Cloisonné is a decorative art used to adorn metal items with enamel, or melted, colored glass. It evolved in the Middle East, then spread throughout the Byzantine Empire and was introduced to China through trade routes in the 14th century. Chinese artisans perfected the technique and are perhaps best known for the art today.
When cloisonné was first introduced to China, bronze and enamel work were already well known and highly developed, so the flourishing of this art form was a natural result. Many of the best and most characteristic examples date from the reign of the Jingtai Emperor (1449-1457) during the Ming Dynasty. Pieces from this period typically make use of a special blue shade of enamel, and the Chinese word for cloisonné is consequently jin-tai-lan, or "Jingtai blue."
The cloisonné process begins with a metal object to be decorated, usually made of bronze. This may be a plate, a vase or urn, a bead or other jewelry, or a similar decorative item. Next, small metal strips called cloisons are soldered onto the base in a pattern to be filled in with enamel. The piece is heated in an oven and cooled in order to permanently affix the strips to the base.
Next, ground, colored glass, or frit, is blended with water and painted into the sections marked off by the cloisons. It is allowed to dry before the entire piece is again fired in an oven. Multiple applications of frit and firings are often necessary to complete a single cloisonné work. Different colors or transparencies of frit may be layered on top of each other to create a desired look. The piece is finished by polishing it smooth. In the modern era, cloisonné works are often electroplated with gold to make the cloisons and other exposed metal areas bright and to prevent corrosion.
Ming Dynasty cloisonné is very valuable and can often be seen in museums, but the art form continues, and pieces can be found in a wide variety of quality and price ranges. Cloisonné beads are often sold at bead stores and can be used to make jewelry, while larger pieces can be found at jewelry shops, at any stores carrying Chinese crafts, or through online vendors. Items made with this decoration are available in nearly any color imaginable, depicting a wide range of patterns and subjects.