A Treasure Trove: Enameled Jewels from 1550-1700

April 8, 2013

Some Other Color than “Gold”

This post was inspired by my project for HSF Challenge #7.

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.

10 Responses to “A Treasure Trove: Enameled Jewels from 1550-1700”

  1. The memento mori jewelry are amazing and very creepy! They look like something a modern Goth would be proud to wear.

  2. I Love enameled jewels – although I tend more towards the medieval ones. One thing I do very much dislike though is the latest tendency to reproduce them using epoxy (cold cure so-called enamel) which always looks like cheap tacky plastic no matter how well its applied. Yes, real enamel is time consuming to produce, but that’s why it was treasured.

    I have a plan to reproduce that horrendous white rose brooch with the ruby in the centre this year though, and it will be done with real enamel

    • Liz Says:

      I look forward to seeing your real enamel adventures! I have used cold-cure enamels to reproduce the look on a budget since I have neither the skill nor resources to delve into the world of real enamels. As long as I use opaque applications and not thin, semi-transparent ones, the outcome is quite passable. The only downfall is that bottled enamel is not as hardy as the real stuff, nor is the color as rich. It cannot match the intensity of true enamels, especially creamy white.

      • if you click on the silver gallery on my side bar of stuff I made you can see the cross and triptych I made a few years ago. my next intended project is a quite ugly c15th piece, but I have to make the base and get it hallmarked first

        real stuff is actually quite delicate – it is glass, after all.

        I think I have a picky eye, cos it never looks right to me. what I really hate is when people try to sell coldcure and say its enamel, and its just a downright lie, cos it isn’t – I think I wouldn’t be as grumpy about it if sellers were just honest and said straight up what they were actually selling

  3. The emerald pendant is one of the most exquisite pieces of jewel my dimond -hungry eyes have ever seen! You don’t by any chance have an idea as to where it was produce, don’t you?

    • Liz Says:

      It’s one of my favorites as well! I would guess by the intense style that it is Spanish, but the V&A lists it as merely “West European.” It is also possible that it was made in one country in the style of another for export (such as German for the Spanish market or Spanish for the French market, etc.) which would account for its vague attribution.

  4. Annette Says:

    The first one looks like La caridad del cobre (our lady of charity) the patron saint of Cuba. If it’s is, it can’t be that old.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: