Cloisonné enamelling as an overall decoration of metal vessels was a relatively late import. It had been used in the West since ancient times, reaching an aesthetic and technical peak in 12th-century Byzantium. European cloisonné is thought to have arrived in China during the Yuan dynasty. Local artisans soon learned the technique themselves, which gave rise to centuries of rich and productive inventiveness.
Chinese cloisonné was made for the delight of emperors, courtiers and scholars. Like luxury goods everywhere it was also used for diplomatic gifts.
The French word cloisons means partitions. To create cloisonné, a design is drawn on a metal object. Then a band made of a thin metal strip is affixed to it. This creates the small compartments into which a paste of finely ground, coloured glass and water is placed. The piece is then fired at around 700ºC, turning the glass into enamel and fusing it with the metal. Often the enamel shrinks, and a second application and firing is needed to fill the cloisons completely.
Cloisonné is a slow and technically difficult process, which has always made it expensive and highly sought after. Early on, traders, travellers and missionaries came home with the odd piece of Chinese cloisonné. In the second half of the 19th century, large numbers of pieces, including many imperial works, were brought to Europe and America. This was booty seized during the opium wars and then the Boxer uprising of 1900. Exceptional collections were built up as a result. In the 1920s a French financier, David David-Weill, gave 150 pieces he had amassed to the Musée des Arts Decoratifs in Paris.
The arrival of Chinese cloisonné in Europe also revived Western interest in making similar works. In 1870 or so, James Tissot, a French painter, acquired a Ming jardinière, which had been removed during the sacking of the Summer Palace in Beijing ten years earlier. He then made his own version of it, which is visibly influenced by the Art Nouveau movement.
Giuseppe Eskenazi, the leading London dealer in Chinese works of art, recalls that when he was paying high prices for Chinese cloisonné at Christie’s in Paris in 2007, most of it came from European collections—and the buyers were all still Westerners. Now the Chinese are also competing, especially for imperial, Qing-dynasty pieces, and prices have risen again sharply. Last December a Hong Kong businessman, Joseph Lau, bought a pair of tall, imperial white cloisonné censers each in the shape of two cranes. He paid $16.7m, a world auction record, for them.