Thursday, October 30, 2014

Puzzling Evidence - Chinese Cloisonne Dragon Beads from the 1930s -1990s

Living as we do in an era of machine-produced goods, where every piece is identical to any other, we tend to forget how artists and artisans develop personal styles.  Faced with turning out similar pieces because a design is selling well, artists typically develop favorite solutions to a design problem rather than reinventing the wheel with each new piece.  For example, in a prior post I discussed The Dot Artist – the cloisonné bead maker who liked to use small round circles evenly spaced around the circumference, possibly not only as an embellishment and a background feature needed to stabilize the enamel as it was melted in the kiln, but to assist in neatly applying the other parts of the composition.  Remember, these little pictures are drawn with tiny strips of metal.  Not surprisingly, skill develops from repetition.  If you figure out a way to apply a nice floral branch design, and have to make a thousand such pieces, it only makes sense to re-use the design.  One of my first posts was about a style of dragon that persists throughout Chinese cloisonne from the turn of the 20th century until at least the 1980s.

While investigating Chinese cloisonné beads that appear in costume jewelry from the 1930s, I noticed that a peculiar dragon appears over and over again, making me wonder if these beads were all made by the same person.  It is characterized by having only 4 claws instead of the usual 5. Often the eyes are completely black, like a shrimp’s, rather than the more expressive black and white.  The eyes and nose are formed from a single wire bent into two circles connected by a loop. The wire work is comparatively casual and the enamel colors very basic.

Brooch from Etsy shop Magic Dragons Store

Blumenthal Brooch from the 1930s

A selection of pendants from an auction, and a Deco-era necklace with 3 similar pendants.  Note the two openwork designs, one of which is a four-toed dragon.

Four-toe dragons also occasionally appear on other small objects:
Set of small cups found in Japan
Why only 4 toes?  A subtle protest against the Japanese invasions and occupation of the 1930s? No imperial dragons for you! Or, more likely, because 4 toes are just plain easier to fit into a small space?  Or because, in a manner similar to the 4-fingered characters drawn by cartoon artists, 4 claws somehow looked better?  Five claws do have a tendency to make the dragon’s paws resemble fans.
One suspects that because these beads and other items were made for export and not for local use, the maker correctly surmised that foreign buyers would not be all that discerning.  Then there’s the consideration that piecework done for low pay, under wartime workshop conditions, and for undiscriminating buyers is likely not conducive to precision workmanship.

Other artisans have made dragon beads and small objects, some of quite tidy workmanship, others more casual.  You can see the difference between these and the four-toed version (note such details as eyes, noses, background clouds).  The earring bead and the larger finial bead next to it seem very similar in composition and enamel colors - did the artist feel that just a bit more room allowed for black-and-white eyes and 5 claws?
Small bowl seems likely to be from c1920s, earring 1930s, lamp finial c1930, small bottles c1980-90s, gilded openwork bead 1990.
Small condiment set with 5-toed dragons with very fine detail.

Lamp finials with 5-toed dragons.

Japanese kanzashi (hairpin for a geisha coiffure) found by Magic Dragons Store.  5-toed dragon, old-fashioned "peaked" cloud spirals.
5-toed dragons.
5-toed dragons.  These dragons also have two horns (also seen in the little openwork pieces in the previous picture) instead of just one horn emerging from a bulbous base.

Note the JingFa clouds as a background motif. 5-toed dragons.
Four-toed dragons also appear on beads from c1990, albeit with a different style of “tailed” cloud, black-and-white eyes, 3 separate wires to form the eyes and nose (versus just a single wire bent into 3 loops in the four-toed dragons), thicker cloison wires, and gold electroplating.  Four-toed dragons also appear on other c1990s items, so this seems likely to be yet another occurrence of the cartoonist’s 4-fingered hand.
Purchased from Abeada around 1990.
Small dish likely c1990s.
This necklace of huge beads (so 1980s!) contains a large 5-toed dragon bead.  Its size is likely the same as similar cloisonné beads in my collection that came from a broken necklace with black onyx beads (again, a very 1980s-90s type of stone bead). 

The clasp in my broken necklace is a product of the Kuo cloisonne factory in Taiwan, hence this necklace likely dates from the  late-1970s - late-1980s.
This illustration in the 1975 book by Arthur and Grace Chu (Oriental Cloisonné and Other Enamels) of course means that these beads were produced prior to 1975.  But how many years prior? 
Note the 4-toed dragon on the napkin ring.  The green necklace likely dates from the 1930s, based upon the type of glass beads and findings.
The dragon in the Chu photo is the black-eyed four-toed variety that clusters in pieces from the 1930s.  Were the peach, phoenix, and bat beads also made then?  The goldfish bead has a turquoise background and “peaked” clouds that look the same as those in the photograph beads. Were better beads such as these made for Chinese buyers during the 1930s, and the more rugged beads sold to foreigners?  Or do these more skillfully made beads with their old-fashioned clouds date from the early 1970s? 1960s? 1950s?
Puzzling evidence.

UPDATE: This dragon condiment shaker on offer from eBay vendor stephena17 seems a close match to a pair of shakers documented to be from 1939.

The blue and turquoise shakers are documented to 1939. The dragon shaker with the same shape and feet presumably dates to the same era. The other dragon decorates a small smoking set (photo below).
You can see how details differ in the dragons - style of nose, horns, mane (especially under the chin), belly scales, bulbous horn base on forehead etc etc - although they present an overall similar appearance.
Hence the dragons on the yellow oval beads seem to be more old-school. An older craftsman who survived the 1930s and 40s, still working in the 1960s-70s? What's your guess?

The size of the matchbox cover gives some indication of overall size.
UPDATE: An interesting bracelet featuring Czech brass work and imitation coral and lapis pressed glass combined with Chinese cloisonne 4-toed dragon beads:

Monday, October 20, 2014

Puzzling Evidence – Cloisonné vs Champlevé in Chinese Beads

After I published a post containing some Deco-era Chinese beads, a correspondent questioned my analysis of the large disc beads with a dragon and phoenix on opposite sides. 
When I had examined these beads with a loupe, it appeared to me that they had an identical pattern that differed from bead to bead only in enamel colors.  This exact duplication can only be achieved with a machine; skilled cloisonné wire artists can make copies of a design with remarkable precision, but not to the level achieved by machine stamping.  I considered that these identical dragon beads could be thus classified as champlevé rather than cloisonné.  However, I had passed my belt of dragon and phoenix beads on to another collector, so was unable to re-examine the beads.  Therefore, when this 1930s Blumenthal brooch appeared, I purchased it to take another look at this style of bead.
For those who question the lack of patina on this bead, the dragon side was afflicted with some verdigris, which I removed, and in so doing re-polished the underlying copper so it is once again bright. Sequence: a horsehair brush, VerdiChem, Nevr-Dull, Sunshine Cloth, Renaissance Wax

The word “cloisonné,” when used for enamel decoration, can be understood in two ways:
1) A generalized colloquial term for enamel decoration with different colors applied within separate cells of metal.
2) A specific enamel technique where the separate cells for different colors are formed by thin wires.

“Champlevé” refers to the enameling process where the separate cells for the different colors are formed by carving, chemical etching, casting, or die stamping.  It is not the same technique as cloisonné, in which the cells are formed by wires, although it often gets called “cloisonné” in the general catch-all use of the term.  Here’s a great picture courtesy of Ashley Gilreath on the difference between champlevé and wire cloisonné.

Champlevé without the background enamel filled in resembles openwork cloisonné.
Openwork wire cloisonné on left, two champlevé pieces on right.  Note how the champlevé dragons’ scales look somewhat hexagonal, as if they’d been chiseled, whereas the cloisonné dragon’s scales are semicircular wires.  Also compare the openwork cloisonne bead with the openwork champleve bead in the photo at the top of this post.

This Patek Phillipe website about cloisonné watch faces tacitly notes in the quote below how wired cloisonné designs cannot be exactly replicated, thus are “individual works of art.” This is in distinction to champlevé, where the design can indeed be replicated with great exactness and detail, thanks to machines.

“Cloisonné presents the enameller not only with the challenge of placing the enamel in the wire cells (done traditionally with a goose quill pen) but also with the hurdle of bending the wire for the cells by hand –a step which ensures that cloisonné watches even in the same series are all individual works of art.”

Machinery and modern industrial processes apply splendidly to champlevé, and can turn out products by the million.  Epoxy “soft” enamels are commonly used as well as glass enamels.  In the following websites and videos, notice not only the massive machinery, but also the amount of human intervention required, from stomping foot pedals and waving blow torches around, to precision carving, enamel application, polishing and electroplating.  Try to get past the alarming musical accompaniments.

When it comes to champlevé beads, button manufacturers seem to have jumped onto the bus first, most likely due to greater consumer demand and the comparative ease of replicating matched sets of small objects.

The large 1.5-inch rather spiky-looking crane “button”  on the right side might actually be a toggle for suspending something from a belt, as a very similar piece is shown in figure 31, page 247, of Margaret Duda’s book Traditional Chinese Toggles, Counterweights and Charms.  And can you spot the Inaba cloisonné button?

Champlevé beads seem to appear most often in disk shapes, especially larger pieces suitable for pendants, possibly because it’s easier for machines to stamp out two slightly concave pieces that can then be soldered together.   A flatter surface also makes it easier for an artist to compose a design without worrying about wrapping it around a sphere and compensating for spherical distortion.
Assorted disk beads used as pendants, probably from the 1970s-80s. The bat making a nighttime raid on some peaches is my favorite.

Champleve disk beads with a center cloisonne bead, probably c1970s.

 A sample of contemporary champleve beads available from Ted Henning

Champleve dragon and phoenix box available from eBay vendor pinkiesup.
This fascinating Chinese website about cloisonne states that machine-stamped champleve manufacture was started in 1958.  This picture and its text description is at number 8 in the list of types of enamel work: