Professional Jeweler Archive: Enameling Explained

August 2001

From the Vault

Enameling Explained

Two techniques create different effects

Everyone makes mistakes. As embarrassing as they may be, however, we can all learn something from them. In the March 2001 From the Vault, “Guilloché Enameled Luxuries,” the text describes the popularity of guilloché enameling in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and is illustrated by a lovely little enameled gold watch. Unfortunately, the watch pictured doesn’t match the description because it is decorated with basse taille enamel, not guilloché enamel.

This error provides the perfect chance to point out the difference between the two enameling techniques. Guilloché enameling is a form of basse taille, but not all basse taille enameling is guilloché. Basse taille and guilloché enameling are engraved metal covered with translucent enamel that allows the pattern to show through. The difference is in the way the engraving is done. Basse taille work is engraved by hand while guilloché work is machine-engraved using an engine-turning lathe, or tour a guilloche.

Similarities and Differences

Basse taille enameling is thought to have originated in Italy in the early 14th century. The technique spread throughout Europe, becoming particularly popular in the 19th century. Although machine-engraved metal dates from the 1500s, the technique of combining guilloché engraving with enameling has a much more recent history. Originating with Carl Fabergé in the late 19th century, it was quickly picked up by such major jewelry establishments as Cartier and Boucheron.

Guilloché engraving is extremely regular and precise, predominantly in radiating patterns of sunburst and rosette design or linear patterns such as moiré silk and wave design. In contrast, the basse taille technique of engraving by hand is more versatile – more organic forms can be created using this method.

Between 1880 and 1915, basse taille and guilloché enameling were both frequently used to decorate jeweled accessories, women’s watches in particular. Shown here are two examples for comparison. The lapel watch on the left is an example of basse taille enameling – its enameled leaves and flowers could only have been engraved by hand.

The guilloché pendant watch below is embellished with delicate diamond-set platinum garlands. Although the garlands cover much of the watch’s surface, it’s still possible to detect the machine engraved moiré silk pattern through the coating of dark blue enamel that identifies this piece as guilloché.

– by Elise B. Misiorowski

Photos by Robert Weldon

The lapel watch is an example of basse taille enameling, Watch courtesy of S.H. Silver Co., Menlo Park, CA; (650) 325-9500, fax (650) 325-9518. Photo by Robert Weldon.

In the pendant watch, the moiré silk pattern created by guilloché enameling can be seen in detail in the inset. Watch courtesy of the Neil Lane Collection, Beverly Hills, CA; (310) 275-5015, fax (310) 275-1397. Photo by Robert Weldon.

Copyright © 2001 by Bond Communications