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     The first Oriental cloisonne topic I discussed on another site, eight years ago. At the time, Japanese cloisonne was in the forefront of Asian cloisonne collecting. It was more valuable because there were fewer pieces on the market, rarer, and varied. 

     Since then, a huge interest in Chinese cloisonne pieces has developed, including all Chinese antiques and crafts. Foremost are the very high quality artistic late Qing Dynasty items (1750-90). This recent interest also affects the more recent exports dating from 1850 to 1910. China and it's population are re-discovering their heritage along with their increasing wealth and global status. In 1949, there was no room for art in the world of Chinese communist leader Mao Tse Tung. In fact, it was considered 'bourgeois' and dangerous to be interessed in such things. The country evolved in an artless rigid vacuum for many decades.

     Speculators are overwhelming the Oriental antique market right now, as they look for the next rare valuable treasure. The sale in England in the fall of 2010 of a porcelain vase dating C.1760 for 83 million dollars U.S., shook the Oriental antique market to it's foundation. The consequence was a dramatic reversal in values for cloisonne collectors. Sellers would rather describe their merchandise as Chinese now than Japanese.

     My goal is to help differentiate between the two, by giving you some clear differences seen on cloisonne items made between 1850 to 1950. Chinese and Japanese cloisonne pieces do have many aspects in common, they often emulated each other in their export competition, and do share many traditions, culture and religious backgrounds. There are aspects of cloisonne manufacture: design, signatures, colors, motifs, finish, counter enamel, style, construction, etc. that are indisputably from one country or the other. 

     Of course exceptions always exist. A few cloisonne pieces were created to reproduce exactly the other country's style. There was a documented Japanese cloisonne company who specialized in this approach during the early 20th century. They crafted and sold Chinese cloisonne, made in Japan and were proud of it. I am not aware of any Chinese craftsmen or studio who followed this approach. Yet I'm sure there must have been some, especially when Japan's cloisonne pieces had it's most lucrative golden age from 1880-1910.




The Ruyie Border - Chinese Imperial Symbol 


This triple semi-circle (upside down clover leaf) with a central dot repeated into a continuous band, can be found at upper and/or mid-body of cloisonne pieces, often separating two types of motifs. It is symbolic and represents the Chinese imperial scepter's head, which in turn represents a sacred fungi.







Counter-enamel is the enamel application on the reverse side of the decorated copper metal base. It is a strenghtening measure needed during the high heat of the kiln firing. Because the required repeated process softens the copper base, it may crack or distort the design unless enameled on both side.

Chinese counter-enamel procedure uses an enamel flux that allows a smooth surface after firing in the kiln, in various shades of medium blue or teal, often marked or impressed CHINA after 1897, but in more recent years simply identified by a paper label that is often missing.


Gilding and Styles






     For the period of 1850 to 1950, most Chinese cloisonne decorative pieces were made with a copper base and the metal furnishings finished with gold, or gilded. The enamels used were opaque.

     The older examples display the practice of mixing the glass flux inside the cloison design surface, with the resulting uneven spotty coloring and pitting after firing. The more recent manufactured Chinese cloisonne items are very bright and smooth. The gold metal color is fresh and the surfaces are glossy and mirror like.









      I have selected a variety of Chinese finials or lid handles designed for cloisonne pieces. Some are plain gilded brass points, others are more elaborate enameled cloisonne additions, and there are a few cast or carved figural ones, such as the foo-dog, the peach or a mythical being. 







     Marks on export cloisonne from China were not necessary until the USA McKinley Tarif Act of 1897 that required all imported goods be identified with the country of origin. In 1921, a second Tarif Act required that the words 'MADE IN' be added. Before these dates Chinese cloisonne pieces may have been marked with an Imperial seal from a previous dynasty as the middle from the bottom shows the QIANLONG reign mark, but are not of that period. About 1890-1900 the word CHINA appeared, impressed or painted in bright enamel, with various spellings. A few Chinese cloisonne craftsmen had their own marks such as LAO TIAN LI, last mark on bottom right during early 20th century. There was a revival of empire marks after the beginning of the Chinese Republic in 1912, with very colorful rendition and fanciful characters, not quite accurate in a lot of instances. The day came when labels were used, and these were often lost over time. Some people assume if there is no mark, the cloisonne piece must date before 1897, but no, it's often modern Chinese cloisonne with a missing paper label of identification. 







      As you can see, most Chinese cloisonne applications used glossy opaque enamel colors and background motifs, small cloisons shapes that anchored the whole surface. The subjects are a mix of important figures in Chinese culture such as the dragon, and seasonal flowers, as well as other designs inspired by nature. As opposed to Japanese cloisonne, Chinese art was and stayed very traditional for centuries. For dating purposes, often it is the size, the enamel colors, the type of metal rims, the upper body motifs, the base, that give the best clues rather than the whole piece.

     The overall effect of Chinese cloisonne through the centuries is one of smoothness and brilliance. Enamels that were still pitted (small holes) after being fired and polished, were covered with a waxy substance and polished again, to leave a completely glossy surface. All metal components were gilded (covered with a thin layer of gold), making the cloisonne piece resplendent. These were standard practices from the Imperial workshops to the other thousand producers of cloisonne based in China. With time, the gold did lose some of it's shine, and wore off it's copper base. This is an important feature in dating a piece of Chinese cloisonne, the brighter the newer, unless re-gilded at some point.




Small Circle Bands


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  These small round cloison bands are often filled with brick red, dark blue, white or black enamel. You can find them along the upper rims, mid-body as a divider between decorations, or along the edge of handles. The finer and smaller the circles, the higher the quality. Namikawa Yasuyuki used tiny ones, see last two pictures of pieces of cloisonne were produced by this master.


Metal Finish and Styles





    One of the most important difference between Chinese and Japanese cloisonne is each country's approach towards it's form and design. China produced mainly traditional types of cloisonne pieces, and stayed with their cultural designs for centuries. Japan's history of cloisonne enamel handcrafting on decorative or utilitarian objects was short and sporadic before 1850. Once they participated in the export of goods to the West and participated in International Fairs and Exhibitions, innovations and a large variety of cloisonne enamel applications were created and adopted.

    There are a dozen uniquely Japanese cloisonne enamel applications. Here, I show a few of these examples: ginbari, totai, wireless, stippled impressed silver film base, hidden wires, carved, etched, goldstone enamel, plique-a-jour, moriage, cloisonne on glass surface, or a combination of the above. The Japanese golden age of cloisonne enamel spans from about 1870 to 1920. 50 years of highly productive and impressive workmanship by several master craftsmen and their descendants studio's, located in Nagoya, Kyoto and Tokyo.

     Metals were either gilded or not. The massive output for export were not, yet they display an interesting combination of copper, silver and brass wire that are twisted, straigh, and different widts. With age and patina, these variations are hidden under a uniform dark shade. The masters used more expensive materials such as silver bases, silver mounts, gold mounts, gold wire or heavily gilded finish on all metal surfaces. These pieces remain brighter and more appealing.


Counter Enamels 





    Japanese counter enamel application was as varied as the style of the object itself. Depending on the piece, boxes for instance could have a two walled construction with etched metal on the inside surfaces, the base might be heavily decorated with cloisonne wires as well. Vases were finished on the base after the 20th century began as well as the inside rim, in multiple enamel colors, sometimes a mix of what was left over from the day's work. The difference is the aspect of a mat bumpy surface after firing, called 'orange skin'. The enamel base could be polished or not, after the 20th century began, the norm became enamel bases instead of metal caps.









     Japanese finials are always interesting, they may represent cast brass flowers such as the chrysantemum or the peony. Or they might be an elaborate cloisonne creation sometime overshadowing the lid. There are a few examples of figural ones similar to the Chinese foo dog.








In Japan, textiles, embroidery and weaving are considered an art form, to such and extent that it is a valuable investment if created by a skillful silk kimono maker or master textile artist. Cloth, draping, cascading fabric and textures have often been a large part of the Japanese sense of aesthetic. This is firmly represented and applied in the early cloisonne craft production of the years 1870 to 1900.




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     As you can see there is a wide variety of styles in the marking of Japanese cloisonne objects. These span from 1870 to 1970, most represented here were made by well known master craftsmen. Frustrating for us, many pieces are not marked and we have to rely on overall quality and design to make tentative attributions. Marks were impressed, applied cloisonne wire on enamel, hand painted on enamel, or etched on metal bases or added metal tablets.

     The difference with cloisonne from China is there is no mention of country or Imperial reign, instead we often see the city of production. These pieces were usually packed in light silk padded wood boxes, and additional information would be added on the container. These tomobaku are often no longer available. Before 1900, the base of most pieces were metal. After1900, enamel was used in various colors, and the marks would be applied to the metal rim, or with cloisonne wire against a polished enamel base.

     One explanation for the lack of country of origin can be that there were two classes of Japanese cloisonne products. The mass exports from the Nagoya and Kobe area that were shipped in crates with identification on these wood containers. The masters studios catered directly to a local clientele, starting with the Imperial Palace, and the wealthy visitors or their representatives from abroad. No export marks were required for these.


Japanese Imperial Symbols



Kiri No Mon: Japan's Empress symbol, which is designed as threeattached paulownia leaves with three standing floral stems, often seen with the Ho-bird motif (female Buddhist symbol) and/or the dragon (male Buddhist symbol).


Kiku No Mon: Japan's Emperor symbol, the 16 petal chrysantemum, found on master craftmen's products commissioned for the Japanese Palace household. Usually found at the neck of a vase or the top lid of a box.


December 2011

Link to archived cloisonne studies by

  • Study #1: Chinese Millefleurs Cloisonne Motif Evolution 1880-1980
  • Study #2: Japanese Rectangular Boxes 1880-1980
  • Study #3: Types & Functions of Cloisonne Objects 1850-1990
  • Study #4: Lao Tian Li - Important Qing Dynasty & Chinese Republic Producer

List of future studies to be completed next on this page:

  • #6     Japanese aesthetic between 1890 to 1910 applied to cloisonne production, using the fine arts of that period.
  • #7     Chinese India Lotus Motifs: a detailed evolution from 1850 to 1950 and beyond.
  • #8     Early Japanese cloisonne items of 1860 to 1875 & the use of crude mat enamels, archaic Chinese motifs and marks.

Recommended books containing reference material about Oriental cloisonne, published between 1960 to 2012.

- Books to acquire a basic knowledge of Oriental cloisonne,



To acquire knowledge about most Oriental arts, their symbolism, culture, artistry, marks, easthetic and the many types of exports they produced over time, including cloisonne,

ORIENTAL ANTIQUES AND ART, an identification and price guide, by Mark F. Moran & Sandra Andatch, Antique Trader by Krause

ORIENTAL ANTIQUES, encyclopedia of antiques and collectables, by Gloria & Robert Mascarelli, Warman's, Wallace Homestead

- To focus on Chinese cloisonne, with history, photos and collection items,

MASTERPIECES OF CHINESE ENAMEL WARE, in the National Palace Museum, Republic of China

CHINESE CLOISONNE, The Clague Collection, by the Phoenix Art Museum

CHINESE CLOISONNE, The Pierre Uldry Collection


- To focus on Japanese cloisonne, it's history, golden age, construction, makers, marks, styles and products,

JAPANESE CLOISONNE, by Coben & Ferster




- To study Oriental cloisonne background history, dating, European involvement and exports.


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