Enamelling as a guide to date

Enamelling as a guide to date

Enamelling is the technique of using molten glass to fill areas on metal jewellery between wires to create decorative coloured jewels. Add to the beautiful colours the belief that these beads were made by the gods and therefore would protect, the need to continue to use and wear damaged pieces of larger beads adds to the reasoning behind applying ground pieces to the surface of jewellery.

There are many aspects to consider in the processes of the enamelling..these factors can assist in the dating of Enamelled pieces.

The first aspect to consider is the available materials there are many variables, but the constants are the glass making technologies, and dates of the changes of these technologies…The techniques are largely unchanged , the gas bottles are the heat source now, however the things which have changed signifigantly are the glass supplies and the metal supplies.

For example, red glass pre 1860 would be made using gold chloride to create the colouring….Post 1920 Selenium was likely to have been used….and so forth.

Different types of glass behave differently when used for the enamelling process, this is a good basis for a dating reference, but not the only reference.

By charting and understanding these changes and the way that the changing materials act together we have a basis for determining the first steps in dating pieces from the region.

To understand the changes in glass and the variations in colours we must take time to familiarise ourselves with the glass trade routes into Africa, and the sources of the beads ( which were then, and are still now crushed to give the enamelling powder.)

It is difficult to give the nuances which a complex web of supply, manufacture, re cycling and faux patina create, but over time it is possible to gather enough pointers to work a process of elimination taking us to a fairly precise date range.

Some of the earliest known Venetian glass beads to be traded to Africa by the European boats sailing the Mediterranean and the West coast of Africa were the 7 layered chevron bead this was circa 1500 . This bead , known as ‘shariya’ in North Africa is still the most prized bead in the African continent. Large examples with no damage and perfect inner layers can change hands for over 2000$ on the world market.

If we note the colour of the cobalt blue glass in these early Venetian beads we will see a connection to North African enamelled jewels

The trade beads were a great success for the Venetian traders and as the possibilities of using glass beads to trade for gold, precious stones, spices, fabrics and slaves was realised the designs were developed to please the taste of the African traders,

We see different colours and styles in different African tribal areas. These were made in Venice especially for the purposes of trading.

One large bead exporting company was called ‘Sick and Co’ their trade sample cards over the years give us a great time-line of the beads on offer in chronological format.

The Dutch were also trading into Africa, and to some part these beads became a part of their currency too.

The cores of most glass beads were made from a cobalt blue class, the coloured murrine slices were then added.

Many of the beads traded into Morocco initially were blue cored, with yellow and green décor either lamp worked or Millefiori.

Distinct changes in the chemical composition of glass and the colours therefore in vogue can help us to identify the age of the bead. Between the 1880’s to 1915 we see beads in the earlier colour palette.

By the 1930s we see some changes to the composition of the glass offering a different colour palette.

The new compositions also meant that re worked glass behaved differently offering a different quality to the finished enamelling. The heat required to create cloisonné from a chemically altered source brings challenges to the jewellers, and also different qualities to the enamelling.

By the late 1940s we find an influx of French beads from Briare and Czech beads from Jablonec making an appearance on the African jewel scene!! . These beads were machine made, from glass mixed with porcelain…. they were plentiful, colourful and cheaper than the Venetian beads.

Again a whole new palette of colours arrives, and the appearance of the cloisonné changes once again. The porcelain mixed into the beads result in a thick opaque less delicate enamel.

This pattern continues and as cheaper and more plentiful bead origins become the current stock in the souks so the colours and the qualities of the enamelling alter with them.

My association with the bead making villages in the Tarroudant region of Morocco has taught me so much!

I include below images of Contemporary enamelling being undertaken recently in the third generation bead workshops of the South.

This is in part why I love the story of beads, it is personal and researching them can lead in a million directions!

My hope was to illuminate a little of the technique I use when considering the dating processes of North African enamelling. This is by no means an exhaustive list, and I know that many bead historians will consider it a little shallow and would add much much more to the subject…..