A History of Artistic Cloisonné Work in Asia

Humans have been creating art since the dawn of time. Some of the earliest cave drawings we know of are around 40,000 years old. Some theorize that early humans started making art to communicate, pass down wisdom, or tell stories. 

Cloisonné is an art form that's thought to have been around for thousands of years but didn't become widespread until the late 1800s. This art form allows artists to replicate precious gemstones by using colored glass instead. The ancient Japanese technique creates beautiful pieces that have gotten displayed in museums around the world.

This guide will discuss everything you need to know about cloisonné. Learn more about Japanese art and how artists use this method in multiple ways. 

Cloisonne Enamel Duck

What Is Cloisonné?

Artists use the cloisonné technique to create designs on metal objects. They place colored glass paste in enclosures made from bronze or copper wires. Artists will hammer or bend the wires into whatever shape or position they want. 

The wire enclosures then get soldered or pasted onto the metal body. The enamel, or glass paste, gets its color from metallic oxide. The paste is then painted into the enclosed areas on the main object. 

The object gets fired at a low temperature. The process gets repeated to fill in the designs since enamels tend to shrink after they get fired.

Once the enamel gets filled in, the object will get lightly rubbed so the edges of the metal design start to show through. They'll then get gilded to enhance their appearance. 

The function of the wires has gotten discussed in depth over the years. The original reason wires were used might've been because goldsmiths were used to constructing jewelry sockets out of metal strips. These metal strips were then bent to hold a stone in place. 

It's thought that over time, artists took the metal pieces and integrated them into the design. They became less about function and more about looks, especially since they weren't needed to hold a stone as cloisonné evolved. 

When Did Cloisonné Start?

This technique is thought by many art historians to have originated in Egypt before 1800 BC. Egyptian artists inlaid gold ornaments with small pieces of stones, such as:

  • Lapis lazuli
  • Turquoise
  • Garnet
  • Carnelian 

The stone inlays get held in place by ribs that got soldered to the gold ornament. Some researchers believe that glass workers and goldsmiths worked together to imitate or forge these works by using artificial gems. Over time, pieces of glass took the place of the stones. 

Cloisonné is thought to have derived from "cloison," a French word that means partition or compartmentalize. The term goes back to the 1700s. 

The Rise of Cloisonné in Chinese Art 

The enamel technique made an appearance in Chinese art in the 15th century. The method traveled to China from the Islamic world. 

Cloisonné is known as "Jingtai Blue" in China. Blue is the dominant color in this form of cloisonné. 

Cloisonné enamels reached the height of their popularity during the reign of the Ming Jingtai emperor in 1368-1644. There weren't any known pieces of this type of enamelware before the 14th century. 

In the beginning, Chinese art connoisseurs were suspicious of this type of art. They felt that way in part because the technique started in a foreign country. Another reason they didn't take to cloisonné right away is that the design appeared to be overly "feminine."

Pair of Cloisonné and Gilt Bronze Donkeys & Riders

However, by the beginning of the 18th century, the Kangxi Emperor had a workshop in many Imperial factories that was devoted to creating cloisonné enamels. 

In some Chinese and Byzantine pieces, the wire doesn't always enclose a different enamel color. Sometimes the wire gets used for decoration. In other instances, two enamel colors aren't separated by a wire. 

The Appearance in Japanese Artwork

Japanese artists began producing cloisonné in the mid-1800s. The pieces these artisans created were thought to be very technical when compared to others. 

Traditionally, cloisonné was used in small areas for decoration. This included sword fittings and architecture. 

Japanese cloisonné reached its peak during the Meiji era. The country produced more advanced cloisonné enamel pieces than ever before. The period from 1890 to 1910 was considered to be the "Golden Age" of Japanese cloisonné enamels. 

The renaissance of this technique is often credited to Kaji Tsunekichi of Nagoya. Tsunekichi was a former samurai that became a metal guilder late in his life. He was looking for a way to supplement the stipend he received after retiring as a samurai. 

The legend says that Tsunekichi received some Chinese cloisonné enamel in 1838. He deconstructed it, eventually creating a small dish. Tsunekichi worked tirelessly over the next year until he was able to replicate the technique and create a six-inch plate. 

Tsunekichi started creating more and more pieces from there. He started taking on students in the mid-1850s, showing them the craft. His pupils started teaching other people, and the cloisonné technique began to grow in Japan. 

The First Cloisonné Company in Japan

The Nagoya Cloisonné Company got founded in Toshima in 1871, just outside of Nagoya. The business got established by Tsukamoto Jine'mon and Muramatsu Hikoshichi. The two men made major technological advancements in the field, earning them an award at the Vienna Exhibition in 1873. 

Other manufacturing companies started appearing throughout Japan after this point. Toshima and the surrounding area became the main hub of cloisonné production in the country. 

After a slow start in the early 1830s, cloisonné pieces became Japan's most successful export and manufacturing items by the end of the century. The invention of more advanced techniques from European artists opened up more possibilities for artists. 

The Japanese Artist Namikawa Yasuyuki

Namikawa Yasuyuki is one of the most well-known Japanese cloisonné enamel artists. He lived from 1845 to 1927. He began his art career around 1868 by working in the Kyoto Shippo Kaisha. 

Yasuyuki left the company in 1874 and set up his shop. His work started getting shown in exhibits around the world, including the following:

  • Paris in 1878
  • Philadelphia in 1876
  • The First National Industrial Exposition Tokyo in 1877

His pieces could get identified by the skillful use of delicate wirework. He also gave thorough attention to detail in all his work, a quality that was greatly admired by collectors and Western travelers. One of these travelers is believed to be Rudyard Kipling, an English novelist. 

Yasuyuki got appointed to the position of Imperial Court Artist for the court of Emperor Meiji. Not only was this a highly coveted and respected position, but it also guaranteed a local market for his work. It also increased the price and value of his pieces. 

The Golden Age of Japanese Cloisonné 

Other masters of cloisonné peaked during the Golden Age. In addition to Yasuyuki, the following artists increased in popularity:

  • Hayashi Kodenji
  • Namikawa Sosuke
  • Kawade Shibataro 

Hundreds of companies and makers worked tirelessly to keep up with the demand for cloisonné enamelware. 

Sosuke started working at the Nagoya Cloisonné Company but soon left to run their facility in Tokyo. His work appeared in exhibitions around the world.

Sosuke also created a distinct style of decorating. His designs gave off the appearance of looking like an ink painting. 

Cloisonné in Modern Times

Travelers and traders would come back home with pieces of cloisonné after touring Asia. Western artists observed the methods used and started making creations of their own.

A French painter by the name of James Tissot received a Ming jardiniere in 1870. The piece had gotten removed during the "sacking of the Summer Palace" in Beijing years prior. Tissot made his version of the piece, which got influenced by the Art Nouveau movement. 

Cloisonné is still a popular art form in current times. The technique appears in a wide range of places, including:

  • Bracelets
  • Earrings
  • Chopsticks
  • Tableware 
  • Candy boxes

Artists around the world have taken the method, putting their unique spin on it. Cloisonné is a difficult and slow process, making it highly sought after and expensive. 

Giuseppe Eskenazi, an art dealer in London, has paid high prices for cloisonné as recently as 2007. Most of the pieces came from collections in Europe. Prices continue to rise as the demand for authentic cloisonné increases. 

Explore the History of Cloisonné Enamelware

It's fascinating to see how cloisonné enamel evolved over the years. What started as something innovative in ancient Egyptian culture has grown into an entire art movement that took over Japanese and Chinese cultures. From decorative pieces to functional bowls and plates, there are countless cloisonné to admire. 

The Weisbrod Collection features well-documented and rare objects from Western culture. Explore Chinese works of art in our online and in-person galleries. Swing by our Hong Kong location to see these masterpieces for yourself.