The history of Chinese cloisonne and the production of it’s ‘free standing’ objects is a surprising one. The art of cloisonne was commonly used during medieval times in most of Europe, England, the Middle-East, and the near East, on small accessories and jewelry. In fact this era coincided with the use of stained glass windows in Christian churches, and the understanding of how glass could be transformed, colored and shaped for many uses.
For cloisonne, glass flux was fired in metal cloisons, meant to reproduce the jewelled effect of precious stones in their primitive straight settings. Many cloisonne body ornaments have been found in tombs dating B.C. Today, international museums are displaying examples of Byzantine, Celtic, Persian, Egyptian, Slav, Greek, Islamic and Russian cloisonne pieces, from the B.C. and A.D. periods.
By the early 15th century, with the strong trade going to the Far East from the Near-East along the silk-route from Europe, Persia and India, cloisonne objects and other artistic crafts found their way to China and Japan. Cloisonne was adopted and became a refined and appreciated decorative medium, by the MING Dynasty emperors (1368-1644), and continued to be promoted and selectively produced from then on.
Colors were limited with turquoise blue the most prominently used, mainly as a background. At that time cloisonne became know as JINGTAI LAN, ‘the blue of the Jingtai era’. The Jingtai emperor reigned during the Ming dynasty, for the years 1450-1457. Enamels were soldered to heavy cast bronze bodies, and the wire cloisons were thick bronze.
Many extremely large items were commissioned by the emperors for gifts to the Buddhist temples and their altars, as well as decorative pieces for the huge Chinese palaces. An Imperial workshop was dedicated to cloisonne production on the palace grounds in Beijing.
Enamel colors evolved over time, with more shades available, such as cobalt blue, dull brick red, dark green, light green, white, yellow, navy, purple and black. Enamel powders: glass flux and chemical compounds were mixed right in the cloison before firing the object in a kiln, giving an uneven speckled effect in some instances, such as ‘Ming pink’, the red and white enamel combination. Motifs were: stylized lotus scrolls, dragons, foo dogs, leaf and wave borders, animals, birds, flowers, with Buddhist and Taoist symbols. Enamels were left unpolished, and metal surfaces were gilded as a finishing touch. The Qianlong reign was the most influential for all the arts in China, including cloisonne. Most experts agree that the late 18th century was the apogy of Chinese cloisonne with its exceptional cloisonne renditions.
During the end of the Qing Dynasty era of the 19th century, 1850-1911, smaller decorative items became popular, strongly encouraged by the many shipping trading partners from the West.
Especially after the Opium Wars and Europe got a taste for this delightful metalware, after their monarchs displayed their acquisitions from the Chinese summer palace. Cloisonne pieces joined the mass produced export wares, for the clamoring European and American markets. The wealthy industrial period of the early Victorian years created a new middle-class, hungry for decorative objects of every sort.
The bodies were now made with lightweight copper or white metal, more pliable and cheaper. Additional enamel colors were created by the 1870s, about the same time the German chemist Von Wagner improved the firing and enameling process in Japan.
It should be understood that for centuries, China had a long and very strong exporting trade business, to the East and West, and cloisonne was only a small portion of these exports. China was more focused on it’s lucrative tea, porcelain, and textiles exports, to name a few.
There were many instances in their mutual histories, when wars, internal or external caused a disruption in production of ceramics and cloisonne. High seas traders, had no problem switching from one country to the other for their goods.