Cloisonne: the new appeal of an ancient art

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Cloisonne! Even the syllables--cloi-son-ne (nay)--sound rippling and romantic and faintly exotic as they roll off the tongue.

Equally exotic is the complicated process involved in making this art form--an ancient and traditional skill the Chinese describe as one of their ''minor arts.''

Cloisonne involves a surface decoration set on a metal shape set in enamel within bent wire cells that have been glued (or soldered, in early days) to the metal body of the box, plate, vase, or figure being made. After the cloisons have been set in their patterns--which could depict pictorial scenes, animals, birds, flowers, tendrils, or leaves--a craftsman takes a small brush or spatula and carefully spreads enamel frit mixed with distilled water and more glue to hold it in place until the firing. The object is then heated in a kiln until the frit (made up of various oxides and ground glass) melts. The process is repeated four or five times until the cooled enamel is level with the top of the metal cloisons. Then the whole thing is ground and polished smooth.

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The Chinese have been making cloisonne enamels for over four centuries, having absorbed and refined the Byzantine enamel techniques that came to them via the Near East in the 14th century. Earliest authenticated examples date back to the Ming dynasty.

Cloisonne has been in continuous production since then. Modern-day visitors to China can visit the factories that produce it, watch craftspeople meticulously make it, and then buy superb contemporary examples to take home.

But you don't have to go to China to see modern Chinese cloisonne. It is featured in every department store's China promotion, in mail-order catalogs, Chinatown shops, and specialty stores across the country. The China Resource Products (USA) Ltd. at 1133 Avenue of the Americas in New York is an exhibition center featuring cloisonne and many other arts and handicrafts made today in Peking.

Mitch Morse, who recently opened a professional showroom called China Spectrum at 305 East 63rd Street in New York, also includes a large selection of cloisonne wares.

''To me, the techniques of manufacturing cloisonne have improved over the years, so I think modern pieces offer a lot of value,'' says Mr. Morse. ''It is my feeling that too many old pieces are chipped, dented, or banged--and that perfect pieces often come with prohibitively high prices. That is why I am importing new wares.''

Serious collectors and auction-gallery officials point out that 20th-century cloisonne has much decorative value but no investment value. ''It may in a couple of hundred years,'' says Patricia Curtin of Sotheby's Chinese department, but people who want their collections to appreciate in value should buy cloisonne made in earlier centuries, preferably during the l6th and 17th centuries of the Ming dynasty.

Miss Curtin's advice to beginner collectors is to start with small, later Qian-long and 19th-century pieces--vases, incense burners, and interesting table articles--that are in good condition. Such small, unmarked pieces, she says, bring prices at auction ranging from $300 to $1,000. If the pieces are marked, they fetch from $800 to $1,200. Even some not-in-top-condition Ming pieces, she says, bring somewhat less than $1,000 on the block. Top-quality Ming pieces may bring prices up to $150,000.

Andy Kahane, Oriental specialist at Christie's auction gallery, says he is expecting to see some good 19th-century pieces of cloisonne going in the $600-$ 800 range in their March 23-24 Oriental sales.

Donald Wineman, a Sands Point, N.Y., Orientalist and dealer, says cloisonne collectors are divided into two camps: those few serious collectors willing to spend from $20,000 to $50,000 for top pieces and that much larger group willing to pay prices up to $2,000 and $3,000, which he terms the ''popular-price market.''

Mr. Wineman contends that cloisonne collecting is good right now because it is not a ''hot'' collecting area; the field is wide open, and many pieces are undervalued. He thinks interest will grow, as interest in all the arts of the Orient expands, and values will appreciate because there are fewer and fewer good pieces available.

To beginners Mr. Wineman says, ''Start by buying things at reasonable prices because they are your learning tools. Once you put up your money and then begin to handle and compare and study, you will learn fast. My best tip to beginners buying old cloisonne is to examine with your fingertips as well as your eyes. You can feel damage, and repairs, and missing parts with your fingertips that your eye could miss.'' He sees as a problem the fact that so few real experts exist to give guidance.

Probably one of the finest collections of cloisonne in the U.S. has been put together by Robert and Marian Clague, an Arizona couple who in the early 1960's studied metalworking and enameling on silver in Taxco, Mexico, and then began their collection of cloisonne.

''I was fascinated with this art form that involved the unlikely marriage of enamel, a form of metal, and glass,'' Mr. Clague recalls. ''Because I had a mechanical background that included chemistry, I quickly recognized some of the challenges involved in making a perfect piece of cloisonne and knew it was a feat. I knew that metal and glass do not always expand and shrink at the same rate under heating and cooling. Glass can pull away from the bronze cloisons and shatter, or the bronze can trap gases which cause pits and bubbles in the enamel as it cools.''

The Clagues collected modern and old examples made in both China and Japan. ''In the beginning,'' he says, ''I could not distinguish Chinese and Japanese cloisonne and could not date the pieces. Later, on the advice of Sir Harry Garner, author of 'Chinese and Japanese Cloisonne Enamels,' we refined and edited our collection down to those antique Chinese pieces of museum quality. We eliminated all 20th-century pieces, deciding they were too perfect and too precise.''

Their collection was first given museum exhibition space in 1973, when it was displayed by the Milwaukee Public Museum. In 1980 it was exhibited by The Phoenix Art Museum. The Clague Collection of 100 pieces of cloisonne, dating from 1600 to 1900 and considered to be one of the broadest in the world, is currently traveling to other museums, as well. It will be exhibited next at the Brooks Memorial Art Gallery, Memphis, Tenn., from May 15 to June 27.

Later in the year it will be shown at the Fine Arts Museum of the South in Mobile, Ala., (Oct. 1-Nov. 7) and at the Columbus Museum of Art, Columbus, Ohio, (Dec. 4-Jan. 16, 1983). It will then return to the Phoenix Art Museum.

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