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     The history of Oriental cloisonne and the production of it's 'free standing' objects is a surprising one. The art of cloisonne was commonly used during medieval times in most of Europe, England, the Middle-East, and the near East, on small accessories and jewelry. In fact this era coincided with the use of stained glass windows in Christian churches, and the understanding of how glass could be transformed, colored and shaped for many uses.

     For cloisonne, glass flux was fired in metal cloisons, meant to reproduce the jewelled effect of precious stones in their primitive straight settings. Many cloisonne body ornaments have been found in tombs dating B.C.  Today, international museums are displaying examples of Byzantine, Celtic, Persian, Egyptian, Slav, Greek, Islamic and Russian cloisonne pieces, from the B.C. and A.D. periods.


     By the early 15th century, with the strong trade going to the Far East from the Near-East along the silk-route from Europe, Persia and India, cloisonne objects and other artistic crafts found their way to China and Japan. Cloisonne was adopted and became a refined and appreciated decorative medium, by the MING Dynasty emperors (1368-1644), and continued to be promoted and selectively produced from then on.

     Colors were limited with turquoise blue the most prominently used, mainly as a background. At that time cloisonne became know as JINGTAI LAN, 'the blue of the Jingtai era'. The Jingtai emperor reigned during the Ming dynasty, for the years 1450-1457. Enamels were soldered to heavy cast bronze bodies, and the wire cloisons were thick bronze.

     Many extremely large items were commissioned by the emperors for gifts to the Buddhist temples and their altars, as well as decorative pieces for the huge Chinese palaces. An Imperial workshop was dedicated to cloisonne production on the palace grounds in Beijing.

     Enamel colors evolved over time, with more shades available, such as cobalt blue, dull brick red, dark green, light green, white, yellow, navy, purple and black. Enamel powders: glass flux and chemical compounds were mixed right in the cloison before firing the object in a kiln, giving an uneven speckled effect in some instances, such as 'Ming pink', the red and white enamel combination. Motifs were: stylized lotus scrolls, dragons, foo dogs, leaf and wave borders, animals, birds, flowers, with Buddhist and Taoist symbols. Enamels were left unpolished, and metal surfaces were gilded as a finishing touch. The Qianlong reign was the most influential for all the arts in China, including cloisonne. Most experts agree that the late 18th century was the apogy of Chinese cloisonne with its exceptional cloisonne renditions.

history-images/chineseicechestVA.jpg (with permission, Victoria and Albert Museum)

     During the end of the Qing Dynasty era of the 19th century, 1850-1911, smaller decorative items became popular, strongly encouraged by the many shipping trading partners from the West.

     Especially after the Opium Wars and Europe got a taste for this delightful metalware, after their monarchs displayed their acquisitions from the Chinese summer palace. Cloisonne pieces joined the mass produced export wares, for the clamoring European and American markets. The wealthy industrial period of the early Victorian years created a new middle-class, hungry for decorative objects of every sort. 

Drawing from a 1867 Fair Catalogue booklet displaying a Chinese Cloisonne Vase (note the animal handle design used by Japan in early 20th century export enamelware)

     The bodies were now made with lightweight copper or white metal, more pliable and cheaper. Additional enamel colors were created by the 1870s, about the same time the German chemist Von Wagner improved the firing and enameling process in Japan.


     It should be understood that for centuries, China had a long and very strong exporting trade business, to the East and West, and cloisonne was only a small portion of these exports. China was more focused on it's lucrative tea, porcelain,  and textiles exports, to name a few.

     There were many instances in their mutual histories, when wars, internal or external caused a disruption in production of ceramics and cloisonne. High seas traders, had no problem switching from one country to the other for their goods.


     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.

japan1850to1900/1967nagoyacharger.jpg (with permission, Victoria and Albert Museum)

     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 came home with knowledge and inspiration from the Victorian decorative European items: fancy porcelain dinnerware, rococo silver-plate, art glass, champleve enamelware, and many other 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 with a personal affinity for antique Chinese cloisonne of the Ming dynasty, who was eventually supported financially by his lord or daimo. By the 1850s, Kaji, his son Kaji S. and their students were in the forefront of what Coben and Ferster call the Japanese Cloisonne Renaissance. They were instrumental in the training and promotion of the Japanese cloisonne craft, 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. This business continued till 1905 or so, varying their output, as they absorbed some of the innovations the mastercraftmen were producing 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.

history-images/yasuyukivaseva.jpg  (with permission, Victoria and Albert Museum)

     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 adding 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.


According to the most recent reference material, there is little evidence that either Chinese or Japanese decorative cloisonne exports were made before the mid-19th century.

This would make sense as Japan did not start trade on an Internaltion basis till they were forced to, by end of 1850s, new cloisonne decorative pieces were incorporated in their selection of goods by the late 1860s. China on the other was pressured to increase their imports by England and France as there was a large deficit between export and import profits, an unbalance that favored the Chinese financially.

This state of affairs caused the Opium Wars, China's loss in this conflict, gave the winning European forces all the powers and advantages they needed to improve their trade's benefits. As an ironic consequence, the craft of Chinese cloisonne was discovered by the French and British population folllowing the looting of the Chinese summer palaces by foreign troops and large elaborate examples of Chinese cloisonne were brought back and put on display in museums and public venues in Paris and London.

I am including three pages from the New York Harper's Magazine dating 1879 to show what the consensus was at the time regarding Oriental cloisonne pieces. The images are also very informative as they date the style and design of Chinese and Japanese cloisonne items available on the market in 1879 and before. (There are a few errors in the text. No source of information was identified.)






     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, since the world was in a deep economical depression. Many Japanese studios were closed, leaving ANDO, INABA, Tamura, and a few others. The military influences in Japan also affected export production by rationning many of the basic elements necessary, these were needed to build heavy war equipment. The Ando Cloisonne Company was the only one that gained permission to use whatever material they required during this period. 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, With both countries at war ther export commerce was greatly disrupted till 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. The extent of machine involvement and hand finishing varied depending on the producers. 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. 


     The large plate above does not seem to be Chinese, till you investigate the back. A typical modern Chinese cloisonne counter-enamel, in a smooth bright blue finish, and anchored with large floral cloisonne blossoms. Then, 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 the following green enamel grouping illustrates.


     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. They are still valuable, if you compare the work required to other simpler decorative art forms.


textures/cheapmachinejarfrchina.jpgA modern Taiwan cloisonne jar.

     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. Two items that follow are recent late 20th century products: an Ando dish, part of a set of 12 for each Chinese astrological sign, and a Sato akasuke vase.


          Handcrafted cloisonne is a thing of the past, a similar fate to many other valued and time consuming decorative art forms. Treasure those old pieces you may have, they will become harder and harder to find. The huge internet supply is slowly drying up.


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