Friday, February 28, 2014

Puzzling Evidence - What About Cloisonne Beads from Taiwan? (Part 1)

After some time spent watching online auction sales for cloisonné, I noticed a number of stylistic trends in the offerings, one of which is so distinctive as to really stand out from the pack.  Some of the tell-tale features include:
  •   a splashy, painterly technique of blending bright enamels
  •  hot orange and red enamels
  •  transparent enamels, especially a beautiful rose and a teal green/blue
  •  jewel-toned motifs on a cream background
  • innovative interpretations of traditional Chinese motifs, including a distinctive dove-like bird
  •  tight, energetic curves
  • swirling, flowing lines on butterflies, foliage
  •  tiny circles employed as background motifs, unlike the little clouds and spirals used in mainland cloisonné

Pieces found in online auctions sometimes have an intact trademark stamp – a circle enclosing a capital letter “K”, accompanied by “Made in Taiwan” or “Made in Republic of China” or a string of Chinese characters either alongside or as a surrounding circle.
Vendor stated, "The bracelet on the left is stamped Made In Taiwan.  The bracelet on the right is stamped Made In Republic of China."

On page 73 of Arthur and Grace Chu’s book Oriental Cloisonné and Other Enamels, copyright 1975, this photo and caption appear:
Published in 1975.  "Recent import from Taiwan."
A distinctive bracelet of chain-linked rectangles seems to share a similar style:
The round pieces are buttons.

One eBay vendor described one of these bangles as “German modernist from the 1950s,” but a Google images search on Scholtz & Lammel (German cloisonne design from the 1950s-60s) reveals only a very slight resemblance between the German bracelets and those from Taiwan – i.e., the German logo is an “S” inside a circle, and the bracelets are often made in linked cloisonné rectangles. 

An Internet search revealed a very similar trademark registered in 1978 for “Kloison K” by Robert Kuo in Beverly Hills, California.  

The logo also appears in other forms (note the similarity to the circle "K" with Chinese characters on the bangles at the start of this post):

Following the bread crumbs, I discovered Robert Kuo’s work.  From his website biography:

Born in Beijing, he moved with his family to Taiwan in 1947. Kuo grew up in an artistic environment. His father, an art professor and Chinese watercolor painter, started a cloisonne atelier where Robert became an apprentice at age fifteen. Although he never engaged in formal art studies, Kuo gained technical expertise and learned about decorative tradition from "hands on" training. As he mastered each of the steps involved in cloisonne from preparing copper bases to enameling and firing the kilns, Kuo absorbed all the basics that were to serve him throughout his artistic career.
While pursuing his studies in Taipei, Kuo assisted his father in the creation of a cloisonne studio. A visit to the United States persuaded the young artist/entrepreneur that the American environment would benefit him, both personally and professionally. In 1973, he immigrated to the United States and opened a studio for cloisonne in Beverly Hills. Kuo cultivated a clientele that appreciated the way he "opened up" Chinese tradition. Utilizing the influences of Art Noueau and Art Deco, Kuo introduced new shapes, finishes, and objects to cloisonne.

So what does this have to do with beads?

To be continued…

UPDATE:  Found an interesting tidbit from Taiwan Today, an article dated 9/24/1990 from the Taiwan Journal about Robert Kuo's father, Kuo Ming-chiao.  The early bracelets resemble "German Modernist" cloisonne work because they were, in fact, inspired by German artistry, not traditional Chinese cloisonne?  Puzzling evidence...
Kuo Ming-chiao has dedicated himself to the creation of
cloisonne art for 30 years. He began his artistic career, however, as
a painter, and his works were internationally exhibited and acclaimed
as masterpieces of Chinese painting. He received many awards,
including those presented in Vietnam, Australia and the United
        His painting career came to an abrupt and unexpected halt in a
moment's inspiration which changed his artistic path. While
travelling in Europe to attend an exhibition of his paintings in
1960, he had what he described as an "electrifying experience." In a
marketplace near Cologne, West Germany, he was overwhelmed by the
splendor of the cloisonne art on display. He abandoned his plans to
continue his continental tour, choosing instead to remain in the
small German town to learn the art of cloisonne.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Puzzling Evidence - Monochrome Chinese Cloisonne Beads, Deco or Seventies?

Appearing occasionally in online auctions are necklaces of Chinese cloisonné beads with blue monochrome enamel, sometimes splashed with green.  
Beads measure 9.5mm

A  Deco era origin date is often asserted; but, are these beads actually from the 1920s-1940s?  Evidence from other cloisonné styles indicates that such dating is off by about half a century – these beads were most likely made some time around the 1970s.

Actual Deco Chinese cloisonné pieces with a monochrome appearance, such as bowls, jars, and vases with an overall floral pattern, are made in a peculiar style: a base of the usual range of opaque enamels with a secondary layer of transparent amber, giving an overall brownish tint. 
Photos courtesy of eBay vendor van29900.

What the flowers beneath the amber enamel might look like without the overglaze.
Vases and bowls from the 1930s and 40s with borders of ruyi and rocks/plant shoots also frequently get this treatment, as do the "woody" stems of blossom branches.
Rim and foot from a vase purchased in China in the 1940s.
This light amber seems to be the only transparent enamel used in Chinese cloisonné before the 1960s.
Squirrel and grapes motif, background metal can be seen through the transparent amber enamel.

The CHINA base stamp makes a pre-1950 date likely.

As evidenced by this ashtray, a new method of monochrome cloisonné work was employed during the 1970s, certainly by the JingFa factory.  
eBay vendor powderguy1960 says he purchased this in Hong Kong in 1973.
Matched boxed set sold by Lillian Vernon.
Note typical JingFa reversed symmetry in exactly matching pattern on each vase.
Blue and brown seem most common, with green, red, and purple also showing up in online auctions.  

Close examination reveals a skilled pointillist combination of black, white, and colored enamel grains to achieve a blended ombre effect.

Monochrome beads examined closely display this same mixing of granular enamel particles.
The method of wirework in the design of the flowers also seems more typical of 70s-and-later beads. [UPDATE: the flowers on these beads are very tiny and evenly applied.  Other evidence is starting to make me wonder if an earlier decade is more likely.]
The amber overglaze continued to be used. Large JingFa-style bead, measures 35mm.  Similar large beads can be seen used as lamp finials.

Seller of pendant on the left stated, "I found this in Beijing a the finest cloisonne manufacturer when I visited China in 1996.  It comes from the Beijing Enamel Factory in Chongwen District."

Evidence thus seems to make a 1970s or later attribution for this type of bead more likely than the Art Deco era.

UPDATE: eBay vendor satinskin gave permission to post these pics of a box with the amber monochrome overglaze that was "purchased between 1960-1970 and has never been used."
It shows excellent examples of the type of standardized floral patterns used after the JingFa cloisonne manufacturing cooperative was organized in 1956.  Certain Chinese cloisonne beads also display these floral patterns in miniature, the subject of an upcoming post.

Comparing these box pictures with the pictures of my ginger jars above, what do you think of these beads, which were sold as a Deco-era (1920s-40s) necklace?

UPDATE: Etsy designer pinetreebeads has a beautiful necklace featuring this type of cloisonne bead:  
"The cloisonne beads in this necklace are from the 70's." 

UPDATE: Another necklace, featuring a morning glory clasp:

UPDATE:  eBay vendor eclectomania states that this blue necklace was "purchased at a state-owned Friendship Store in Shanghai, China in 1983."  

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Puzzling Evidence - Chinese Cloisonne Beads from the Art Deco Era

Online auctions often describe Chinese cloisonné beads as dating to the “Deco” era - the years between the end of World War I and the end of World War II (approximately 1920s through 1940s).

What styles of cloisonné bead are actually characteristic of this period?  How does one tell the difference between beads from the 1930s and the 1970s?

In Robert Liu’s 1995 book Collectible Beads, pages 64 and 65 contain a reference to the collection of Dr. Joan C. Feast (1919-1996), possibly accumulated from 1935 onward and during the years she resided in San Francisco.  Here is a link featuring the photo and caption from the book.
Ornament Magazine
Recently I acquired a little baggie of cloisonné beads from an Arizona eBay seller, containing beads resembling some of the beads pictured in Dr. Liu’s book:
They are in pretty bad shape.  Some sort of repair seems to have been attempted with red and green enamels.

The damage to these beads seems typical of their use in designs that caused the beads to swing and clack together, chipping the enamel. 
Rich vintage Chinese charm bracelet featuring gemstones and cloisonne courtesy of eBay vendor tikiagogo6058.

A Life magazine photo of Helen Burton aboard the rescue ship Gripsholm in 1943 shows her wearing a necklace with dangling oval beads, although it’s not possible to tell if they are cloisonné, glass, porcelain, or stone.  She had spent the two years prior to this photo in a prison camp, so her necklace almost certainly dates from before the early 40s, and may have been a design she sold in her Camel Bell shop.
From My Piece of the Helen Burton Puzzle - A Progressive Revelation, by Donald Menzi
Some of the disc beads from the photo in Dr. Liu’s book have turned up in brass link belts, and the oval dragon beads appear in jewelry designs by Louis C. Mark and (possibly) the Miriam Haskell studio dating to the early 1940s. 
Courtesy of eBay vendor oncillakat.
Online auctions from Japan have listed dragon beads as kanzashi and sagemono, and TokyoJinja's lovely blog features a photo of a phoenix disc bead and two dragon beads in use on vintage obidome.  A 1930s-1940s time frame for the beads coincides with the period when Japan was active in China, setting up businesses, and - unfortunately - engaging in military incursions.  
Obidome courtesy of Etsy shop MagicDragon's Store.
Could the rectangular holes on many of these disc beads be a holdover from the style of counterweight used in the Qing court necklaces, which required rectangular holes to accommodate the flat cord?  The Qing dynasty ended in 1912, so by the late 1930s this style of pendant bead with a rectangular hole would have been 25 years out of production.  It seems more likely to me that these beads were created in the 1930s specifically for belts to coordinate with western clothing fashions of the era, as well as obidome and sagemono, and also produced with round holes for costume jewelry fashions then current.

The holes of the round and oval beads are large - 4 to 5mm - with rough metal edges.  The underlying metal appears to be copper, and is thin – the beads are lightweight.

The enamels and general style of the designs on the disc beads can all be matched up with similar round beads.
Belt picture courtesy of Etsy shop MagicDragon's Store.
Although the dragon beads and discs always display small crinkle clouds or spirals scattered around the background, the floral versions often – but not always - lack these motifs, a feature also observed on export vases that appear to date from the Deco era.  
Later vases always have their backgrounds filled in, the rows of clouds becoming more uniform and dense as the decades progressed and assembly line manufacture became dominant.  Spirals seem to drift out of fashion and disappear after the 1970s.

The enamel quality varies from OK to poor, and seems on a par with other small folk art cloisonné articles manufactured during the pre-World War II years, such as napkin rings, condiment sets, cigarette smoking sets with little matchboxes and shallow dishes for ashtrays. 

The repertoire of enamel colors is pretty basic – red, light green, a darker green, a bright lime green, pink, a light buttery yellow, turquoise and sky blue, royal blue, white, and black.  Small holes from gas escaping as the enamel was fired are common.   In defense of this limited palette and imperfect surface finish, it can be tricky to create recipes for enamels that will all melt at approximately the same temperature and do not require a separate firing for each and every color.  Likewise, the range of minerals available as glass colorants and the fineness to which they must be ground and washed is also a concern for small craft workshops on a budget, especially within the time frame of the global economic depression of the 1930s.

Openwork designs without background enamel are common.

An especially rare bead is one with an intricate and fine floral design done in a sort of reverse openwork - the background is enameled, but the cloisons are left unfilled, and then gilded.
Courtesy of Florence Foster, Beads With A Past

A bead of this reverse-openwork type in an extravagant 1930s charm necklace design.

Draughtsmanship skills vary from mediocre to artistic.  The floral designs are graceful and bold.  Oddly, the dragons often only have four toes, which made me wonder if these dragon beads were all the work of one person.  The phoenixes seem especially awkward, even when compared to the charming folk craft style of birds that appear on some of the cloisonné vases made for export during these decades.

The evidence so far for Chinese cloisonne beads that might actually date from the Deco era is that they’re of comparatively large size, with big holes and comparatively casual workmanship. Their dramatic patterns and size, vibrant colors, and light weight give them considerable appeal, I think. 
Were these items the product of one cluster of workshops? Were other workshops of this era making finer beads?  Are all the more skillfully made Chinese cloisonné beads from later decades?
Floral beads with small holes, old enamel colors (including the bright lime green for the background)
Obidome beads - 1930s or 1970s?

UPDATE April 2014:

eBay seller wondollar found what seems likely to be a Louis Mark brooch design for Rice-Weiner, featuring a large cloisonne bead about 1 inch in diameter.  A Louis Mark brooch with an oriental theme has a patent of 1941, thus it seems probable this bead is Deco era Chinese.

UPDATE: An interesting bracelet featuring Czech brass work and imitation coral and lapis pressed glass combined with Chinese cloisonne 4-toed dragon beads: