the fusion of glass to precious metals. The glass is ground into a fine paste, washed, applied and fired at temperatures up to 850 degrees Celsius depending on the colour.
Enamels were initially applied on firstly gold, then silver, copper, bronze. The term is also used for the application of decorative fusible glass applied to glass objects. The earliest known enamelled objects were made in Cyprus in around the 13th century BC during the Mycenæan period. Unfortunately there are only a few remaining enamelled relics from this very early period. It is likely that the craft spread to the ancient Greeks and via them to Europe.
When Caesar conquered Britain he found that the Celts were already using enamels and many examples of this early craft are in museums all around the British Isles, with some very good examples in the British Museum.
In the 13th Century, developed from champlevé technique, we see the emergence of Basse-taille. A transparent enamel is applied over a low relief, sunken or intaglio design. Flat recesses are replaced with engraved and carved detail, depicting scenes and more complex designs, usually in gold or silver. The earliest known reference to this is in 1286 but the earliest known piece dates from 1290, a gold chalice made for the Convent of St Francis of Assisi.
The collections of the great cathedrals and churches account for the survival of these early works. A rare piece known as the King’s Lynn Cup, or sometimes as the King John’s Cup, is on display at King’s Lynn. It has been much restored over the years, but it originally dates to 1325 and is almost certainly the output of an English workshop.
The earliest known use of the plique-a-jour technique was in the 13th Century however by now the skills of enamellers were gaining in complexity. The technique involves the use of translucent or transparent enamels fused to form a span across a network of cells, without a backing under the enamel. The enamel is part of the structure of the piece – a shell supported within the network of metal cells. This is undoubtedly the most challenging technique of enamelling but, with the introduction of light through the enamel, the results can be dramatic and beautiful.