March 2001

From the Vault

Guilloché Enameled Luxuries

Engraved memories of a fanciful era

What constitutes a luxury? Luxuries are all those extras that make life a little more satisfying. We dont need them, but because theyre unnecessary we want them all the more. Luxuries take many forms, but some of the nicest and most lasting are jeweled objects.

A hundred years ago was a time of general prosperity in Europe and the U.S. Life at the top was a whirl of social events. Members of the upper class were supremely conscious of their position and used their jewelry and lavish lifestyle to set themselves apart from less fortunate mortals.

Virtually every social interaction called for the exchange of gifts. While jewelry satisfied many of these obligations, some occasions called for something different. To this end, jewelers devised all sorts of intriguing treasures. Decorative and useful, many incorporated guilloché enameling.

Guilloché refers to engraved decorative patterns produced by a tour a guilloche, a machine similar to a turning lathe. First developed in the 1500s for use on soft materials such as ivory or wood, guilloché engraving was adapted for precious metals in the 1700s. Luxuries of the period such as gold and silver snuffboxes, chatelaines and watchcases were often decorated with guilloché designs. Patterns were of two types:

  • Radiating concentric, such as rosettes or starbursts.
  • Linear, such as rippling waves or zigzags.

Guilloché Meets Enamel

In the late 19th century, Carl Fabergé elevated this craft to new heights by marrying guilloché engraving with enameling. This successful integration of metal and glass appeared soon after Michael Perchin became head-goldmaster for Fabergé in 1886. Under his direction, guilloché engraving became increasingly complex. Basketweave, stacked blocks and other interlocking grid patterns were produced by rotating the piece 90&Mac251; and engraving again. Translucent enamel in over 140 hues was fired en plein (covering a large surface area) and en ronde bosse (over a curved surface) in up to six layers.

After firing, each piece was polished by hand using a wooden wheel covered with chamois leather. These techniques were difficult and time-consuming, but Fabergés craftsmen made them seem like childs play.

For the next 30 years, Fabergé workshops incorporated guilloché enameling into myriad luxury items, including several of the famous Imperial Easter Eggs.

Interest Expands

The trend was soon adopted by other great jewelry houses of the time, including Cartier, Chaumet, Boucheron and Tiffany & Co. Jeweled clocks, watch cases, cigarette cases, cigar cutters, picture frames, cane heads, parasol handles, hatpins, vanity cases, combs, mirrors, lorgnettes, pens, buckles and matching button sets are just a few of the tempting trinkets in guilloché enamel that proliferated from 1890 to 1920.

World War I and the Russian Revolution brought down the curtain on the Belle Époque. Life after 1920 had a completely different character and sense of style. Guilloché enameled luxuries were seen as outdated and inappropriate. Throughout history, however, canny collectors have recognized the excellence of these marvels and cherished them as lasting reminders of luxuries from a bygone era.

Elise B. Misiorowski

Pendant watch of guilloché enameled 18k gold with platinum and diamond accents (shown back and front) is designed to be suspended from a platinum and diamond sautoir. Circa 1900. Courtesy of S.H. Silver Co., Menlo Park, CA: (650) 325-9500, fax (650) 325-9518.

Copyright © 2001 by Bond Communications