Japanese cloisonne work, distinguished by the jewel-like brilliance of its coloured enamels, was a great success in Europe when it was
introduced, and remains a desirable collectable today.
When Japan opened its doors to Western trade in the second half of the 19th century, one of the largest impacts on European taste was made by pieces decorated in cloisonne enamels, whose wonderful colours and glassy reflective surfaces made for very decorative effects.
The first cloisonne wares in Europe were based on bodies of beaten copper; later in the century, they tended to be cast. The creation of the all-over designs was a painstaking process. They were first painted onto the surface, then the outlines were traced with copper wire, fixed with a vegetable gum. The wire created compartments or cloisons, a French word that gave the ware its name. Craftsmen used bamboo pens to fill the cloisons with coloured enamel pastes.
Several firings were needed for each item; different enamels needed different temperatures to fuse with the body. Pieces were finished with careful polishing to get rid of bits of enamel that had overflowed their cloisons and to create a perfectly smooth, glass-like surface.
Though usually associated with Japan, the technique originated in China during the Ming dynasty, when it was used to create stylized designs on a turquoise ground for bowls and incense burners.
Sometime in the 1830s, a craftsman from Nagoya, Kaji Tsunekichi, deliberately broke one such bowl to learn the secrets of its manufacture and to create the Japanese industry.
In the 1870s, a company called Ahrens in Tokyo employed a German chemist, Gottfried von Wagner, who introduced a wide range of new, bright colours to the dull, rather limited palette used by the early Japanese enamellers.
Jars, bowls and vases were the most common media for Japanese cloisonne work, but it also appeared on flowerpots, jardinieres, teapots and trays, among a whole range of other knick-knacks. The golden age of Japanese cloisonne lasted from around 1880 to 1914. At the beginning of the century spectacular new techniques were developed, including moriage, in which the enamel is piled up to make a relief design.
Cloisonne vases and other pieces were very popular in Europe from their introduction in the 19th century up to World War 1, when the fashion for them waned. Pieces made since then tend to be over-elaborate in design and less well crafted, and as a rule are not so popular with collectors.
At first, it wasn't possible to make large fields of a single colour without cloisons. Plain backgrounds were supported by clusters of cloisons shaped as kidney-beans or spirals. Later, technical advances made it possible to cover the wires, or simply do without them, and such pieces, which closely resemble fine painted porcelain, are much valued.
The best cloisonne wares tend to be found today in specialist showrooms and fine art auctions. Lesser examples can be found in general antiques shops and fairs.
Exquisite when perfect, cloisonne wares are very fragile. The slightest knock can cause unsightly stress cracks, and any crack or dent may cause the enamels to splinter and crumble away, ruining the piece. Large, obtrusive areas of damage make a piece more or less
worthless, while light flaking near the mouth or foot-rim of a vase will reduce its value.
If the price is right, slightly damaged pieces are worth considering. Though they have no
investment potential, they can still be very decorative. Pieces with a dull, lustreless finish, though, should be avoided.
Though cloisonne is occasionally found on porcelain, earthenware, or even precious metals, the great majority was set on copper. Clean it only with a dry cloth, as water may react with the copper and ruin a piece.