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    Follow the Stories | Tucson, Arizona (2007)

    Cloisonné (What's That You Say?)


    Posted: 2.16.2007

    Alex's vase

    Often mistaken for porcelain because of its delicate beauty, cloisonné is actually a metalworking technique, more similar to a stained-glass window than a piece of pottery.

    Close-up of Alex's vase

    Made by one of two 19th-century Japanese masters, Alex's unsigned vase boasts large expanses of colored enamel — a technique pioneered by Yasuyuki Namikawa.

    Red vase

    Cloisonné enameling often depicts vivid scenes using a wide range of colors, though this striking Japanese vase from ca.1900 is a symphony in red.

    Big charger

    This cloisonné charger, also from the Japanese Meiji period (1868-1912) was appraised in 2004 at between $3,000 and $5,000.

    Alex, a guest at the 2006 Tucson Roadshow, and his wife had been avid antiquers for some time, but almost 40 years ago, during a trip to Burnley, England, they had a minor dust-up over a vase Alex wanted to buy. "She thought it was porcelain," he told appraiser Dessa Goddard of Bonhams, so the $125 price tag seemed a little steep. "But I knew it was cloisonné. I'd never seen one of this quality before. I was drawn to it." Over his wife's objections, Alex bought the piece. So he was pleased to hear Dessa estimate its worth at about $20,000.

    Cloisonné is actually an ancient method of metalworking — rather than ceramics, for which it's sometimes mistaken in forms such as vases and other containers. In many ways, cloisonné is similar to stained glass: both are intricate techniques in which images are built up by arranging colored panels separated by metal dividers. In the case of cloisonné, the panels are bounded by silver or gold wires called cloisons, French for "partitions."

    More on this beautiful but little-known art form

    Alex's vase is a stunning piece, crafted in the late 1800s, during what Dessa calls the golden age of cloisonné, by one of two Japanese masters — Namikawa Sosuki or Namikawa Yasuyuki. (It's unclear which one, not only because the piece is unsigned, but also because both artists took advantage of an improvement, originally achieved by Yasuyuki, in the quality of the enamel used to color such pieces. The innovation allowed artists to depict larger fields of color, such as the turquoise skies on Alex's vase, without the enamel cracking during the firing process.) To better understand the significance of Yasuyuki's advance, we asked Adrian Grafton from the Penland School of Crafts in Penland, North Carolina, for a crash course in how cloisonné is made. Here's what we found out:

    Say you want to create a cloisonné plate that depicts a woman carrying a multi-colored umbrella. The first thing to do is to sketch the design on paper, with the image broken up into its constituent cells — each panel of the umbrella, for example, would be its own cell, and each fold of the woman's dress. The finished sketch would resemble a paint-by-numbers page. The next step is to create that same network of lines using cloisons. So, using a pair of pliers, you would carefully bend the wires into shape, recreating the sketch in its entirety. Once this "scaffolding" is completed, the undecorated metal plate is painted with a layer of enamel and the cloisons placed on top. Then, a clear viscous liquid called clear-fire is applied to hold the wires in place during the next step of the process.

    The plate is carefully transferred to a kiln, where it is fired at about 1400 degrees Fahrenheit. During the firing, the clear-fire burns away, and the cloisons sink slightly into the underlying layer of enamel, and then become permanently affixed to the plate when the enamel cools and rehardens. What follows is a painstaking process of applying colored enamels with a brush to each cell, then firing the piece, then repainting the cells, then firing the piece, repeating this process 20 times or more until the level of the enamel in each cell has reached the top of the enclosing cloisons.

    During this process, colors can also be enriched by the application of, for instance, a layer of mauve enamel to an underlying layer of pink, or left unchanged by applying a clear layer of flux to a layer of sky blue. And when it's all over, the entire piece is polished. Occasionally, what reveals itself is a masterpiece such as the one Alex was lucky enough to spy that day in England in 1969.

    See the Tucson, Arizona (2007) page for a list of all appraisals from this city.

    More ANTIQUES ROADSHOW articles from the Asian Arts category:
    What Was the Boxer Rebellion? (Omaha, 2005)

    Ben Phelan is a freelance writer in New York City.