous enamel. Unlike cloisonné where the side cells are built up with silver wire dividers, this champlevé process lowers the area to be enameled. The bottoms of the recesses for the enamel are rough, and so only opaque colors are used.
This antique cross is an interesting example of the champlevé method: the areas to be filled were carved out and blues, purples, pink and white opaque enamels were applied to decorate this cross.

Antique cross and close up of champlevé technique

The following are details on two antique silver plique-à-jour pieces from a private collection.

Silver Dragonfly brooch

This silver antique dragonfly brooch was created using the plique-à-jour technique. To make a plique-à-jour brooch such as this example, the shape of the dragonfly wings is made by forming narrow strips of silver bent to the correct shape and soldering them within each wing and then to the body of the frame. Enamel is a soft glass made from flint of sand, red lead and soda or potash. Each mass of powdered glass containing its unique coloring agents (from metallic oxides) is placed in a separate compartment formed from the strips of silver metal to which the enamel is fused. The silversmith uses an oblong sectioned wire (flattened from a square piece of wire) by passing it between the rolls or by hammering it on the stake. This leaves the silversmith a four-sided strip of metal which is then bent into shape. This brooch is silver gilt "vermeil", and the maker alternated engraved silver and vermeil patterns on the dragonfly's back.

The photo below shows that with this brooch, the cloisonné walls were made with miniscule round beaded cells; and the colors of the enamel range from yellow to green. The wing design is then placed on a material that doesn't stick when fired: aluminum or bronze for instance. The wires are tied or clamped down so not to move when firing. PAJ is a very difficult process, and must not be exposed directly to flames: the pieces are fired in a furnace at temperatures between 650°C/1200°F and 800°C/1472°F. Once fired, the piece is polished very carefully and added pieces like the red glass eyes may be inlayed.

Close-up of plique-à-jour wings and detail of silver beaded cells

In examining the hallmark, we see a "M900" underneath the pin. Almost certainly this item was made by the Pforzheim (Germany) maker Meyle & Mayer, circa 1900.

M900 mark

Silver Religious medallion Antique Silver plique-à-jour Religious medallion

The second piece of plique-à-jour I can share with you is an antique religious medallion of the Virgin Mary. This pendant is in silver embellished with marcasite stones on both the frame and on the bail. We can see the beauty in the tones of the blue glass enamel as we turn the piece in the sunlight. Looking at the hallmarks, we see the boar's head near the bail for French silver 800/1000, made in Paris from 1838 to 1962 (the boar's head hallmark was abolished in 1962). The lozenge next to it is difficult to read but we may see the initial M with a branch or bay leaf form: perhaps for Joseph Mercier, officially accepted as a silversmith April 29th, 1910, 144 rue Lafayette, Paris.

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Katherine Palthey
- 2018 -