A Treasure Trove: Enameled Jewels from 1550-1700
April 8, 2013
Some Other Color than “Gold”
The Renaissance and Baroque periods were immensely ornate. Deep colors were indulged in and everyone rich enough to afford them was donning clothes made of a ransom’s worth of fine silks, velvets, pearls, and gemstones. Why should gold be left naked? Though we sometimes feel that enameling is tacky looking (thanks in part to terrible mass-produced Christmas pins), the enamel artisans of the late-16th and 17th century achieved a look that is anything but cheap!
Enameled Gold Pendant with Rock Crystals and Pearls, circa 1610-20
Enameled Gold Cross Pendant with Rubies, Diamonds, and Pearl, circa 1610-20
Enameled Gold Ornament with Pearls, circa 1600
Small enameled gold ornaments like this would be sewn directly onto clothing. Many were later converted to have brooch-backs made, especially in the 19th century when Renaissance Revival style swept through European fashion.
Enameled Gold Brooch (later conversion) with Diamond and Pearls, circa 1610
Enamel work was often mixed in with precious stones. Even if the front of a piece was paved with large table cut gems, the smallest tongue of gold that showed between the stones would be covered with enamel. Early jewels are covered in bold, primary colors like deep red, bright blue, emerald green, fiery yellow-orange. Most pieces before 1660 feature enamel work applied to sculpted, 3-dimentional pieces. Though the actual thickness of the metal may not have been great, the combination of careful sculpting and enamel gave the pieces depth and presence. Many of the larger pendants were made and worn in Spain. Spaniards adored bold lines and colors. Their enamel work was often some of the most intricate and dense.
Enameled Gold Pendant (front and back) with Emeralds, circa 1650
The back of pieces were often more elaborately enameled than the front of the piece. Since almost all stones were placed in closed-back settings, there was plenty of space for the enamel artist to display his skills. Jewelry was made to be admired both on and off the body, so being beautiful from all sides was essential. Because enamel is made of fused glass particles, the colors do not fade as readily as other paints and pigments, so a piece enameled over 500 years ago will have colors as brilliant as the day they were fired. Bright colors were, of course, very popular, but the all-time favorite color combo was the dynamic duo black and white.
Enameled Gold Monogram Pendant (front and back) with Lapis Lazuli and Paste stones, circa 1600-30
Enameled Gold Ring with Garnet, circa 1550-1600
Rings, though small, almost always had at least a touch of enamel on the shank. Many of the gold rings from between 1500 and 1700 once had colorful enameled designs on the band and were not as plain as they appear today (it’s kind of like the famous Grecian marbles which we always admire for their clean, white simplicity, but many were brightly painted). The enamel wore off after years of wear, often helping save the metal underneath from damage or erosion, especially on silver pieces.
Enameled Gold Ring with portraits of Anne of Austria and her son (King Louis XIV), circa 1625
Enameled Gold Frame around an Enameled Gold Holy Shroud Scene under Crystal, circa 1650
During the 17th century, small scenes stamped or sculpted of thin, enameled metal set behind panes of rock crystal or glass soared in popularity. Religious scenes, mementos mori, and symbols of love were popular themes. After the execution of King Charles I in 1649, versions of these rock crystal jewels called Stuart Crystals made from woven locks of the king’s hair or his portrait became immensely popular among Royalists. Later monarchs were also honored in this manner, including Queen Mary and William III.
Rock Crystal Pendant commemorating the Death of William III, circa 1702
Enameled Gold Memento Mori Pendant, circa 1660
A popular motif since ancient times, the memento mori gained huge popularity as early Christian morality took hold of Europe. The focus on life after death was a big theme and the pivotal moment of death–the last moment to escape from the bonds of sin and hell–was an important event. The Latin “memento mori” roughly translates to “remember death.” Pendants, charms, and rings served as daily reminders of the fragility of life and the need to both live well and/or righteously. Due to their connections with death and the afterlife, memento mori motifs like the skull, skeleton, and crossbones also served as symbols of mourning.
Enameled Gold Mourning Ring surrounding a Lock of Hair, circa 1661
Enameled Silver Miniature Case, circa 1660
Enamel wasn’t just applied to gold. Silver gained popularity in the latter half of the 17th century as light blues and pinks came into fashion. A cheaper alternative to gold, silver was often used to make more utilitarian objects, such a chains and cases for sewing kits. The miniature case is an early incarnation of the locket. It is larger and deeper than a modern locket and would have held a portrait miniature, a popular aristocratic gift to send to friends, family, patrons, or lovers. Many of these cases reveal the trend towards more painterly decoration than enamel work of the earlier half of the century, which focused on accenting shapes rather than being the focal point of the design.
Enameled Gold Miniature Case, circa 1650-1660
Enameled Gold Bow Pendant with Ruby and Pearl drop, circa 1630-1660
Enameled Gold Badge, circa 1650-75
Enameled Gold Pendant with Rubies, Sapphires, Emeralds, and Diamonds, circa 1680-1700
By the 1680s, enameling styles had changed. The major difference between earlier pieces (those from before 1660) and later pieces (those after 1660) is that the way the enameling is applied slowly began to change as tastes in fashion changed. Stones and enamel were no longer melded together so freely, though the style remained relatively common in Spain and Germany. France was rapidly rising in power, bringing with it lighter, more romantic tastes in color and texture. By the mid 18th century, almost all decorative enamel work is smooth and is painted on relatively flat, 2-dimentional surfaces rather than the highly sculpted surfaces of the centuries before.
Enameled Watch and Case, circa 1686-1700
All of the pieces featured in this article are from the collections at the Victoria and Albert Museum. You can find many, many more beautiful examples of enamel from different eras by using the handy advanced search option to narrow your search by year, technique, material, or object type.
(Note to American researchers: Use “jewellery” instead of “jewelry” as a search keyword. The former is the British spelling of the word and the V&A, being British, does not recognize the American spelling as well)
For more examples of Renaissance enameled jewels, you can also check out the Jewel Book of the Duchess Anna of Bavaria.