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The Art of Japanese Cloisonné

Japanese cloisonné uses an ancient enameling technique originating in the West during medieval times. Cloison, or segments, are closed within metal wires to contain fluid glass or enamel which create the design elements. At this time, cloisonné adorned small portions of jewelry and accessories.

In China, the art of cloisonné evolved as a significant art form with the Imperial palace workshop as the leading epicenter of high-quality cloisonné products, mainly produced to glorify temples and palaces. The color of these early Chinese cloisonné works was predominantly turquoise blue, but the palette, over time, included the whole color spectrum, as well as white and black. From these colorful Chinese cloisonné prototypes the modern Japanese cloisonné was born. Known in Japan as “shippo,” or “seven treasures,” skilled artisans achieved gem-like colors. 

Japanese artists introduced many innovative techniques to cloisonné art. They achieved well-delineated colors and designs without wires, expanded their ground choices to include clay or glazed porcelain, and were not shy in experimenting with new mediums and colors such as gold or silver speckles, foils, and pitch black. Above all, they added painterly designs to their repertoire making the Japanese cloisonné unique and different from the Chinese prototypes that employed mostly patterns and had more limited color choices of enamel.

Large Cloisonne Vase and Stand, Japan, Hayashi workshop, sold for $9,840

The most noticeable difference between Japanese and Chinese cloisonné is the glassy surface. Japanese cloisonné is almost always finely ground and buffed to achieve this polished jewel-like transparency on the surface. Another striking difference is in the realistic design. On Japanese cloisonné, natural trees and flowers are preferred and realistically rendered (seen above) while Chinese works dominantly use auspicious symbols, such as dragons and lotus scrolls, in simplified patterns and designs (seen below).

Large Cloisonne Charger with Dragons, China, Ming dynasty style, sold for $315,000

Also unique to Japanese cloisonné is the use of colors, particularly in the background. Japanese artists use a blank ground of various colors to contrast with the realistic scenes depicted and to provoke a poetic mood as seen in the example below, whereas Chinese artists used dominantly turquoise blue and rarely left their background blank, instead they are filled with a pattern or two.

Creamy White Cloisonné Vase, Japan, Meiji period, Ando workshop mark on base, ht. 9 1/2 in. Offered in our June sale, estimate $3,000-5,000.

We find another difference between the two in purpose and usage. Japanese cloisonné technique is applied to vessels of various shapes, often as an okimono for artistic enjoyment and appreciation, while Chinese cloisonné is applied to decorate variously shaped bronze animals, such as shishi, horses, and ducks, to ward off evil or to ensure good fortune.  

Skinner’s June auction offers a Japanese cloisonné collection superb in both scope and quality. It is a result of a collector’s lifetime devotion and zeal for Japanese cloisonné, almost all purchased through renowned galleries and dealers in the USA and Europe. Examples produced during the so-called Golden Age (1880-1910), including household names and their workshops, such as Ando, Miwa, Hayashi, and Ota of Nagoya and Inaba, Gonda, Kumeno, Tamura, Takeuchi, and Namikawa of Kyoto. 

Examples exhibit colors ranging from creamy white to emerald blue, olive green, crimson red, gold-speckled brown, and pitch black, to list a few. Techniques are varied, some using musen (without wire), ginbari (foiled ground), totai (ceramic body), and moriage (embossing). Many others exhibit the more traditional yusen (with wire) technique on a copper or silver body.

The collection is truly a rare treat for Japanese cloisonné collectors.


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