Exquisite Enamels

09/18/19

Rare is the button collector who is not seduced by the beauty of enamel buttons! Displaying vivid colors and painstaking craftsmanship, they are the crown jewels of many collections. The technique of enameling is ancient, practiced thousands of years ago in Egypt and Greece, and has changed very little over the millennia. Because they tend to be rare and very expensive, enamel buttons have seldom been the focal point of our jewelry. Now, however, they are the perfect theme for one of our monthly online releases of scarce and valuable buttons.

The main card of enamel buttons in our museum.  All are late 19th century (roughly 1875 to 1900), and most were created by famed French button companies such as Albert Parent et Cie. Our current release of enamel button jewelry contains many of these, just in different colorways!

The basic method of enameling is to grind glass into a very fine powder, mix it with water to create a paste, apply that to a metal base, and fire at a temperature sufficient to fuse the glass. There are five basic types of enamel buttons, which the card below from our button museum illustrates.

1.Cloisonné In this oldest form of enmeling, fine wires are bent to form the outlines of the design, and are soldered onto the metal base. The little wells, or cloisons, that result are filled with different colors of powdered glass and are fused. After several fillings and firings, the button is polished smooth.

2. Champlevé A technique developed first by 9th century Celts, champlevé is a simplification of cloisonné. Instead of laboriously soldering wires to a base, a round disc is stamped with a design, the wells of which are filled with enamel. the vast majority of Victorian enamel buttons were made this way.

3. Emaux Peints Developed in the 15th century in Limoges, France, this term basically means painting images with enamel. A solid color base is first applied in several firings, then the design is painted with different colors of enamel paste. In finer examples, each application of color is fired separately.

4. Basse Taille The surface of the metal button disc is decorated with an engraved or engine-turned design, and a layer of transparent colored enamel is applied so that light passes through and reflects on the metal surface. Basse taille was most effectively used by the Russian jeweler Karl Faberge in creating pieces for the Russian royal family, including sets of buttons.

5. Transfer Printing In a process very similar to creating transfer printed China, a tissue onto which the design has been transferred is fired onto the already prepared enamel surface, leaving the design on the finishing product. Here an unusual crackle finish is transferred onto a base of turquoise enamel.

Though the buttons we use in our jewelry are all 19th century, it is worth exploring the first fine flowering of enamel buttons in fashion, which happened in the last quarter of the 18th century. Men rather than women at that time wore the extravagant buttons. Their long frock coats, knee  breeches, and waistcoats were all bedecked with buttons of intricate and fine craftsmanship.

By modern standards, 18th century men’s fashions were quite flamboyant. Toward the end of the century, their long frock coats were embellished with sets of large buttons, many that showed a series of images, such as the equestrian emaux peints above.

 

 A selection of late 18th century enamel buttons showing the elements of Rococo design (florid scrolls of gold especially) that saw a revival in late 19th century buttons.

 

 From 1850 onward, men’s buttons shifted to staid and simple brass affairs, and women became the peacocks of button fashion. A fashion report of the time observed:  “In the summer of 1877 ladies seem to have been attacked by button madness.” Which was lucky for us, as this madness has provided a wealth of lovely buttons with which to make jewelry!

Enamel buttons were applied to gowns with abandon—yes, they were used for fastening, but were also applied as decorations to flounces, bustles, skirts, and sleeves.

 

 Fine French enamels were sold in velvet-lined jewelry cases, such as these from our museum. To the left is a small group of basse taille buttons with a matching brooch, and on the right are Rococo Revival champleve’ enamels with hand-painted roses. Notice the wire loops that were used to attach the buttons to clothing so that they could be removed for laundering.

We’ve already mentioned the Rococo Revival buttons that were popular recreations of 18th century enamels. Other Victorian enamels were Neo-Renaissance in design, reflecting the jewel-like colors of stained glass windows in Renaissance cathedrals. These styles flourished in the 1870s and 1880s, but as the century drew to a close, buttons mirrored the fresh new aesthetics of Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau design.

Art Nouveau enamels from our collection and this jewelry release. Inspired by imported Japanese art, Art Nouveau rejected the fustiness of Victorian design for the clean, sinuous lines of nature.