Antique Enamels - The Crown Jewels of Buttons

Susan Davis, our company founder, enjoys a lifelong boundless passion for collecting. Her uncommon obsessions fuel everything we do at Grandmother's Buttons. 

Nobody really knows how many antique and vintage glass buttons are in Susan's collection. Still, its numbers are in the tens of thousands for sure. Susan has developed a keen eye for unique, rare, and valuable finds through the decades.  

Antique Enamels - Crown Jewels of Buttons, Buttonology Blog

One of her favorite collectibles is antique enameled buttons. In fact, she and our studio jewelry designers are totally enthralled by enamel buttons. Their vivid colors and painstaking craftsmanship make antique enamels the crown jewels of our button collection. 

Antique Enamels - Crown Jewels of Buttons, Buttonology Blog

The main card of enamel buttons in our museum. All are late 19th century (roughly 1875 to 1900) and most were created by famed French button companies such as Albert Parent et Cie. You will find a few of these exact buttons in our jewelry whenever we do a limited edition enamel release.

For us, these charming beauties feel like remnants of a forgotten art form or tiny relics of long-lost skills. They are intricate, detailed reminders of a kind of patience for creating artistic beauty we seem to have lost in our busy modern lives.

Enamel artists created their designs by fusing powdered glass into a substrate and firing it at high heat. The powder melts, flows, and hardens into a smooth, durable coating. The plethora of colors featured on enamel buttons are created with different metal oxides and chlorides.

The exact origins of this process are unknown. However, we do know that enameling has an ancient history. In fact, the earliest known examples of cloisonné enameled jewelry date from the 11th century BC.

European enamel button pioneers mastered their art in the late eighteenth century. During this time button artisans created extravagant and fashionable enamel buttons that were popular adornments for aristocratic men's long frock coats, knee breeches, and waistcoats. By the turn of the century, stylish men came to prefer simple brass buttons while women were swept up into what we call “button madness.” 

Antique Enamels - Crown Jewels of Buttons, Buttonology Blog

By modern standards, 18th century men’s fashions were quite flamboyant. Toward the end of the century, their long frock coats were embellished with sets of large buttons, many that showed a series of images, such as the equestrian emaux peints above.

Surprisingly, enameling methods have changed very little over the centuries. Here are the four main types of enamel buttons.

Cloisonné 

This is the oldest form of enameling. In this process, fine wires are soldered onto a metal base to outline the design, creating little pockets or cloisons. These pockets are then filled with powdered glass, which is fused to the metal in a not kiln. It usually takes several fillings and firings to create an intricate button design. Once finished it is cooled, set, and polished smooth.

European artisans have practiced cloisonné enamel processes for a millennium. Historians suspect enameling techniques spread through Europe during a period of sustained migration just prior to the middle ages. The art form flourished in the Eastern parts of the Roman Empire during the same period.

Champlevé 

This more straightforward version of the Cloisonné technique was developed by ninth-century Celts. In this process, a metal disc is stamped to create cavities that are then filled with powdered glass and fired. Repeated firings are usually required to achieve the desired design. Champlevé is the most common type of Victorian-era enamel buttons.

Emaux Peints 

Developed in the fifteenth century in Limoges, France, this term means painting images with enamel. With this process, a solid color base is applied via several firings. Then the design is painted on top with different colors of enamel paste. For the best quality ones, every color is fired separately.

Basse Taille 

With Basse Taille, the surface of the metal button is first decorated with an engraved or engine-turned design. Then a layer of transparent colored enamel is applied to enable light to pass through and reflect off the metal surface. 

Basse-taille enamel was very popular near the end of the nineteenth century in Russia. Carl Fabergé used this technique to create his famous decorative eggs for Czar Nicholas and his Czarina. 

Antique Enamels - Crown Jewels of Buttons, Buttonology Blog

Fine French enamels were sold in velvet-lined jewelry cases, such as these from our museum. To the left is a small group of basse taille buttons with a brooch, and on the right are Rococo Revival champleve’ enamels with hand-painted roses. Notice the wire loops that were used to attach buttons to clothing so that they could be removed for laundering.

The early 19th-century feminine Champlevé enamel buttons are for the most part what we feature in our jewelry. However, due to their rarity and value, we save the small number we do discover for our limited-edition releases. 

Antique Enamels - Crown Jewels of Buttons, Buttonology Blog

Some of the Art Nouveau enamels from our collection. Inspired by imported Japanese art, Art Nouveau rejected the fustiness of Victorian design for the clean, sinuous line of nature.

We hope you enjoy wearing these special pieces as much as we did making them and that you will share their unique histories with generations of your family.

Read more on our Buttonology Blog: Crazy for Antique Porcelain.