At the tail end of the Chinese Qing Imperial Dynasty (1636-1912), this handsome brass cloisonné box was created. It features a tasteful floral decoration set against sophisticated oxblood enameling. A field of "meandering" brass metalwork provides handsome texture to the ground color. Inside, the box has a lovely turquoise blue enameling. And, atop the box, sits a hand-pierced and hand-carved jade medallion. Such a box was likely made for foreign visitors to China at the Turn-of-the-Twentieth-Century—traders, diplomats or military. It might have also been made for export for sale in shops in Europe or America.
Cloisonné is the French name for this type of enameled metalwork in which colored material is laid within discrete resevoirs (called "cloisons"), separated by strips of metal or wire (gold, silver, copper or brass). In early and rare cases, precious stones have been shaped and used as an alternative colored filling. First the wire (or metal strips, standing on-edge) is affixed to the metal "base material" (be it a plaque, vase or box). Originally, the wiring was soldered, but that proved tedious, difficult and sometimes messy, so other techniques were developed. Next the colored material—most frequently glass powder blended into a paste—is applied to each separate "field," sometimes with an eyedropper or pipette. Once the surface is fully enameled, the object then is fired in a kiln which liquifies the glass powder and allows it to re-set as a smooth glass surface (as it cools). Finally, the piece can be leveled, smoothed and buffed with a jeweler's wheel. With cloisonné, it is the express intention of the artisan to have the metal wiring still-exposed after the enamel sets.
The earliest use of the cloisonné technique was in Mesopotamia or Egypt, more than 2000 years before the time of Christ. The technique spread throughout the Middle East and across the Mediterranean. Islamic traders introduced the process to the Chinese in the 1200's from where it moved to Japan, Korea and other parts of Asia. It also spread throughout Byzantium, Russia and Europe. Every culture would adapt the process to suit its particular aesthetic preferences. And every region can produce wonderful examples of exquisite cloisonné work.
This box was made around 1900 to 1910, in the very last years of Imperial China. When the Qing Dynasty was overthrown in the Xinhai Revolution, it was replaced with the short-lived Republic of China (1912-1949). In 1949, Mao and the Communists seized power with the Chinese Revolution. Mao renamed the country The People's Republic of China. The defeated government of the previous Republic of China decamped to Taiwan. Click on the photo above to learn more about this handsome relic of China's Imperial past.
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