Back to enamel jewellery

As gold prices rise, women prefer to invest in age-old enamel jewellery, which has the gleam of gold and the brilliance of precious stones, says Madhurika Bose

WITH gold touching Rs 1,500 per gram, women are on the lookout for more economical options as far as their jewellery is concerned. They cannot do better than invest in enamel jewellery, which has the gleam of gold, brilliance of precious stones and the sheen of enamel. Especially if you buy enamel baubles made by the fabulous Jaipur goldsmiths, you get the rare combination of kundan inlay worksmanship and the meenakari enamel art. Kundan work is a method of gem setting, consisting of inserting gold foil between the stones and mounting.

Enamel is glass fused to metal at high temperatures, and enamel jewellery is prepared by using this technique
Enamel is glass fused to metal at high temperatures, and enamel jewellery is prepared by using this technique

Meenakari involves the fusion of coloured minerals, such as cobalt oxide for blue, copper oxide for green. This enamel, on the surface of the metal, gives the effect of precious stone inlay work. These two art forms are combined to form a piece of jewellery, which has two equally beautiful surfaces, enamel at the back end and kundan set gems in the front.

Enamel is glass fused to metal at very high temperatures of over 800 degree celsius, and enamel jewellery is essentially prepared by using this technique. The enamel could be translucent or opaque, thus giving one the choice of a little metal shining throughout or none at all. The freedom to use a wild variety of hues and colours gives it a fashionable edge over any other embellishment. What also makes it more attractive is its ability to prevail even under harsh temperatures—it doesn’t lose its sheen and beauty even if treated to water, extreme cold or hot.

The process itself needs an entire team of specialists to pool in their various skills. First, the designer selects a design as per the client's requirements, and passes it to the goldsmith. The goldsmith creates the gold stencil and gives it back to the designer, who outlines the pattern on the gold surface and burnishes it, to make it stand out.
Now the engraver comes into the picture. His is the job which requires maximum skill and precision. Champleve is a technique used by the engraver to lower those areas of the metal that will take the enamel by carving them out. The meenakari`A0is the next in line.

For enamelling, the piece to be worked on is fixed on a stick of lac, and delicate designs of flowers, birds and fish are etched on it. A wall is made to hold the colours, while engravings are made in the grooves to heighten the interplay of the transparent shades, thus enhancing the beauty of the jewel. The surface is fully burnished by agate; then the enamel colours are filled in painstakingly as in a miniature painting.

The article is then kept in the oven on a mica plate to keep it off the fire. Colours are applied in order of their hardness; those requiring more heat first, those requiring less, later.

Since the enamels are of varying hardness and, thus, require different temperatures for fusing, they must be fired separately—that from the hardest highest temperature to softest lowest temperature.

Cooling is as important as heating. A flow at this stage could crack the enamel or render it undesirably opaque. A special type is ek rang khula meena, in which a single-colour transparent enamel fills all engraved areas, leaving gold outlines exposed around figural details. Pachrangi meena (five-colour enamel) is a special multi-coloured style of enamelling. The five colours used are opaque white, opaque light blue, transparent dark blue, transparent green and transparent red. When a single transparent coloured enamel is used to fill the ground around an opaque figure, various colours of the ground like transparent red, transparent green and transparent blue are chosen. Bandh meena khaka (opaque cartouche or outline) is a technique in which the figure in transparent colour is surrounded by an opaque enamel cartouche. The object, when ready, is polished and cleaned. Generally hand burnishes are used to cover any exposed metal. Once the enamelling has been completed, the surfaces must be polished. The kundan`A0setter then asks the stringer to make them into a ready-to-wear stunning piece of art.

The traditional meenakars could take as long as they liked over a piece of jewellery to make it perfect and alluring. Many of the oId styles remain unchanged to this day. In Pratapgarh a special type of quasi-enamelling is done in which extremely fine work on gold is daintily carried out on green enamel, which forms the base. MF