The technique that I specialize in is Champlévé, (this is a French term meaning “raised fields”). Enameled objects date back to the early part of the first millennium and were found throughout the ancient world. In the champlevé technique, recessed areas are created for the enamel, either by construction, casting, etching, or engraving.
The transparent enamels I work with are imported from Austria, Japan and France. These vitreous enamels are specifically designed to tolerate the rapid changes in temperature that occur when a piece is fired, going from room temperature to 1600 degrees in a matter of seconds. The enamels fuse to the metal in a similar way that a glaze fused to a pot.
I begin my process by transferring my design onto tissue paper which I glue to a thin sheet of sterling silver. Areas to be enameled are cut out of the interior of the silver sheet. This pierced sheet is then sweat soldered to a backing sheet, also of sterling silver. The outside edges of the piece are cut to the specifications of the design and accent pieces of 18k gold are soldered into place. The piece is heated and quenched in acid several times to raise a layer of fine silver to the surface which is more compatible with enameling. I like working with sterling because it is not overly soft, but the enamel must not come into contact with some of the metals used in the alloy.
The enamel to be inlaid has been ground to the consistency of fine sand, washed and mixed with water. A thin layer of clear enamel is applied first, using a tiny watercolor brush. Tiny pieces of 24k Gold and/or Fine Silver foil are cut to fit and fired into place. The light that is reflected off the crinkled surfaces of the foil shining from behind the enamel create the effect of mysterious and luminous windows of muted color. As many as thirty firings of colored transparent enamel may be required. Firing time is critical because the melting point of silver is 1640 degrees, and the enamel fuses at 1550 degrees. The average time a piece is in the kiln is 40-60 seconds, with only an 8 second leeway between the enamel being fired to maturity, and the underlying metal beginning to break down and melt. When the firings are complete, the enamel is then ground down flat with the surface of the metal. At this point the piece is re-fired to heal the scratches created by the grinding process and the enamel emerges from the kiln with a smooth and glossy surface. The final soldering, such as pin backings or earring posts is done at this time. In my work I prefer a matte finish on the enamel, and achieve this either by immersion in an acid solution, or in the case of the one of a kind pieces, with hand-sanding.
Finally, the Silver is oxidized to a steely gray color by dipping it into a malodorous solution of Liver of Sulfur. I then rub the surface with pumice or steel wool to burnish it to a soft glow.