The craft of using crushed glass powder, mixed with metal oxides, to decorate metal or glass.
|Historic area of significance||London|
|Area currently practised||UK (studio enamelling); Birmingham (industrial enamelling)|
|Origin in the UK||Early Medieval|
Enamel is crushed glass powder, mixed with metal oxides to give it colour. It is then painted, sprayed onto, or dipped into metal or glass before it is fired. Kilns used for firing glass have altered, speeding up the process, but little else has changed in terms of fundamental techniques.
The craft of enamelling dates back at least 2,500 years and was widespread in Medieval times. Early Medieval examples from the sixth century have been found at Sutton Hoo in Suffolk, and the famous Alfred jewel dates from around 900AD. Studio enamelling dates from the late-nineteenth century. Enamelling has tended to following artistic movements, copying the styles and techniques in enamel.
Enamelling can be divided into three groups:
- Industrial – making products such as signs, medals and badges.
- Studio – designer craftspeople who make, design and sell their own work through galleries or craft shows.
- Trade – freelancers who undertake enamelling for other goldsmiths, silversmiths or jewellers who need the expertise of the traditional workshop.
Traditionally, enamelling is done on a surface of gold, silver or copper, but enamelling on steel has grown popular in recent years. Whilst this started as something used exclusively for road signs, underground signs, building cladding etc., many craft practitioners are now working on smaller pieces of steel to produce pictures.
Techniques vary depending on the material being enamelled and the desired outcome of the enameller.
Enamel is fired at around 750-1,000°C, either in a kiln or using a torch with either propane or Mapp gas, and the firing lasts between 45 seconds and three minutes. High firing is unique to enamelling. This is the technique of firing the enamels at higher temperatures than those that only melt the glass. Many enamels will produce different colours than those obtained by simply melting the glass, resulting in colours and textures that cannot be obtained in any other medium. However great skill is needed to get the temperature and the timing of these high firings right.
Jewellers, goldsmiths and silversmiths wet pack coloured grains of transparent enamels, creating relatively small areas of images and decorative surfaces with the colours laid out side by side. While colours are not mixed like paint, they can be layered over one another to create different colours and blend from one to another. Enamellers working on copper sift the grains of enamel over larger surfaces and work with applying layers of colour, both transparent and opaque. They work with the enamels like painters but do not employ brushes. Instead the grains are gummed down and designs and shapes are carved out of the dried enamels. Stencils are commonly used.
In industrial enamelling, liquid industrial enamels are applied to large steel panels with a spray gun. This type of enamelling was developed in the twentieth century but only a few can practise it because the pieces must be fired in a commercial enamelling factory that makes panels for signage, cladding of buildings and internal walls that must be fireproof. This type of industrial enamelling has declined in the last 30 years and there is now only one large enamelling factory and one small enamelling factory (previously there were at least four).
Local forms and variations
- Watch face enamelling
Issues affecting the viability of the craft
- Whilst there is a large body of amateur enamellers, professionals are a much rarer breed and are usually self-employed (rather than working in workshops).
- The number of workshops has shrunk considerably. In the past, workshops used to be as large as 9-10 people, training their own apprentices and continuing the line, but today what workshops are left are now sole traders, two people at most, with little chance of new apprentices coming through.
Taking on an apprentice at the current time requires serious consideration as to the future of apprentices – is it fair to train and pass on knowledge to the next generation if the amount of work available is not enough to support him/her in the coming years?
- While apprenticeship is the traditional approach, there is also a shortage of paid courses in private jewellery/silversmithing schools and universities teaching this craft.
- Materials have changed and often resin is used as a powdered glass alternative. While the process is much easier and there is no firing involved (sometimes called ‘cold enamelling’) and very often consumers confuse the two – only hot enamelling is the traditional craft.
- If there are no new entrants, the workshops begin to close, and the demand which was there for these skills also begins to decline because of the difficulty in finding someone to undertake the work, so designers cease including enamel work in their designs to cut out the problem of finding someone to undertake the work.
- The medal, regalia, badge and pen manufacturers based in the jewellery quarter in Birmingham have some employed enamellers, but one firm only has two enamellers over the age of 80 and their comments implied a reluctance to employ apprentices.
- Enamelling has tended to following artistic movements, copying the styles and techniques in enamel. This causes a problem today when art as it is currently practised often has no material element. However, enamel does sell well in craft fairs to people who are motivated by their own tastes.
- People need to be educated about what enamelling is as they do not realise what skill and effort goes into creating the pieces. People who understand and appreciate enamelling will buy it, but very often people think it’s some sort of paint (or similar) applied to the surface.
- The quality of enamels is changing due to EU health and safety regulations. At present, leaded enamels are still being manufactured in the UK but many beautiful colours have been withdrawn due to difficulties in obtaining the materials. New ranges of lead-free enamels are being produced and they are good enough for the semi-professional/hobby kind of enamelling, but it is uncertain whether the few remaining skilled professional enamellers using traditional techniques will be able to continue producing work of the highest quality.
- Some of the materials and equipment are very expensive making it prohibitive for new entrants to venture on the journey. There are not many studios to rent or just a bench and a kiln, and when there is it’s often poorly equipped and expensive. Some communal studios charge per firing, which is impractical since the pieces need to go in the kiln multiple times, sometimes a dozen or more.
- British Society of Enamellers
- Guild of Enamellers
- Victoria & Albert Museum
- The Fitzwilliam Museum
- The Enamellist Society – US
Craftspeople currently known
The British Society of Enamellers and the Guild of Enamellers both have membership lists of practising enamellers.
- Deakin and Francis, Birmingham
- Fattorini, Birmingham
- A J Wells & Sons, Isle of Wight
The Goldsmiths Centre runs a school for apprentices where they teach enamelling. There are a lot of part-time enamellers in the UK who frequently attend courses at West Dean College and other short course venues. For traditional professional enamelling, it estimated that there might be 21-50 trainees in the country. Jewellery courses in art colleges turn out 30-50 graduates a year but their output is largely experimental, individual and sold though craft shops and galleries, with very few of them managing to support themselves with their work.