Chinese Cloisonne

Chinese cloisonné was strictly of the enameled variety (the other, and original, variety used small, worked precious stone pieces that were held in place by the soldered metal strip that was snuggled around the stone's base, similar to the way that modern-day jewels are held in their settings), and as such was most certainly an imported craft. The earliest cloisonné seems to have originated in Egypt around BC1800. The earliest cloisonné was, as indicated, small pieces of precious stone that were set onto a copper base onto which brass strips, standing edgewise, had been soldered, creating small enclosures, or cloisons, in French. The brass enclosures were intended to be seen, in much the same way that the lead "enclosures" of stained-glass windows were intended to be seen.

In time, artisans developed a powdered stone material that could be filled into the enclosures, then fired, producing a flat, smooth surface, and this of course made it possible to create entire mosaics of varying colors. Later still, during the 8th century, Byzantine cloisonné craftsmen began to use fine copper wire, or filigree, and this paved the way for the most delicate, most detailed cloisonné work. Cloisonné of the type produced in China, i.e., made by firing powered stone material into a durable enamel, was often referred to as "enamelware".

It is widely accepted that the most exquisite enamelware ever produced stemmed from China, which is claimed by some to have produced its first enamelware during the Yuan (1279-1368) Dynasty, though the earliest historically established (carbon dated) exemplar of Chinese cloisonné stems from the Ming (1368-1644) Dynasty reign (1425-35) of Emperor Xuande. However, the enamelware of this period exhibits such refined technique that it suggests years of prior experience, which lends credence to the claim regarding the Yuan Dynasty origin of enamelware in China. Moreover, cloisonné was described in the book, Ge gu yao lun ("Essential Criteria of Antiquities"), published in 1388 by Cao Zhao, where it was referred to as dashi ("Muslim") ware, perhaps a reference to the fact that cloisonné originated in Egypt, which, by then, was a Muslim country.

Chinese cloisonné had long since become a Silk Road commodity (traveling to China initially, then later from China to India, the Middle East and Europe) by the time of the Ming Dynasty reign (1449-1457) of Emperor Zhu Qiyu, more commonly known as the Jingtai Emperor, the period during which Chinese cloisonné became most famous.

There is a story, not lacking in plausibility, that suggests that after the fall of the Byzantine Empire, i.e., after the fall of Constantinople, the "goldsmiths" of the city, not being able to flee toward western Europe as they would have run directly into the unwelcoming arms of the city's besiegers (i.e., the Turks under the command of Mehmet II), fled instead eastward along the Silk Road route and ended up in China, where they – of course! – made "enamelware"!!

Note that Constantinople fell in 1453, and China's best enamelware, known as jingtailan ("Jingtai blue ware"), a reference to the reigning Jingtai Emperor and the fact that blue was apparently the favorite cloissonné color in China at the time (not the favorite handicraft color, nor the favorite color of the court of Emperor Jingtai, just the favorite cloissonné color, for some unexplained reason), was produced some time between 1449-1457.

Though this timeline is "cutting it close", as they say in English, it is not impossible that Byzantine "goldsmiths" (if they were Jews, then they would have had even more reason not to hang around Constantinople after Muslim invaders, under the command of Mehmet II, entered the city) who fled Constantinople in 1453 were already producing enamelware in Beijing by 1457. One other small clue that makes the story even more plausible, though it is never mentioned in this connection, is that the color blue was a favorite Byzantine color. In fact, blue was (is!) also a favorite Greek color, and Constantine himself, who is otherwise said to have been quite partial to the color purple, was a Greek.

Though the Jingtai period of the Ming Dynasty is believed by connoisseurs of cloisonné to have been China's – and the world's – best enamel cloisonné, later Chinese dynasties produced cloisonné that won international acclaim. For example, during the reign (1735-1796) of Emperor Qianlong of the Qing ( 1644-1911) Dynasty, Chinese cloisonné enjoyed much fame at home and abroad, winning first prize at the Chicago World's Fair in 1893. Later, in 1915, during the early years of the Republic of China, Chinese cloisonné again won first prize at an international event, this time at the Panama World’s Fair.