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How to Identify Cloisonne

Asian art often has enameling on metal.
divinité asiatique. image by Bruno Bernier from Fotolia.com

Cloisonne art is an enamel process on metal. The name comes from the French word "cloisonner" meaning "to partition." The cloisonne name and completed product identify the process. Most of the cloisonne available is from oriental countries, but France and Russia also produce cloisonne art imports to the United States. Commodore Perry is credited with the rise of cloisonne imports from Japan when he visited the country in 1854, according to the Haverford College website.

Make sure the base product is a metal. Cloisonne begins with fine wires that form the cloisons, or cells, applied to a metal background. Enamel is then used to fill the cells to give the cloisonne effect. Eglomise often looks like cloisonne, but it is enamel applied to glass from the backside.

Know the difference between champleve and cloisonne. Champleve begins with a metal base, and the maker applies an enamel fill to incised or cut areas on the surface, leaving portions of the metal for you to see. Wires are not used in this process.

Feel the surface with your fingernail. The enamel will be smooth on quality cloisonne, but you may feel the tiny metal cells on most forms. Basse-taille is an exception, since an overall layer of enamel on the final product prevents feeling the cells on this type of cloisonne.

Know the difference between paint on metal and fired-on enamel. Painting on metal, even applied in indentations, does not make cloisonne. Cloisonne requires an enamel fill, that is either powdered or liquid, poured into the cells and baked in a kiln. Quality cloisonne often requires several applications to create a smooth product.

Look for plique-a-jour cloisonne, as it is the most difficult to make and is usually more valuable. This art resembles stained glass because it does not have the metal back most often associated with cloisonne, and the fill is transparent or translucent enamel.

Expect to find inexpensive cloisonne items as well as expensive ones. Some common pins for fishing hats are made of cloisonne. Plates, vases and bowls are common shapes for the cloisonne application and are current imports from China.

Identify old cloisonne by the handmade cloisons that are individual and not perfect, whereas the new cloisonne has wires with identical shapes made by machines. The British Museum has a Chinese cloisonne ginger jar on display attributed to the 1426 to1435 era. Study this and similar items for identification and for nuances that set old cloisonne apart from the new.

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