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Enameling Elegance: A Journey Through Chinese Copper and Gold Painted Enamels

Updated: Apr 3

Painted enamels on copper and gold are in itself a part of the rich history of Chinese Art. Spanning from ancient origins to the resplendent creations of the 18th century, this art form represents a confluence of cultural influences, technical mastery, and artistic innovation. In this exploration, we delve into the historical evolution, techniques, and materials of Chinese painted enamels, contrasting the imperial creations with those designed for foreign markets. From the meticulous workshops of Beijing to the vibrant trade centers of Guangzhou, we uncover the story of these enamels – a narrative of color, culture, and global exchange.

China, 18th century. Two elegant polychrome enameled copper ewers, appraised by Gauchet Art Asiatique and sold for 10,000 euros. Photo credits: Millon.

Historical Evolution of Chinese Painted Enamels

The journey of Chinese painted enamels begins during the Yuan dynasty, marking the inception of this intricate art form. Initially influenced by techniques from the Middle East and Europe, these enamels underwent significant evolution during the Ming dynasty. This period witnessed the refinement of materials and methods, laying the groundwork for the golden age of art during the Qing dynasty. The Qing era, particularly under the reigns of Emperors Kangxi and Qianlong, saw the pinnacle of enamel craftsmanship. It was during this period that this art form truly flourished, with the Imperial Workshop in Beijing becoming a center of excellence. These workshops not only catered to the refined tastes of the Chinese imperial court but also adapted to changing preferences influenced by European trends. The evolution of Chinese painted enamels is a tale of cultural integration and artistic innovation, reflecting broader shifts in Chinese society and its interactions with the outside world.

China, 18th century. Largebasin in painted enamels on copper, appraised by Gauchet Art Asiatique and sold for 2,200 euros; Photo credits: Yann Girault.

Techniques and Materials of Chinese Painted Enamels

The art of Chinese painted enamels is a testament to meticulous craftsmanship, involving a complex process that begins with a metal base, typically copper or gold. The base is first coated with a layer of white enamel, which serves as a canvas for intricate designs. Artisans then apply colored enamels, made from finely ground minerals and metal oxides, to create vibrant and detailed images. Each layer of enamel is fired at high temperatures, fusing it with the metal and ensuring its durability. This method allows for unmatched depth of color and a brilliant finish not found in other art forms. Over the centuries, this technique has been refined, with artisans experimenting with a variety of colors and textures, leading to the creation of unique and exquisite pieces that were highly prized both in Chinese society and abroad.

Workshops and Artisans of Chinese Painted Enamels

The mastery of Chinese painted enamels is inherently linked to skilled artisans and their workshops, notably the Imperial Workshop in Beijing. Established during the Qing dynasty, this workshop was renowned for producing exquisite enamel pieces for the imperial court. Artisans, selected for their exceptional skills, were often brought in from different provinces. These artisans adhered to rigorous standards, creating works that reflected both artistic innovation and adherence to tradition. In contrast, workshops in Guangzhou played a crucial role in adapting and manufacturing enamels for the foreign market. This included incorporating Western styles and motifs into their designs, catering to the tastes of European clients and other Asian countries. The dichotomy between the Imperial Workshop's emphasis on traditional Chinese themes and Guangzhou's adaptation to foreign tastes underscores the versatility and adaptability of these artisans. Their contributions have left an indelible mark on enamel craftsmanship, embodying a blend of cultural influences and artisanal excellence.

CHINA, 18th century, Yongzheng Mark and Period. Small water pot known as "Yu" in painted enamels on gilded copper, from the Gauchet Art Asiatique collection. Photo credits: Yann Girault.

Imperial vs. Export Pieces in Chinese Painted Enamels

The distinction between Chinese painted enamels made for the imperial court and those made for export is striking. Imperial pieces were characterized by their intricate designs and the use of symbols reflecting power and prosperity, such as dragons and phoenixes. These works were exclusively intended for the imperial family and exemplified the pinnacle of craftsmanship and artistic expression.

On the other hand, export pieces were tailored to the tastes of foreign markets, especially European ones. These works often featured Western motifs, including heraldry and religious symbols, blending Chinese techniques with Western aesthetics. This dichotomy not only illustrates the versatility of Chinese enamel artisans but also highlights the intercultural exchanges of the time. The adaptations made for export pieces testify to the global demand for Chinese art and the influence of international trade on artistic practices.

Designs, Motifs, and Uses of Chinese Painted Enamels

The designs and motifs of Chinese painted enamels are as diverse as they are symbolic. Traditional Chinese themes such as nature, mythology, and daily life were prevalent, especially in imperial pieces. These motifs often carried significant cultural and symbolic meanings. The colors used were vibrant and varied, with artisans achieving a spectrum of hues through their mastery of enamel techniques. For export pieces, there was a distinct adaptation to include Western motifs and styles, catering to foreign tastes and sensibilities. The use of these enamels was varied, ranging from decorative objects in the imperial court to functional items such as tobacco boxes and vases for the export market.

CHINA, 18th century. Covered tea box in enameled copper, appraised by Gauchet Art Asiatique and sold for 1500 euros. Photo credits: Yann Girault.

This versatility not only highlights the functional aspect of these artworks but also underscores their role as cultural ambassadors in the global exchange of art and ideas.

In addition to the fascinating history and techniques of Chinese painted enamels, it is also crucial to recognize the role of experts in this field, such as the Parisian appraisal firm Gauchet Art Asiatique and its expert, Jean Gauchet. Their expertise in appraising, dating, authenticating, and selling these art objects is undisputed. Through deep knowledge and specialized expertise, Gauchet Art Asiatique plays a key role in the preservation and valorization of these artworks. Jean Gauchet, with his expertise and keen eye for detail, not only ensures the authenticity and quality of each piece but also determines their precise value. Their close collaboration with a network of auctioneers allows the firm to sell these art pieces at auctions, ensuring they fetch the best possible price. This approach not only enriches the Asian art market but also contributes to a better understanding and appreciation of the historical and cultural nuances of Chinese painted enamel art.

Are you interested in knowing the value of your Asian pieces? Our experts are here to assist you.


* Tributes from Guangdong to the Qing Court, Palace Museum, Beijing and 

The Art Gallery, The Chinese University of Hong-Kong, 1987. Don Bosco 

Printing Co.

* National Palace Museum, Taipei

* China Institute Gallery, New York

* F. & C. Norton, Arts of Asia

* Beijing Palace Museum

* Victoria and Albert Museum, London

* Macao Cultural Centre

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