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Enamelling Silver: Champlevé

In my blog, Enamelling Silver: Cloisonné, I discussed the silver enamelling technique know as cloisonné, which involves soldering silver or gold wire to the surface of a silver object to form patterns acting as the skeleton of the design, which is then filled with enamel and fired.

Champlevé technique

Although champlevé decoration yields visually similar results as cloisonné, the production process is different. As opposed to soldering wire to form the separate fillable cells, troughs are carved, die struck or etched into the surface of the object. These separately enclosed troughs are filled with vitreous enamel and then fired at high temperature until the enamel fuses. Upon cooling, the surface of the object is polished back to reveal the uncarved portions of the surface forming a frame around the enamelled design.

Origins of champlevé

The word champlevé is a culmination of the French words ‘champs surélevés’ meaning ‘raised field’, where field indicates the raised area surrounding the enamelled areas. However, as explained, the enamelled areas are in fact lowered, as opposed to the rest of the surface area being actively raised.

The origins of champlevé can be traced as far back as the early Celtic civilisation in Europe from the 2nd or 3rd century BC. These objects were usually made of Bronze and decorated with red enamelled champlevé decoration. Champlevé is also especially associated with the Romanesque art of the 11th century AD.

Limoges enamels

Champlevé is often referred to as ‘Limoges’. This is perhaps because champlevé decorated objects were produced in Limoges, France on such a large scale with Limoges becoming the main centre of production by the 12th century AD. With continued production in Limoges, by the 14th century, champlevé became further refined. Examples started to be carved with troughs at varying depths. By then, by applying a translucent enamel, variations in tonality could be achieved, meaning the deeper the carving, the darker the colour. The refinement of the champlevé technique was very gradual, but eventually craftsmen were able to do away altogether with the carved divisions required to separate the different colours altogether. Although the majority of champlevé decorated wares from Limoges were copper based, there were some very fine examples enamelled in both silver and gold.

For another fascinating enamelling technique, see my blog Enamelling Silver: Plique-à-jour.

If you have any enamelled silver you would like to have valued, please contact Robin Newcombe of Grand Auctions, Folkestone, Kent.