Japanese Cloisonne History

Photo courtesy of Bonhams

Japan was isolated by choice for 2 centuries (1650-1850), it’s closed borders allowed only a few ports for trading or emigration with China and Korea. This practice was meant to keep out the aggressive religious influences, pushy international traders, and ensuing political and commercial upheavals. There was some cloisonne usage and production by the Hirata family during those years. These pieces were small decorative panels applied to sword guards, small mirrors, and furniture implements.

After Commodore Perry’s American fleet attacked the Capital city during the late EDO period, the ensuing negotiations with the last SHOGUN Tokugawa, lifted those restrictions. From 1854, Japan had to agree to modernize and adopt many Western innovations, as well as become an important trading partner with Europe and America.

This was in direct competition with China, a well established and much bigger and experienced exporter of goods. Huge changes were promoted very quickly. Within two decades, Japan managed to become a major participant in the Orientalia export business. The Meiji Emperor actively encouraged these efforts, by honoring many proud Japanese businessmen and artisans.

Japan began to participate in International exhibitions, bringing cloisonne to the Paris, France exhibition of 1867, where their representatives displayed their first pieces, as well as traditional, long-standing Japanese art forms: mixed metal decorative pieces, lacquer, pottery, woodblock prints, bronzes and fine textiles.

They brought home utilitarian and decorative European items: fancy porcelain dinnerware, rococo silver-plate, art glass, champleve enamelware, and many other Victorian favorites.

The newly viewed Japanese arts with their unique aesthetic sense had a tremendous impact on Europe during the 1880s. The era of Japonism was born, where all things Japanese were trendy. This influenced and affected many areas of commercial goods and designs. For example: France experienced a great revival of its enamel and metal-ware industry.

The new Japanese cloisonne decorative item manufacture center was in the Nagoya area. Where, the first attempts to make cloisonne in 1835, by Kaji T., a samurai, were replicas of the Chinese cloisonne of the Ming dynasty, which he admired. By the 1850s, Kaji, his son Kaji S. and students were in the forefront of what Coben and Ferster call the Japanese Cloisonne Renaissance. They were instrumental in the training and promotion of Japanese cloisonne production, before it became of national interest. Motifs were a blend of Chinese influence, Japanese artistry and other countries renditions.

The village of Toshima, near Nagoya was eventually called SHIPPO-MURA (or Cloisonne Village), where the cloisonne ware industry started in 1855, with mass-produced small cloisonne items made in multiple workshops. Some of these cloisonne items are the dark mat enamel colored pieces we often see, with hand applied cloisons, and no marks. They continued production till 1905 or so, varying their output, by absorbing some of the innovations the mastercraftmen were inventing in Nagoya, Kyoto and Tokyo.

Some individual craftsmen emerged as master cloisonne innovators and artisans with their own reputable studios. Japanese cloisonne of the Meiji period, from 1877 to 1912 became the most sought after ever, enjoying a golden era lasting close to 40 years.

Their clients were the wealthy, wordly and appreciative collectors. Japan became a destination during the late Victorian grand tour era of 1890-1900, with many established cloisonne studios creating shops for these special tourists.

According to some United Kingdom Museums, a few British collectors were under the impression that what they were purchasing were antiques, not realising that the Japanese cloisonne trade was brand new, compared to the rest of the world. This impression was fed by the extremely high prices of the creations, of masters such as Namikawa Sosuke and Namikawa Yasuyuki.


From 1880 to 1937: China continued it’s mass-production to the West, with many of their villages and towns involved in the process of making cloisonne items, keeping quality amateurish and primitive, using similar types of enamel motif decorations, applied to similar copper bodies: for the export of boxes, vases, jars, bowls, trays, dinnerware and table accessories, etc.

The American McKinley tariff law of 1897, demanded that each imported piece of cloisonne be marked with the name of the country of origin. This is when you notice the impressed CHINA marks on metal bases, and the hand painted enamel china on enamel bases of cloisonne objects. Flimsy paper labels started to be used as well.

The imperial cloisonne workshop in Beijing was closed in the late Qing era, one cloisonne craftsman stands out during this period LAO TIAN LI. He had his own studio in Beijing and apparently hired the experienced cloisonne craftsmen no longer employed at the palace compound.

His trade was focused on the visiting tourists. He also participated in some International Exhibitions, such as in San Francisco in 1915. His wares are signed and displayed traditional Chinese motifs with excellent workmanship and quality.

A few Chinese cloisonne masterpieces were exported during the late 19th century and early 20th century. These fine unique renditions, created by very talented cloisonne craftsmen, were produced without any national recognition or appreciation at the time.

By the 1930s, cloisonne had lost most of it’s clientele, the world was in a deep economical depression. Many Japanese studios were closed, leaving ANDO, INABA, Tamura, and a few others. The military influence in Japan also affected export production by rationning many of the basic elements necessary, these were needed to build heavy war equipment. China continued it’s production on a much smaller scale, then northern China and many port cities were invaded by Japan in 1937, after many years of military incidents, disrupting most of their export commerce till after the end of the Pacific war in 1945.


After World War II: the industrial manufacturing process finally affected cloisonne production in the Far East, machine-made Oriental cloisonne was born. By the mid-fifties, we see a short spurt of very modern cloisonne designs coming out of China and Japan, with pieces influenced by Europe’s famous Picasso abstract art and the American Eames era.

From the 1960s we see a resumption of the traditional cloisonne wares, but with fewer variations in motifs and decorations, sparser patterns and applications.

As of now, with the advent of internet selling, China has renewed it’s vigorous cloisonne exportation. The quality has greatly suffered, in fact, hardly recognizable, when compared to their antique pieces.

Japan has been able to maintain a few cloisonne companies after the new millennium, with the same predictable results. They mostly produce wireless, machine-made trays, and the familiar translucent, applied floral decorative items.

I fear handcrafted cloisonne is a thing of the past; a similar fate to many other valued, time consuming decorative art forms. Treasure those old cloisonne pieces you have, they will become harder and harder to find. There are so many pieces I wish I had kept, bought and sold when I expected a fine unending supply.