Cloisonne Glossary

Here is a selection of vocabulary terms: in English, French, Chinese and Japanese, often used in the description of Oriental cloisonne items.

AKASUKE: red Japanese translucent enamel also called ‘pigeon blood’.

ATTRIBUTED: unsigned or marked piece of cloisonne which is most likely the product of a specific craftsman due to a high level of positive comparison. The examples here, a pair of signed bottles made by Namikawa Yasuyuki of Kyoto and an unsigned tray with very similar enamel colors, design and motifs.

BALUSTER: shape term usually applied to a vase; meaning the shape of an elaborate carved railing post, with a wide rounded area at mid-body.

BASE TAILLE: is a term used for Japanese cloisonne, French meaning ‘low waisted’, used to describe low relief areas, such as a metal base that has been carved or repousse then has been enameled with smooth clear enamel colors, letting the low relief design show through.

BROCADE: term used in reference to the elaborate Japanese cloisonne decorations, influenced by their textile designs.

BRONZE: is an alloy of copper and tin, is more easily melted and cast and less susceptible to corrosion. Manganese can be added with zinc. Brass on the other hand is an alloy of copper and zinc, a tougher yellow metal.

CENSER: small round vessel with lid and openings or no lid, used to burn incense or other fragrant substance.

CHAMPLEVE: is very similar to cloisonne; also a French word that means ‘raised areas’. The difference is the metal base has been carved, pressed, or modified to hold enamel applications, in the cavities created. The end result looks a lot like cloisonne; but cruder.

CHAIRE: or cha-ire; a Japanese term describing a small tea caddy. These are usually colorful ceramic, with wood lids or ivory lids. I have seen very few cloisonne chaires.

CHARGER: a large round dish or plate, usually wider and deeper than a dinner plate, at least 11 inches in diameter. Meant as a decorative object, a card tray, or for other gentle use.

CLOISONNE: cloisonne is another French term describing the art of applying metal enclosures to a hard surface, usually depicting a design. These enclosures are glued to the base then filled with various colored enamels. These enamels are fine ground glass mixtures that are fired at very high temperatures in special kilns; which allows them to melt, and then cool into a hard enamel surface. The filling and firing process is repeated till the correct level of enamel surface is reached. Then the whole body is polished by various methods, bringing the metal cloisons and the contained enamels at an even surface level. There are other types of cloisonne applications that vary from this basic process.

CONSOLE: is the long flat narrow surface above a fireplace, can also define a decorative arrangement designed for that particular space.

COUNTER-ENAMEL: This is the enamel covering the interior surface of a piece of cloisonne. This application is to reinforce the metal, that is usually a thin copper molded sheet. Due to the high firing levels needed to melt the glass flux enamels, the metal base tends to warp, if not heavy and thick, or covered with another layer of enamel on the inside.

DIAPER: term used in cloisonne to describe the type of cloison wire pattern used on the background: such as T-fret, scroll, wave or cloud diaper.

EDO: Japanese imperial period dating from 1615 to 1868. Edo describes the name of the reign of that period but is not the name of the emperor who ruled. This was the last era where shoguns and samurai were in existence in Japan. The last shogun was Tokugawa, who died in 1858.

ELEVATED WIRES: This type of cloisonne was initiated by the Imperial Chinese workshop in Peking. A rare form of cloisonne where the metal wires have a rounded surface and are gilded, and the enamels the cloisons contain is left at a lower level on the vessel. This would make the last steps of polishing and smoothing out the enamel surface much more difficult and time consuming. The picture included is from a Japanese cloisonne vase.

FINIAL: Implement added to a lid to lift it. Cloisonne finials can be in many forms; Japanese finials are usually floral in brass or silver; Chinese are either plain pointed brass pieces; or rounded cloisonne; or bronze figurals such as foo-dogs.

FLORAL-SEASONAL: Flora or flowers and foliage were always an extremely important subject for Asiatic decorative pieces. These motifs were used in all art forms and craft products of China and Japan. They have religious connotations and also cultural ones. Japan especially approaches motifs on a seasonal basis, you will often see an object completely designed with one season in mind. They used the same easthetic on their kimono decorations, on lacquerware and so on. In this instance a beautiful pair of summer motif vases, that we call a story pair, because they are compatible in all aspects, yet each central decoration is completely different, with various large insects and flowers.

FOO DOG: the story behind the Chinese Foo Dog, a mythological figure that mixes traits from the ferocious African Lion and the precious Chinese Pekinese; was created to portray the intimidating Chinese guardian of temples and palaces. Some gigantic cloisonne foo dogs are displayed in museums, they date to the early Qing era, about 1700.

As more recent exports we see them in pairs, a male and female, male usually resting a paw on a large ball. These are usually large ceramic; and sometimes miniature enamel goldplated filigree figurines, as shown here. You will find the Japanese term for foo dog, shi-shi, often used when describing their motif of the same Chinese figure on their cloisonne objects.

GARNITURE: Is a French word that means ‘decorated or enhanced’. Term used to describe the display of items on a mantelpiece. These were especially elaborate and detailed during the Victorian rococo period.

GILT: describes the finish of a metal surface with a gold wash; used on bronze, brass or copper. When used on sterling silver it is called vermeil. The gold application prevents tarnishing over time, care should be taken when cleaning a cloisonne piece since this fine gold layer can be easily removed. Usually used by Chinese cloisonne craftsmen, but rarely done by the Japanese, unless the cloisonne was of higher quality.

GINBARI: is a Japanese term and type of cloisonne enamel decoration, with clear enamel over a stippled silver layer applied to the copper sheet body.

GOLDSTONE: Popular Japanese semi-translucent brown enamel used in cloisonne, with silver of copper particles or dust imbedded in the enamel. It gives a brilliant 3 dimentional effect to the piece of cloisonne.

HAIR RECEIVER: a Victorian and Edwardian lady’s dressing room implement. A round box with a large opening in the lid, used to store hair after brushing. The hair would then be collected and kept to create matching hair pieces, to be worn for special occasions.

HO-BIRD: important symbolic figure of Oriental origin, sometimes called bird of paradise, with long colorful tail feathers. The bird represents the female form, in balance with the dragon who represents the male. Used in both Japanese and Chinese cloisonne.

JIPPO, SHIPPO, SHIP-PO: Various forms of the cloisonne word in Japanese. Also has an additional meaning referring to the seven treasures of the Buddhist sutra: these 7 elements vary somewhat over time. One combination is: agate, emerald, coral, crystal, gold, pearl and silver.

KIRI NO MON – JAPANESE EMPRESS CREST: Japanese symbol representing the Imperial family, this one specifically for the Empress. Box shows various styles of the paulownia flower and leaves. Strickly used on cloisonne commissionned for the Imperial household or produced a gifts for the Empress by the few masters of Japanese cloisonne allowed this great honor.

KIKU NO MON – JAPANESE EMPEROR’s CREST: Japanese crest or mon used for the Imperial Japanese family, strictly for the emperor’s use. Represents the chrysantemum flower with 16 petals, never used for any other purpose in Japan. Cloisonne pieces with this symbol were commissionned by the Emperor or produced as a gift for his household. Only the few masters of Japanese cloisonne were allowed this great honor.

KYOTO SHIPPO: Japanese term for a style of standard cloisonne, influenced by Namikawa Yasuyuki’s traditional approach. The motifs are usually elaborate, with brocades, mons, and a background cloison pattern of tight scrolls. Wires are often gilded, an exception to the usual Japanese unfinished metal wires from that period.

MACHINE-MADE: or manufactured by industrial assembly line. Here I have 2 Chinese cloisonne napkin rings, the left hand made and older, the right machine-made and very recent. You will notice the right one is bright, perfect and the motifs are symmetrical without any flaws, with a surface that is very smooth and clean. The left ring, is hand-made, has smaller detail and more varied decorations as you turn it, you will find 4 different kinds of flowers represented, the surface is dull, the wires dark and patinated. The more valuable? the older one.

MEIJI: This is a Japanese Imperial era or period that dates from 1868 to 1912; the span of the reign of the Meiji emperor. He was strictly a revered figure-head, the real power during this time in Japan was an oligarky. A group of powerful, wealthy and influential military, financial and gentry figures.

The Japanese monarchy was based on bloodlines, but the children produced were not from a marriage in the Western sense of the word. Monarchs had many concubines or ladies in waiting, who bore them children. There was one consort, or wife.

The Meiji period was the first one during which the old order of the shogun and samurai were outlawed.

MEIPING: is another vase shape, a Chinese term and form, with an elegant elongated body with a large rounded upper shoulder area and a small mouth opening at the top rim.

MING: is a Chinese dynasty that lasted from 1363 to 1644, and was followed by the Qing dynasty. Dynastys in China were an era where rulers from the same family became emperors. Ming is also used to describe a Chinese style, or signature, not always of the period. The Chinese view of reproducing a piece and attributing it to a previous dynasty was not viewed as fraudulent but as a form of appreciation and recognition of that period’s artistic achievements.

MIXED CLOISONNE TYPES: this is my favorite kind of Japanese cloisonne and I had to add an example to this glossary. As you can see on this vase, the top and bottom bands are intricate opaque designs with muted colors. The central area is translucent with a textured surface, applied to this is relief cloisonne, a floral opaque design, that stands out from the clear and dark blue ground.

MIXED WIRES: another Japanese innovation with various types of metallic wires, copper, brass and silver, in different widths and applied in a twisted fashion or flat to a cloisonne vessel. When the piece is very aged, all the metals cloisons acquire a dark patina, making it very difficult to see these variances unless the piece is cleaned and polished.

MORIAGE: just like the moriage ceramic decorations, Japanese cloisonne displays elevated areas of enamel motifs, usually floral on plain wireless ground, here a large carp with rounded body.

OPAQUE: this is a type of enamel that is not translucent, and completely dense with color. Most Chinese cloisonne are made with opaque enamels.

OPEN-WORK: cloisonne surface with open spaces, and a few areas filled with enamel, highlighting the motifs. These were initiated by Eastern European designs and motifs, as represented here by a Russian sterling vase. As well as, the Japanese items below, from the same period on a gilt copper metal surface.

OXIDIZED: encrustation of metal surface over time from moisture, air and dirt. This sometimes appears as a black elevated wire when it is merely a deposit that can be removed with a baking soda and water paste. Some collectors would rather keep this layer to prove the authentic age of their cloisonne pieces. Others would rather polish to original luster.

Personally I clean it once to find out what metals were used and then leave it to accumulate a new patina over time. Chinese cloisonne is less likely to have this problem as the metals were usually finished with a gold wash.

PLIQUE-A-JOUR: type of Japanese cloisonne, also produced by the Chinese for export. A French term meaning ‘see through’. Translucent enamels are applied to wire cloisons, then the metal base is removed before firing, creating a fragile stained glass effect.

QING: Chinese imperial era dating from 1644 to 1912. Qing represents members from the same family line, becoming monarchs or Emperors of China. The Qing dynasty was an eventful one, which also saw the increasing importance of trade and exports of goods with western countries.

RELIEF SURFACE: Cloisonne type with enamels applied at different elevations within the cloisons, a style influenced by European designs.

RUYIE: Chinese word used to refer to a two foot long ancient Imperial Chinese scepter or staff which was held up in one hand by the sovereign, the flat top is designed in the form of a fungus or mushroom, a mystical and powerful symbol. Ruyie cloisonne borders are a variation of this shape repeated in a band, along the upper rim of vases or jars.

SCULPTED WIRE: rare and difficult execution of Japanese cloisonne, using wires of different sizes, widths and shape to emphasize the decorations. Usually achieved by master craftsmen with pure silver wires, silver rims, on a silver metal base vase. Dating 1900-1910.

STANDARD CLOISONNE (YUSEN-JIPPO): the most common type of cloisonne, typically all Chinese cloisonne items are made in this style, and many Japanese pieces as well.

SULPHURIC ACID WIRE REMOVAL: a specialized procedure to remove cloisonne metal wires forming an enamel design AFTER firing, often used by the ANDO Company, leaving a hammered plain copper background, with etched cavities around the motif outline.

TEA DUST: an enamel first used by Namikawa Yasuyuki in 1875 or so, he used mustard yellow enamel backgrounds mostly for this innovation, it is a speckled opaque enamel with tiny black particles or fine dust texture.

TOMOBAKO: lined wood box, or container that houses the Japanese cloisonne piece. It is meant to protect and store the object. It is custom made, but not sturdy or heavy. It usually bears markings of the maker, studio, or the retailer. Labels are sometimes attached to the box, or inserted inside with the cloisonne, helping with their identification.

TOTAI: is the Japanese word for the cloisonne wire application to a ceramic form, created in 1885 or so. It became evident the ceramic base did not react well to the very high firing in a kiln, and became fragile and brittle.

TREE BARK: another type of Japanese cloisonne applied to a ceramic body, but with a brown textured bark like background.

TSUIKI: Japanese word for a cloisonne style that does not display wires, the motifs and decorations are created using repousse methods and etching under the translucent enamels to add even more texture and effect. Rare form, usually on a solid silver base, valuable and produced by the few masters. Referred to by experts and collectors as Japanese cloisonne, but in reality since no wires are used, it should be called repousse enamelware.

WIRELESS (MUSEN-JIPPO): a cloisonne style where the wires have been removed from the enamel applications before firing. The effect is similar to a painting, with no separation between colors. The Japanese, specifically Namikawa Sosuke invented this type of cloisonne in 1893, won many prizes, nationally and internationally for this beautiful innovation.