Pulling molten glass out of a kiln can be a visceral, potentially dangerous experience, reserved for the brave and bold of heart. But for metalsmiths and jewelers working in enameled surfaces, the reward outweighs the risk.
Vitreous enamel is created by fusing fine powdered glass and certain metal surfaces. Through the medium of water, it can be painted onto copper, silver, gold and other alloys. The fine glass particles melt and merge with the metallic surface in a kiln heated to approximately 1,500 degrees. Once cooled, the result is a smooth, glossy or matte, hardened, and often colorfully enameled piece. There are many methods of applying enamel. It likes to be curved and is often applied to slightly domed surfaces to increase the strength of the bond. Artisans experimented with this decorative technique as early as the 13th century B.C.
Local metalsmith Melissa Manley, who earned her Master of Fine Arts in metal design from East Carolina University in 2006, stumbled into the art of enameled jewelry serendipitously.
While completing her degree, Manley spent weeks meticulously soldering two intricately winding copper cups. Out of concern for heavy-metal exposure, Manley sought alternative means to preserve the usefulness of her work. An instructor suggested she enamel the pieces, and sparked a newfound passion.
With an ounce of hesitation, she coated her precious copper cups with enamel, put one in the kiln, and held her breath.
"I pulled it out of the kiln and it was glowing red," she says. "As it cooled off the color began to show." Ocean green and blue hues revealed themselves with each passing second.
"I started blowing on the glass gently because I didn't want to crack it and I suddenly realized it felt like I was blowing life into it," she says. "I thought to myself, 'I don't ever want to stop doing this.' It's like they came alive right in front of me."
Working with enamel is like painting with a palette. By building up layers of opaque enamel, artists bulk up a piece and increase the saturation of the color. With each subsequent layer, the piece must be fused within a kiln. Depending upon technique, some pieces call for 10 to 20 rounds of firing. Manley prefers translucent enamels, which are often applied on top of detailed designs that are still visible beneath the colored fusion of materials. "I like working with etched copper," she says. "I like putting the enamel on and scratching through it and letting the copper show."
With a kiln that doubles as a heater during the fall and winter months, Manley regularly employs her enameling skills from her garage studio to create intricate, one-of-a-kind fine art jewelry. She spreads this knowledge to her art students at Cape Fear Community College, where she has instructed introductory metal-making courses for 10 years. "Showing them the basics is the stuff I like the best," she says. "Getting people turned on to the basics of metalworking is really just super fun. I love the newness of it. I like seeing them discover for the first time the joys of some of these processes."
In an increasingly digital age, many consumers and artisans are cycling back toward a desire to be connected to the source of our material items. Manley counts not only the interest in the enameling of fine jewelry to be on the rise, but also the industry of craftsmanship as a whole. "I think there's an explosion of people wanting to do these crafts themselves and I don't think it's limited to jewelry or metal-making," she says. "It's cross-disciplinary."
Manley regularly takes her fine enameled jewelry to the Wrightsville Beach Farmers Market on Mondays, and the Riverfront Farmers Market in downtown Wilmington on Saturdays. As for the ocean copper cups that solidified her love for the craft, she can't bear to sell them.
Wrightsville Beach residents and visitors may notice her state-inspired necklaces, stick earrings, stamped brass charms or enameled cuffs on the display shelves of Hallelu, a local women's clothing store. Best known for her simplistic, rustic work, Samantha Evans of Reborn Designs sticks to the basics. Tiny, light, and with a little pop of color, her pieces can easily be dressed up or down. "I think it's pretty awesome how you can manipulate enamel in so many different ways," she says. Since completing her degree, also from East Carolina University, Evans has carried on enameling techniques she adopted from the classroom.
"I think I use it in about 50 percent of my work," she says.
Though the results are beautiful, there's an inherent risk in working with enamel. Since artisans are painting with powdered glass and water, fine, toxic particles may release while the enamel is still in its dry state. "Even the stuff that isn't lead-based is still a little toxic, so you have to have it well ventilated and wear a mask," Evans explains.
While in school, Evans had an instructor who suffered from lead poisoning as a result of working closely with enamels. However, lead-based enamels tend to have the brightest and boldest variety of color options. Regardless, she has cemented her distinctive style using mostly milder tones. Much of Evans' work appears to be "rusted" due to a light, sea foam-hued enamel painted onto a copper surface.
"Each piece is so different because of the way you brush it on and the way it decides to fire," she says. "Some spots will reveal the copper underneath and that's the rusty look you see."
A Bold Ambitions
Six years of battling Lyme disease that included being bedridden for two years ignited a fire within Sara Westermark's creative spirit that is just getting started.
"It's like playing," she says. "I completely feel like a kid; I'm giddy."
After many successful years as a metalsmith specializing in setting precious and semiprecious gemstones, Westermark's apparent setback transformed her body of work.
"My whole work has shifted toward enameling, partially because I love the color and I want to celebrate life, and also because I can't set stones as easily as I used to be able to do," she says.
Last year she bought a kiln and invested in tools and materials to bring her ideas to life. A hydraulic press stamps out her designs onto sheets of metal to take the pressure off her hands.
"It feels right," she says. "It feels fun for me."
Conscious of the health risk in working with certain types of enamel, Westermark steers clear of lead-based colors, but still manages to find the most colorful shades she can. Her distinctive rainbow necklace and enameled earrings cover the spectrum.
"When I enamel it, I want it to be on purpose," she says.