Chinese enameled silver, also known as Beijing enamel silver, is considered one of the finest metals worldwide. It has historically been one of the eight “consummate arts of Beijing” and is traced back to the 13th century. The art is known for its vibrant blue hues and fine metalwork in silverware, tableware, jewelry, and silver crafts.
The History of Chinese Enamel
Chinese enamel, or Beijing or Peking enamel, is used as an embellishment technique for objects like metals and ceramics. Chinese enameled silver is used today as décor objects like vases or as silverware, but it was historically a method of making jewelry in Beijing.
The Beijing enamel method is a cloisonné technique of making jewelry that originated in the Yuan dynasty, founded in 1271 CE with its capital in the city that would later be known as Beijing. Enameling itself was a Central Asian trade and craft brought to the Yuan dynasty by missionaries. The exact origin of the jewelry technique is unknown but the cause of its development is well-recorded. Initially, the technique was created to replace the Tian-tsui style of Chinese art and jewelry-making.
The Tian-tsui style was a popular cloisonné method that used luxurious kingfisher feathers. The bird feathers were cut and placed onto gilt silver to create elaborate designs in the kingfisher’s vivid blue color. However, the technique eventually faded out in favor of Beijing enamel because of a scarcity of kingfishers in the city.
The Beijing enamel style was popularized in the Ming Dynasty that lasted from the 14th to the 17th century. Silver enamel was often found in the imperial palaces of the Ming rulers as well as across Asia. The most historically significant antiques are traced back to this period. The Xuande period of the Ming Dynasty popularized enamel and cloisonné production, with Beijing enamel specifically used for the imperial family and palace. The technique was particularly popular with craftsmen in the Jingtai period from 1450 till 1457; the emperor patronized the craft and the style was renamed the blue of Jingtai.
It was a notable Chinese export during the Ming dynasty and objects like cloisonné bowls are traced back as exports to Indian emperors and Islamic dynasties in the Middle Ages. Later, the technique itself was imported to Europe and commonly used in objects like snuff boxes and vases. During the 18th and 19th centuries, European craftsmen used designs similar to Chinese motifs to create highly popular objects.
The Beijing enamel silver style is still used today. The resurgence of the craft came with the launch of the Beijing Enamel Company in 1956. The company made historic changes in the craft by introducing new production methods; they were able to sell silver enamel to the general public in China and internationally. The success of the company’s standardized mass production allowed the Chinese foreign exchange reserve to rise during the 1970s and the 1980s.
Under the Beijing Enamel Company, the designs became more ornate and emphasized symmetry. With its more efficient techniques, the company was able to make multiple reproductions of the same design and mainstream the craft.
Chinese Enamel Objects
Chinese Silver Enamel or Beijing Silver Enamel is so named because silver is a major part of its manufacturing process. Soldered silver is hammered and stretched to make the vessels for the pieces and shaped accordingly, while a pattern on carbon paper is traced onto the object’s surface. Cloisonné compartments are rendered in silver wire, which is attached before blue enamel is poured into the vessel.
The enamel paste uses color pigment powders, alkali, saltpeter, and boric acid mixtures. Green, red, blue, and white pigments are created from chromium, iodine, bronze, and zinc respectively. Craftsmen fill the cloisonné compartments with the pigments by hand and set it in the kiln.
The blue enamel paste is made from bronze and can be applied and reapplied up to five times as the vessel is heated with fire. After the enamel is applied, the craftsmen polish the surface with whetstone and carbon and gild the exposed copper with silver and gold; this gilding helps seal the the design from exposure to oxygen.
The craft is well-known for its colorful objects with common use of blue, red, and orange in vibrant hues. The colors are set against and mixed with silver to produce a vivid effect. The blue enamel is traditional and was the only color used until the 20th century, when red and orange pastel colors became more common.
Most Chinese enamel work objects today include silverware, vases, and teaware as well as jewelry like necklaces and hair pins. The pieces often feature nature motifs and visual contrasts to create striking effects. Flowers, butterflies, fish, and birds are often found depicted on Chinese enamel objects as a tribute to nature.
Shadings are a prominent feature of most enamel pieces, with a focus on a gradation of light to dark colors. Most objects designed together are often paired as mirror images and single objects themselves are rendered symmetrically. Vases and tableware, for example, often have the same patterns on their bases as on the top sections.
The Market for Chinese Enamel
The Beijing enamel silver craft is nearly a thousand years old, but it still has a thriving market within the world of art collectors, crafts lovers, and silverware buyers. The value of the objects depends on their quality, history, quantity, and size. Smaller and newer pieces like jewelry pins or tea cups sell for lower rates; bigger objects like vases will tend to fetch higher prices on the market.
More historical objects are considered high-value collector’s items no matter their size. Similarly, intricate work with high quality designs will sell for more on the collector’s market, even if the objects are small. This is especially true of objects such as bowls set in pearl that use blue silver enamel in elaborate floral designs. Collections or sets of objects like vases, jewelry, tableware, and silverware also tend to sell better than single objects from a set.
The lowest prices for small objects, with no history or intricate design, can be around $100 per piece. However, historically valuable and well-designed enamel in smaller sizes can sell for four to five figures. Bigger objects can be similarly priced, with entire teaware sets often selling at auction for prices in the four figures.
The Beijing enamel art and silver crafts are often found in private collections, but the Cloisonné Art Museum of Beijing also has a large collection covering pieces from the Yuan, Ming, and Qing dynasties.
Appraise Beijing Enamel
Do you own a Chinese enamel piece? Any enamel object, whether it is a pin or a tea set, can be valuable. With a certified art appraisal, you can know the origin, quality, and expected price of your object. Revere Auctions provides auctions and appraisals for collectors of Beijing enamel.
We are located in St. Paul, Minnesota, but we work with customers from around the world. Our appraisal reports are approved by all agencies and are certified by the Uniform Standards of Professional Appraisal Practice (USPAP). We offer free price estimates here. All you will need is a clear photograph of your piece and we will get back to you with details about the work’s value and origins in 24 hours.
You can also get a certified art appraisal report in just a few steps. Revere Auctions provides reports with detailed documentation of the work’s worth, authenticity, and history. All of our reports are accepted by taxation, insurance, and charity agencies and institutions.