What Is Cloisonné Enamel?

What Is Cloisonné Enamel?

Enamel cloisonné, also known as "Jingtai Blue," is a composite craftwork created by welding gold or copper wire patterns onto a cast or hammered metal base, filling the compartments with various colored silicate enamels, and then undergoing firing, polishing, and gilding processes. It was called "Dashiyao" during the Yuan and Ming dynasties, also known as "Guiguo Yao" or "Guiguo Qian." In the Qing dynasty, it was referred to as "Qiasi Enamel" by the imperial court and "Jingtai Blue" by the general public. After the establishment of the People's Republic of China, the Palace Museum systematically organized and researched the Jingtai-marked cloisonné and a large number of Qing dynasty artifacts in its collection, gaining an understanding of the characteristics of Jingtai court enamel and cloisonné from the Qing court and various regions, as well as the evolution of ancient Chinese cloisonné. Based on its historical development and characteristics, it can be divided into three periods: Yuan, Ming, and Qing.


Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) Cloisonné:

Cloisonné enamel in the Yuan dynasty was referred to as "Dashiyao," which was the Arabic cloisonné enamel produced by early Arab craftsmen in China. By the late 14th century, Chinese craftsmen had fully mastered the technique of cloisonné enamel. However, they gradually abandoned the Arabian elements in terms of shape and patterns, resulting in a Sinicized and nationalized form of cloisonné enamel. Existing cloisonné enamel from the Yuan dynasty are all products after Sinicization, with shapes and patterns similar to blue and white porcelain. Representative artifacts include the cloisonné enamel beast-ear three-ring zun, the coiled branch lotus tripod incense burner, the coiled branch lotus plum bottle, and more. Colors used include light blue, royal blue, deep red, yellow, white, purple, green, and various combinations. The body of the cloisonné enamel beast-ear zun originally belonged to a coiled branch lotus cloisonné enamel jar from the Yuan dynasty, marking the maturity of cloisonné enamel in the Yuan dynasty and the development of its own national style and artistic characteristics. The name "Dashiyao" no longer accurately represents the craftsmanship.


Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) Cloisonné:

In the early years of the Ming dynasty (1368-1424), cloisonné enamel products in Beijing included incense burners, vases, boxes, and cups, primarily for use in women's chambers and not considered elegant enough for literati's study rooms. Skilled cloisonné enamel craftsmen in Yunnan specialized in making cups and sold them in Beijing. The imperial workshops in the Ming court were responsible for the production of imperial cloisonné enamel. The colors and decorations of this period were still close to those of the Yuan dynasty, with some slight changes. One type of enamel became lighter and less transparent, showing the changes that occurred during these 50 years. During the Xuande period (1426-1449), cloisonné enamel craftsmanship in the court reached a high level. A typical piece is the cloisonné enamel cloud-dragon covered jar, produced by the imperial workshops with exquisite craftsmanship. The lively dragons chasing pearls on the jar's body appeared vivid and lifelike, as if in motion. During this period, cloisonné enamel colors included light blue, royal blue, dark red, ink green, delicate yellow, alabaster white, and more, presenting a rich and mellow texture similar to that of jade, making it a significant piece in Ming dynasty cloisonné enamel. The Jingtai-marked cloisonné enamel small gu of this period, made by the imperial workshops, featured a wire-twisting pattern with a light blue background and filled with seven colors: dark red, light yellow, alabaster white, royal blue, bean green, and light green. The colors were elegant and somewhat transparent, presenting a delicate and adorable appearance. During the Chenghua and Hongzhi periods (1465-1505), there are no dated cloisonné enamel artifacts, suggesting a continuation of the Jingtai cloisonné enamel tradition. During the Jiajing period (1522-1566), there were cloisonné enamel plates with cloud-dragon patterns, characterized by flowing and unconstrained wire-twisting, but slightly rough in execution. The enamel colors were similar to Jingtai enamel, with a lighter yellow enamel, deep red enamel, and ink green enamel showing depth and some transparency. Popular patterns included twining branches, lotus motifs, lion play, sea creatures, coiled dragons, and grapes. There was an increase in indoor utensils such as incense burners and vases. The cloisonné enamel of this period had notable differences in color, wire-twisting style, and patterns compared to Jingtai cloisonné enamel, such as a warmer color palette, bolder wire-twisting, and an abundance of auspicious patterns. The craftsmanship and style of cloisonné enamel in the Wanli period (1573-1644) witnessed a significant change in color matching. It departed from the cool color tones prevalent during the Jiajing period of over 300 years, adopting warm or intermediate tones, appearing vibrant and magnificent, resembling polychrome ceramics. The cloisonné enamel's wire-twisting became uneven in thickness, and the patterns became more intricate and loosely organized. The vessel shapes included incense burners, bottles, boxes, basins, plates, wax stands, and more. The patterns featured dragons playing with pearls, pine, bamboo, plum, fish and aquatic plants, the "Three Friends of Winter," bats, deer, twining branches, lotus flowers, peonies, gardenias, and more. The imperial cloisonné enamel featured thick vessel bodies with dazzling gilding, while the cloisonné enamel produced by local workshops had thinner copper bases and less gold plating, with most of the gold having worn off. The deep red enamel was particularly vibrant and widely used, representing the style of the Jingtai and Chongzhen (1621-1644) periods, presenting a unique aspect of cloisonné enamel history in the Ming dynasty.


Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) Cloisonné:

Cloisonné enamel craftsmanship reached an advanced level during the Qing dynasty and spread to various regions, including the imperial court and production centers in Beijing, Yangzhou, Guangzhou, and more.


(1) Imperial Cloisonné Enamel: In the 19th year of the Kangxi Emperor's reign (1684), the imperial cloisonné enamel workshop was established, taking the Ming Jingtai court cloisonné enamel as a model and producing a large number of Jingtai-marked cloisonné enamel and Kangxi-style cloisonné enamel. Gradually, in terms of artistry and color scheme, they moved away from the warm color tones and uneven wire-twisting of the Ming Wanli period, returning to the style of Jingtai cloisonné enamel with significant developments. Kangxi-period (1662-1722) cloisonné enamel included delicate niello enamel, coarse-thread light enamel, and uniform-thread dense enamel. The delicate niello enamel featured coiled branch and hooked lotus patterns, using opaque purple and light blue as the base enamel colors, presenting a mellow, antique appearance reminiscent of Jingtai cloisonné enamel and often used to imitate it. The coarse-thread light enamel and uniform-thread dense enamel used light blue enamel as the base color, with a cool color tone. Vessel shapes included boxes, dishes, incense burners, fragrance stands, tables, chairs, screens, and other furniture decorations, with exquisite and colorful compositions resembling brocade, marking the first peak in the development of Qing dynasty cloisonné enamel. During the Yongzheng period (1723-1735), due to Emperor Yongzheng's personal preference for painted enamel, there were very few court-produced cloisonné enamel artifacts, with only a few cloisonné enamel knobs surviving, which closely resembled the Kangxi-style uniform-thread dense enamel. This marked a low point in the history of cloisonné enamel in the Qing dynasty. Emperor Qianlong (1736-1795) had a great appreciation for cloisonné enamel and instructed the Ruyixuan workshop to produce a vast array of cloisonné enamel objects. These included bowls, plates, bowls, boxes, bottles, jars, zuns, gu vessels, cabinets, incense burners, candle holders, stationery, Buddhist statues, auspicious motifs, pagodas, ruyi scepters, bells, snuff bottles, cranes, peaches, furniture inlays, and more. The vessel shapes were elegant and magnificent, the wire-twisting was neat and tight, and the enamel was slightly opaque, presenting a warm and jade-like luster with an elegant color palette and a rich and lustrous gloss, representing the typical style of court cloisonné enamel in the Qing dynasty. Based on artistic style, it can be divided into three categories: imitations of Jingtai cloisonné enamel, imitations of ancient artifacts, and contemporary works. Imitations of Jingtai cloisonné enamel focused solely on the markings, lacking the antiquity in terms of vessel shapes, wire-twisting, and enamel, bearing no resemblance to Jingtai cloisonné enamel. Imitations of ancient cloisonné enamel were made with bronze ritual vessels as the model, serving as decorative objects. Contemporary cloisonné enamel included various decorative and sacrificial objects, stationery, Buddhist supplies, screens, ruyi scepters, and practical vessels such as bowls, plates, and teapots. The largest extant cloisonné enamel objects are the six cloisonné enamel pagodas from the 39th year of the Qianlong Emperor's reign (1774) at Fanhua Tower and the six cloisonné enamel pagodas from the 47th year of the Qianlong Emperor's reign (1782) at Baoxiang Tower. Each pagoda reaches a height of 2.3 meters and a width of 0.94 meters, representing the pinnacle of Qianlong-period cloisonné enamel and the highest achievement in the history of cloisonné enamel in the Qing dynasty. Afterward, it gradually declined. During the Jiaqing period (1796-1820), cloisonné enamel work remained largely the same, lacking significant developments. During the Daoguang period (1821-1850), cloisonné enamel production was scarce, with the Yongling cloisonné enamel "Five Offerings" from the fifth year of Daoguang (1825) as a representative piece. Its style, wire-twisting, and enamel were similar to those of the late Qianlong period. Afterward, there were even fewer cloisonné enamel works produced by the Ruyixuan workshop. Cloisonné enamel produced for the court during the reign of the Tongzhi Emperor and Empress Dowager Cixi relied entirely on supplies from Beijing's local workshops.


(2) Beijing Cloisonné Enamel: Beijing's cloisonné enamel industry had grown to a considerable scale, with a vast quantity of products, becoming a backup base for the production of court cloisonné enamel. The products in the early Qing dynasty were simple and plain, but during the Qianlong period, they were influenced by the court's cloisonné enamel craftsmanship and adopted a style similar to that of the court. By the Guangxu period (1875-1908), stimulated by the court's procurement and export demands, Beijing's local cloisonné enamel industry further developed. In the tenth year of Guangxu's reign (1884), on the occasion of Empress Dowager Cixi's 50th birthday, cloisonné enamel phoenixes, longevity peaches, and other objects contributed by officials, such as Minister Fu Kun, represented the level and ambition of Beijing's cloisonné enamel industry.


(3) Yangzhou Cloisonné Enamel: Cloisonné enamel in Yangzhou experienced significant development during the Qianlong period, producing a large number of vessels such as bottles, jars, incense burners, lamps, and vases, which were also presented to the court. The vessel shapes displayed new ideas, with varied patterns and a slightly cooler color tone. The strong contrast between warm and cool color tones and the densely packed enamel pores were different from the artistic style of court cloisonné enamel. Yangzhou cloisonné enamel was also used for interior decoration and inlays. Some of the cloisonné enamel artifacts preserved in the Palace Museum collection were salt administration tribute items from the Huaiyang and Lianghuai regions in the 18th century.


(4) Guangzhou Cloisonné Enamel: Guangzhou cloisonné enamel imitated Beijing's Jingtai Blue but with some alterations. It included bowls, plates, incense burners, basins, boxes, and inlays. Its distinguishing features were vivid wire-twisting, vibrant enamel colors, slightly darker backgrounds, and a blue base enamel with lively wire-twisting patterns, appearing dense and compact. It differed from Beijing cloisonné enamel. Its heyday was during the Qianlong period.



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