The French town of Longwy, in the region of Lorraine near the Belgian border, is home to a unique tradition of laying enameled colors–cloisonné–on top of ceramic vessels.
A Unique Technique
The French term cloisonné literally means “compartmentalized,” referring to discrete sections of rich color. We usually think of cloisonné as a jewelry-maker’s technique; a jeweler creates a “skeleton” using bronze, gold, or silver strips or wires, then fills each compartment with molten enamel to achieve bright colors and a bold design in pendants, beads, and other pieces. However, the technique is also used in ceramics, especially in Asia, where it originated. So how did this laborious Asian technique of cloisonné ceramics make its way to this sleepy French town?
In the late 1700s, the popularity and commercial success of Asian ceramics inspired ceramicists in Longwy to achieve this technical feat. In 1798, Charles Régnier founded a faïencerie, or establishment for making faience, in Longwy-Bas, the lower part of town. By the 1820s, artisans were creating the beautiful saturated enamels, including a full range of blues from royal to turquoise, and the now-characteristic bleu de Longwy. It’s this distinctive color–not quite turquoise–as well as the finely crackled effect of the enamel across the surface, that distinguishes Longwy enamels, or émaux de Longwy.
Musée des émaux Longwy
The faïencerie experimented with an enamel technique of applying a white, opaque glaze that allowed them to carve designs in relief on the surface of a vessel, imitating cloisonné compartments separated by metal. By the end of the 1800s, they had refined the technique by creating carved relief and at the same time imparting a slick, reflective quality to the entire surface. The pieces underwent several firings in the kiln, as well as an extensive finishing process.
Only a handful of ceramicists carry on the particular tradition of Longwy enamels today. You may be surprised at the steep prices of these pieces–often several hundred Euro for a plate or a vase–which is the result of the intensive labor involved in producing these beautiful wares.
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