Antique silver with enamel in the art of jewelers of the two capitals

A cup of Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich. Moscow Kremlin Workshops, 1609-1650
A cup of Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich. Moscow Kremlin Workshops, 1609-1650

Antique silver with enamel adorns the expositions of the leading Russian museums in the country. Finishing with enamel has been known in Russia since ancient times, but the art of enamelrs reached its true heyday in the 17th – 19th centuries. Working with enamel is a complex and time-consuming process, but the technique made it possible to achieve impeccable decorativeness. Silver with enamel from workshops in Moscow and St. Petersburg is distinguished by a variety of performance and high artistic value.

Brothers Grachev. Gift bucket
Brothers Grachev. Gift bucket

The history of enamel in the jewelry art of Russia

Archaeologists found antique silver with enamel from the times of Ancient Rus during excavations near the Church of the Dormition of the Most Holy Theotokos in Kiev in the 19th century. As many as three jewelry workshops were found in this area, where, along with dishes and ornaments, they made items with cloisonné enamel.

The masters of Kievan Rus used coatings of their own production, which were less resistant than the Byzantine ones. The enamelled silver of the seventeenth century has been well preserved to this day. During this period, the craftsmen used other technologies, although there is little information about their work. They no longer engaged in independent production of enamel mass, but bought it in the shopping malls. The suppliers of materials were the countries of Europe and the Middle East.

Easter egg Gatchina Palace, XIX century
Easter egg Gatchina Palace, XIX century

The first attempts at production within the country began to be made in Russia only with the development of industry. In 1862, a group of technologists from the Imperial Glass Factory, headed by Leopoldo Bonafede, perfected the technology of working with glass masses and set up the production of coatings at the enterprise that were not inferior in quality to imported ones. However, one plant could not meet all the needs, so firms still had to purchase overseas materials.

Russian silversmiths achieved great skill in applying enamel, although working with silver was much more difficult than with gold. It was necessary to use more low-melting materials and carefully calculate temperatures. Nevertheless, already in the 16th century, a bright and durable coating became an integral part of the church interior, and then tableware, writing utensils, caskets and snuff boxes began to be decorated with enamel.

Enamel miniature. Portrait of the family of Peter I, c. 1739
Enamel miniature. Portrait of the family of Peter I, c. 1739

Enamels of Moscow

The 17th century is the heyday of enamel, which during the previous century served mostly to decorate objects of worship and royal everyday life. New techniques appeared, and Moscow jewelers quickly learned to work on chasing and engraving. Enamel painting, popular in Western Europe, has come into use.

During this period, the filigree ornament became much more complicated, and the tones became brighter and more saturated. In the 18th century, miniature painting developed. Paintings were commissioned by monasteries and court nobility. Appliances, gospels and images were decorated with overhead medallions. Enamel was popular with the nobility, who commissioned their own portraits. The founder of the genre, the artist Grigory Musikiskiy, is known for his multi-figured portraits of the family of Peter I, which he painted on large plates.

At the end of the 1790s, two-tone enamels in gray tones appeared in the work of Moscow enamellers. Painting in the grisaille technique supplanted the previously popular bright shades, and the plots finally acquired a secular character. Images of ladies and gentlemen were even applied to the chalice and setting of icons, which was previously completely unacceptable.

F. Mishukov. Icon St. Michael the Archangel, XIX century
F. Mishukov. Icon St. Michael the Archangel, XIX century

The first third of the 19th century brought new trends in jewelry fashion.

Enamel lost its popularity and was used mainly in cheap mass production. Demand returned only after 1850 due to the revival of interest in Russian traditional art. Enamel has taken one of the most significant places in the work of the masters. If earlier the leading role was played by overhead plates with miniatures, now the decor covered the entire surface of objects.

The leading position in enamel production was occupied by the Ovchinnikov factory. Its products were rich in colors and meticulous finishes. Salt-cellars, ladles-broths, cups, spoons and glass-holders were decorated with thick filigree ornaments, which were then filled with multicolored enamel. The firm’s jewelers widely used transparent coatings, which were extremely difficult to apply.

Firm of the Grachev brothers. Ladle, XIX century
Firm of the Grachev brothers. Ladle, XIX century
Of the most famous enamel masters, it should be noted:
  • Khlebnikov’s company, which was famous for its products in the Old Russian style with enamel on casting and carving;
  • Olovyanishnikov’s factory. The craftsmen worked in the Byzantine style on the orders of the Moscow Patriarchate. The decoration was done very delicately and carefully, but somewhat dry, which deprived it of the charm inherent in antiquity;
  • Fyodor Mishukov, which was characterized by high fidelity of reproduction of the monuments of ancient Russian art.
Antique silver with enamel. Miniature painting on enamel Portrait of Peter I, 18th century
Miniature painting on enamel Portrait of Peter I, 18th century
Master-enamers of St. Petersburg

Throughout the 18th century, there was a strong fascination with enamel painting in the northern capital. Jewelers copied the paintings of the artists, reworking the subjects in a special decorative manner. Images were placed on accessories and utensils, and miniature portraits spread far beyond the secular society. A separate class appeared at the Academy of Arts, where they taught the art of drawing with enamel.

At the beginning of the next century, the so-called splitters became popular – plates with holes for fasteners. As a rule, they were placed on caskets, snuff boxes and boxes, and landscapes and scenes in the antique style prevailed in picturesque subjects. The products of miniaturists Peter Rossi and Dmitry Evreinov were in high demand.

In St. Petersburg, enamel was much less fond of than in Moscow. Enamel was only an element of decoration, often it was covered with images or patterns carved in silver. With the advent of mechanized methods of working with metals, technology began to be used more often, and transparent enamel inserts acquired more intense colors.

The St. Petersburg firm of the Grachev brothers was famous for its skillfully made products with patterns from fine filigree, covered with enamel in soft tones with a predominance of yellow and green shades. Transparent and bright enamel on a gold background is a distinctive feature of Faberge products. The craftsmen worked with guilloche surfaces and rarely used more than one color for the background, which gave the precious knick-knacks a special austerity and elegance.

The development of enamel business in Russia was interrupted by the events of the October Revolution.

The Bolshevik government banned the free trade in precious stones and gold, which led to the closure of the miraculously surviving private enterprises. There are practically no qualified specialists left in the country, and the abolition of bans during the NEP did not correct the situation. The revival of production began only after the 1950s, but the techniques and styles that had been forming for centuries were lost forever.

Antique silver with enamel. Moscow Kremlin workshops. Good brothers, 1645-1676
Moscow Kremlin workshops. Good brothers, 1645-1676
Antique silver with enamel. P. Ovchinnikov's firm. Casket, 1881
P. Ovchinnikov’s firm. Casket, 1881. Antique silver with enamel
Antique silver with enamel. Snuffbox with a portrait of Empress Anna Ioannovna, 1736-1740
Snuffbox with a portrait of Empress Anna Ioannovna, 1736-1740. Antique silver with enamel
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