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  • Catalogue Essay

    Lacquer & Enamel

    The decorative arts of lacquer-work and enameling are two of the oldest forms of adornment known to humankind. The tradition of adding lacquer to design objects dates to Neolithic China (5500 BCE to 3300 BCE), while examples of objects decorated in enamel have been found as early as the 13th century BCE in the ancient Mycenaean world. Though both mediums appear similar at first glance, their chemical compositions and the processes by which they are applied to metals are quite different.

    Lacquer is an alcohol-based liquid varnish, often rendered in striking colors coming from the addition of iron oxides and other reactive agents. The process of applying lacquer to its base involves painting or pouring layers of the varnish onto the desired surface. Each layer must dry before the next is added, which can take hours or even days to reach the desired thickness and shine. This technique is illustrated in the Van Cleef & Arpels poudrier (lot 124).

    Unlike lacquer, enamel starts as a powdered, allochromatic glass. It is fired at temperatures between 1200 and 1700 degrees, often adding additional elements in its molten state to create the rainbow of colors we see in enamel-coated pieces. The heated enamel is then typically poured onto a slab and allowed to solidify. Prior to use, the cooled enamel is pulverized into a fine powder, which is then washed in distilled water. The wet powder is then spread onto a carefully cleaned metal surface, where it is allowed to dry before being heated in a kiln to a point at which it adheres and fuses to its metal base. There are many different methods of enameling, mostly differing in the way the metal is prepared to receive the powdered enamel. These varieties include cloisonné, champlevé, plique-à-jour (popular in the Art Nouveau period), and guilloché, to name just a few.

    Today, many jewelers still use these ancient techniques, including Van Cleef & Arpels, Fabergé, JAR, David Webb, Tiffany & Co., Cartier and Dior.

  • Artist Biography

    Van Cleef & Arpels


    When Alfred Van Cleef and Estelle Arpels fell in love, their marriage paved the way for iconic jewelry house Van Cleef & Arpels to become a symbol of unification. With their background in precious stone dealing, the Arpels found their perfect match in the Van Cleefs, a family of expert stonecutters. In 1906, Estelle's brother Charles established the company name with Alfred's help and opened shop in the Place Vendôme in Paris. To this day, this Parisian neighborhood is associated with turn-of-the-century luxury.

    The Van Cleef & Arpels aesthetic has always had its finger on the pulse of worldwide trends: For example, the house took inspiration from Tutankhamen upon the Egyptian king's discovery in the 1920s, which spurred a global phenomenon marrying Egyptian Revival and Art Deco motifs. Over the decades, Van Cleef & Arpels has produced intricate watches, earrings and necklaces with a signature elegance that mirrors contemporary tastes. 

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Property from a Distinguished Private Collection


An Art Deco Lacquer, Ruby, Gold and Silver Poudrier

Circa 1945
Round rubies
Signed, numbered, with French assay marks
18 karat yellow and white gold, measuring approximately 3.35 x 2.45 x 0.45 inch

$3,000 - 5,000 

Contact Specialist
Susan Abeles
Head of Department, Americas and Senior International Specialist
New York
+1 212 940 1383


New York Auction 9 December 2019