- Nora Kovats
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This essay by Nora Kovats is an exploration of enameling as creative studio practice in contemporary jewellery. Nora invites us to be part of her enameling process while she analyses the historical context of this ancient technique.
I’m enameling. The kiln has heated up properly by now, and I start unpacking my enamels - little multi-coloured medicine bottles filled with glass powders in rows at the edge of my working surface. For a few moments, I simply hover over the colours, compare the different hues, delight in the subtle differences. Colours govern my life. I hear colours with every different sound; every letter of the alphabet and every digit has its own colour - a colour that I associated with it ever since I learned to count and write. Combined numbers and words are colour sequences, streaks of white-red-blue-gold-mauve, a vivid carousel of hues that mimics everything I see and hear and smell, and that has to be pushed, gently, to the fringes of my consciousness because it would simply be overwhelming otherwise.
Open enamel kiln showing a burning hot steel tripod carrying a silver dome. Photograph by Nora Kovats.
With enamels, each colour has a different personality - it is either transparent, so you can see the metal underneath after firing it, or opaque; it can be smooth or grainy, some have a high melting temperature, some a low one, some break up into bits and dissolve into other colours, some acquire miniature green cracks around the edges when heated multiple times. If you do not treat them according to their personalities, they misbehave: they splinter after firing as they cool down, flake off the metal surface, become cloudy, or burn into a lifelessly scorched surface.
Every action of this process of firing glass onto metal has become a strange ritual to me. Mixing glue for concave surfaces. Laying out brushes, spatulas, small ceramic bowls. Sifting powders onto metal. That smell of the promise of heat wafting from the kiln. The careful, deliberate lifting and placing of the powdered pieces onto metal tripods, rickety with use and coated with stray enamel blobs. And then, opening that furnace of a kiln at eight hundred degrees Celsius, being bathed in a heatwave that leaves my face tingling and red. Opening, closing, sifting, waiting, cleaning, brushing, sifting.
Left: Gently sifting enamel powders on a shape to be enameled; top right: A piece ready for the kiln, the dry powder is fixed on the hollow surface with a water-based adhesive; Bottom right: The first layer is often incomplete and grainy, with spots that burned away. Photography by Nicola Fouché
Balancing, opening, closing, waiting, sifting, opening-closing. Like in a dance, I have started to move in a certain rhythm. A meditation that is both repetitive and revolves around a single focal point, a fraction between an under-fired rough surface and an over-fired shriveled one: the achievement of that smooth, glossy surface, a symphony of molten colour - the completion of a ritual. It cannot be rushed. Most pieces need layers of enamel, three to eight at least, and the patience and intuition to not dismiss an imperfect first layer as a failure.
After some time, my face becomes glowing with the heat; it must be bright scarlet by now. I forget about my surroundings, surrender myself willingly to the enamels and allow myself to slip into that entrancing space. Only then can they unfold their true potential - the moment I stop trying to master them, and let them lead me. They fuse, run, melt, burn, shimmer into spectacular patterns that no-one can foresee. And I am left deeply satisfied by the thought that this individual pattern that has emerged can never ever be reproduced again. If this is not magic, I wonder what is.
It is no surprise that enameling has become my favourite jewellery-making technique, considering the significance of colour in my life. However, the fascination runs deeper than just appearances. The ancient history of the enameling process, almost alchemical in nature before the advent of electricity, intrigues me just as much. Jewellers have used enamel for its intrinsic qualities of brightness, hardness, and durability, also taking “advantage of its elusiveness and mutability to suggest, among other things, precious stones, filigree inlay work, stained glass, and even painting” (Strosahl 1981:1).
Although it is unclear how long enamels have existed, it is likely that they were developed in Egypt: masters of working with fire, the Egyptians invented glass (Delamare & Guineau 2006:22). Around the third millennium BCE, they perfected the fabrication of the earliest known synthetic pigment, a double silicate of copper and calcium that compensated for the lack of affordable natural blue pigments (Delamare & Guineau 2006:22). Even though the earliest examples of enameling in Egyptian jewellery are not true enamels but rather consist of multi-coloured glass mosaic stones, set in gold and fired in a kiln, they clearly prefigure the cloisonné enameling technique (Strosahl 1981:1).
The development of early enameling techniques is documented by two major sources: the Benedictine monk Theophilus, whose 12th-century treatise on Medieval art techniques explained some of the contemporary enameling processes, as well as the notorious 16th-century Italian jeweller Benvenuto Cellini, whose Trattato dell’Oreficeria includes a detailed, step-by-step instruction on enameling (Barsali 1969:18). Cellini describes the preparation of enamels as a laborious process of hand-grinding chunks of coloured, transparent glass and then washing the powder with filtered water to remove dust and impurities (Barsali 1969:25). Both authors describe the same kind of furnace - a type of upside-down earthenware vessel inside a protective perforated iron container, placed into a roaring fire and completely covered with hot coals (Barsali 1969:8). This challenging and time-consuming process can only be marvelled at, since each enamelled piece required numerous firings and timing thereof had to be impeccable.
A piece ready for the kiln. Photograph by Nora Kovats.
Since enameling is depended on pigments for its vivid colours, it is also clearly linked to alchemical practices. Much of the medieval research in chemistry was carried out by alchemists, whose laboratories and methods were described in an arcane language, often laden with metaphor (Delamare & Guineau 2006:56). Their reluctantly and cryptically published discoveries show a wealth of experimentation focused on the transmutation of substances. Because of this interest in the mutable properties of metals, as well as their work with processes of extraction and distillation of solids and liquids, alchemists stimulated a renaissance in the production of colour pigments: they created vermilion red from sulfur and mercury, yellow by adding sulfur to arsenic, and a gold pigment by mixing sulfur, tin, and mercury (Delamare & Guineau 2006:57). Apart from this obvious, historical link, enameling also evokes the language of alchemy: born from fire, the pale powders transform into brilliant, vitreous colour; the process is technical yet also deeply intuitive, experimental and somehow mysterious. The exact moment of perfect, glossy fusion relies on timing – in my case never governed by neat and orderly timekeeping, but rather by an enigmatic internal clock that relies on ‘gut feeling’ to gauge when a piece is ready. This gloriously ‘messy’, spontaneous side of the enameling process subverts the scientific, grid-like standards that are superimposed on almost every part of modern routine.
The process of enameling, with its vivid possibilities of colour, its laborious ritualistic method and its ties to alchemical practices, inspires a creative drive in me that compels me to make. The making almost becomes more important than the finished work. Making becomes a rhythmic ritual, demanding respect and reverie, as well as the need to be patiently observed, step by step, without a rush. To me, the enamels are governed by their own rules, almost taking on a life of their own.
As I make, I am concerned with growing something from nothing, and with controlling that created something to a certain extent. A contradiction exists between the tight control imposed on the contained microcosm of my work, or on the enamel kiln as a closed environment, and the spontaneity, impulsiveness, and freedom required to permit a truly successful result - one that lives. This duality intrigues me - a constant balance between tight control and letting go - and has allowed a particular style to emerge in my work: with an emphasis placed on intuition and playfulness, I focus on growing, twisting, branching botanical shapes and vivid, unexpected colour combinations. The garden underpins my work in every respect; however, this mythic garden in my jewellery art is vastly different from the sunny vegetable patch in my back yard. The enameled garden is dark and twisted as well as vibrant and playful.
Enameling table by Nora Kovats: I love working on a spread of my own drawings to inspire colour combinations. The paper is necessary to catch enamel powders as they fall around the piece you are working on in order not to waste any.
The studio becomes metaphorical for the process of making as a small universe that is removed from ordinary space and time and severed from the ‘real’, mundane world like a magnificent imaginary garden behind walls. As the site for the manifestation of my own jewelled garden fantasy, the studio is almost transformed into a sacred space.
 This new blue pigment, called Alexandrian blue, could be used in paints, inks, glass and, mixed with sodic alkaline salts, form a variety of spectacular blue faience glazes (Delamare & Guineau 2006:23).
 Mediterranean enamellists developed a technique that adapted Egyptian filigree inlay to cloisonné enamels. Ribbons of metal are fired onto a metal surface to form individual cells, or cloisons in French, that are filled with coloured enamel powders (Strosahl 1981:2) and subsequently fired, often in several layers. The finished design resembles an image punctured by thin gold, silver or copper lines.
 Alchemists were primarily concerned with transmutation: on a literal level, this meant discovering methods to transform baser metals into gold and finding the Elixir of Life that could supposedly grant immortality; on a more metaphorical level, the ‘Great Work’ signified the purification of the soul into something uncontaminated and perfect (Fontana 2010:60).
About the authorNora Kovats is a contemporary jewellery designer, illustrator, writer and botanical enthusiast from South Africa. Through her creative practice, Nora has begun to open a window into an imaginary world where botanical and animal shapes merge to construct a unique visual language. As an ‘identity-hopper’, both South-African and European, she is interested in the way stories, layered over each other countless times, construct human identities. Identities are infinitely complex and fragmented compositions, stories-in-stories-in-stories, overlapping, fragile and fluid, yet so powerfully definitive. Nora studied contemporary jewellery design at Stellenbosch University near Cape Town. After graduating with her Masters in Visual Arts, Nora set up her own studio. She relocated to Berlin, where she lives and works now, exhibiting both in Germany and internationally on a regular basis.
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