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Enamel: Fire in Jewellery

8 November, 2012

Escola Superior de Disseny i Art Llotja

Barcelona is an international reference point in the art and trade of enamelling on metal. Today the city is playing an increasingly important part in the teaching of this ancient technique. Students from around the world come here to learn it first-hand from some of the best teachers and master craftspeople in the world.

In late November, Andreu Vilasís will travel to the Netherlands to give one of the many seminars this famed enamellist has taught around the world over his 45-year career. “We have earned our reputation through hard graft and thanks to the promotional work Andreu has done and which I am now trying to continue with,” says Núria López-Ribalta, the head of the Department of Enamel Art at the Government of Catalonia’s School of Design and Art (Esmalts Artístics de l’Escola Superior de Disseny i Art de la Generalitat de Catalunya). “We have a school with a high degree of professionalism and a well-structured educational programme that has forged our reputation as a leading reference in learning this skill today,” she says.

Cities from around the world with a certain history in enamelling have lost the tradition of teaching it over the past decades. That is why both Mr Vilasís and Ms López-Ribalta say there is a clear rise in demand for professionals trained in this tradition in Catalonia.

Origin and background

Jewellers and watchmakers have found a way to express themselves through the colour and power of fire by drawing on the use of enamel. “Enamelling came back into fashion in jewellery and craftsmanship in precious metals in Catalonia with the rise of art nouveau, where it was developed at the Bells Oficis d’Art art school. This connection with enamelling sparked the interest of a number of artists and many craftsmen, who were drawn to learning it and applying it to their designs,” Mr Vilasís says.

From then on, and as the culmination of the enamelling movement that had revived during the art nouveau period, Andreu Vilasís points to “the case of [the jewellery firm] Masriera, which was the most significant of the movement”. He says, “The House of Masriera, surprised by and admiring of the work of the Frenchman René Lalique, went on to change and revamp its work and fill its shop windows with new creations that were ‘revolutionary’ for the period”. Even today, the Bagués Masriera jewellery firm has an exclusive enamelling workshop that is internationally renowned.

With regard to the fusion of enamel and jewellery, Ms López-Ribalta says, “Enamel has long been used to add colour to jewellery. Today it is being used in newer, less sumptuous forms than we are used to. In other words, it isn’t used so much to replace precious stones but in a more recreational and pictorial fashion. We shouldn’t forget that contemporary high-end jewellery, such as the collections of Bagués Masriera, use burnished enamel as a standard feature. And young jewellery designers use it continuously”.

Pioneers and future

A master in and early teacher of this art, Andreu Vilasís received www.barcelonaesmoda.com in his workshop and studio, a space that is practically without a peer in the world for its combination of techniques and creations. The workshop is home to one of the most important libraries on the art of enamelling and has a good selection of works and pieces signed by the artist. Among kilns of all sizes for developing his creations and dozens of pots of colour that will give light and life to the glass when fired in the kiln, Mr Vilasís reflects on the years he has spent teaching the technique and the growing importance Barcelona is acquiring in this field.

Mr Vilasís has been the director of the Llotja School for 10 years and in the 1970s was asked to create a modern and comprehensive study programme. During that time, he systematised all of the knowledge he had acquired firstly in the Massana School and then later at the Llotja School itself, as well as what he has gleaned from his constant need for self-learning and experimentation. “The progressive disappearance of the teaching of enamelling as a speciality subject within art has made the Llotja School a focus of international attention,” he says.

“It is a trade that is now taking off again,” Ms López-Ribalta adds. “For example, Geneva, famous for its position at the heart of jewellery and watch-making, today sends young professionals over here to train,” she notes with satisfaction. “They are even thinking of setting up a school over there again!”

This year, the course run by Ms López-Ribalta, a former student and excellent exponent of Andreu Vilasís’s teachings, includes students from the Ukraine, Switzerland, Russia, the US and Germany. She is also preparing an exchange programme with France and has recently received requests from Greece, Poland and Lithuania, which, she says, “might have to wait until next year”. Núria López-Ribalta says that one of the keys to the success of the Llotja School is the enthusiasm and passion the students feel for their work and which they go on convey to their own apprentices. “Plus our graduates are continually heading abroad to teach their skills and pass on what they have learnt here,” she says.

The power of fire

“I am extremely interested in colour, and enamelling is possibly the technique by which we can most forcefully express ourselves,” says Núria López-Ribalta, who has a doctorate in Fine Arts from the University of Barcelona. “Glass is an explosion of colour which when fused onto metal allows me to express myself visually – my other big passion – both on a piece of jewellery and on a board. Plus, there is a touch of mystery about arts in which fire is involved that you can’t help falling in love with,” she exclaims with passion.

Passion is something that her former teacher Andreu Vilasís also exudes when he talks about the work to which he has devoted his life. “Fire-based arts are full of mystery and revelation. The art of dominating the element of fire – with firing processes at 900°C – is not just essential but intuitive, capricious and unpredictable. Sometimes it’s your friend, but other times it can be an enemy to the results you want,” he says.

Fostering new talent

Aware of the importance of continuing to promote the up-and-coming talent that Barcelona attracts and to make their work better known, Mr Vilasís and Ms López-Ribalta, as members of the Enamel Art Centre of Information and Dissemination ( Centre d’Informació i Difusió de l’Art de l’Esmalt),  promote the annual “Emison” awards together with the kiln company after which the awards are named. The selected works and the winner of this year’s awards, the seventh of its kind, will be on show from at the “La Bòblia” Cultural Centre in Hospitalet (Centre Cultural “La Bòbila” de L’Hospitalet) from 30 October to 23 November.

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