Is there a place for enamel in Contemporary Jewellery practice?

Published: 04.02.2010
Jessica Turrell Jessica Turrell
Jessica Turrell
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Over the last few years I have been conducting a research project entitled “Innovation in Vitreous Enamel Surfaces for Jewellery”. What underlies this rather clumsy title is my preoccupation with the place of enamel within contemporary jewellery practice, and on a more personal level, the project is an exploration of how I might employ enamel to address the ideas that underpin my own work.
In contemporary jewellery practice of the last few decades it would seem that enamel has become somewhat out-of-fashion; I suspect this is due in no small part to the materials associations with a rather moribund traditional practice. Despite this there appears to have been something of a revival or rediscovery of the material over the last few years, which involves some reassessment of the aesthetics associated with enamel.

This reinvention sees enamel work that side steps the conventions of the ‘fancy’ traditional work perceived as being so outdated and instead use it for its paint-like qualities. Bright or monochrome, solid opaque colours, shiny, matt or underfired, gritty surface, this approach to enamelling strives to appear effortless but in fact demonstrates a profound knowledge and understanding of the material.

Enamel has also made its presence felt in the work of a group of jewellers who use it in a very immediate and often rather rudimentary way. This reductive approach might be indicative of a lack of skill but could also be seen to have a direct correlation with the trend in contemporary jewellery that sets out to be provocative and challenging, both aesthetically, in the choice of materials and in the refusal to rank skill over content. This reductive approach could also be one consequence of an increasing number of jewellers who consider themselves to be generalists rather than specialist, using whatever technique or material most appropriately conveys their intentions but with no emphasis on a particular skill set.

One could question why the jewellers producing such work would use enamel at all, what is it about the quality of this material that means that many hours will be spent applying layers of colour when a similar effect might be achieved with paint? That enamel is sometimes seen as almost interchangeable with paint is demonstrated by a number of jewellers who use a wide variety of media, including pigment, paint, lacquer and resin alongside vitreous enamel to achieve what Jamie Bennett in his essay on colour for Metalsmith magazine describes as a ‘palette of materials […] as diverse and democratic as ever’.*

I’m curious as to what motivates these ‘new’ approaches; I don’t make an argument for skill over content, if anything I am equally (if not more) skeptical of work that is beautifully made but that has neither reference to contemporary practice nor any basis in research or the exploration of ideas. It may be that one could consider the ‘crude’ use of enamel to be a direct challenge to a predominance of technically skillful but essentially vapid work. I also suspect that, in order to subvert what could be considered a restrictive practice, a number of traditionally trained enamellers have intentionally ‘de-skilled’ in order to explore a new aesthetic approach to their work.

I believe the answer to the question posed at the start of this piece ‘is there a place for enamel in contemporary jewellery practice?’ to be a resounding yes but I am curious to hear the views of the wider Klimt02 contemporary jewellery community on the subject. Is technical skill simply a convention to be broken? Is an element of de-skilling the inevitable consequence of the desire to experiment and innovate? What are the particular qualities of enamel that continue to attract jewellers to its use, and most importantly do you consider enamel to be a material of relevance to your practice?

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Jessica Turrell, AHRC Research Fellow - Enamel
University of the West of England, Bristol, UK

*Bennett, J. (2009) In the Midst of Color: Reflections on color’s inescapable presence, essay for Exhibition in Print, Metalsmith Magazine, Vol. 29 No 4, USA

About the author

Jessica Turrell is a jeweller and enamel artist currently undertaking a practice-led research fellowship that investigates the place of enamel in contemporary jewellery practice. The fellowship is based at the Enamel Research unit of the University of the West of England, Bristol.