One of the most popular – and most beautiful – Georgian souvenirs is enamel. It seems everywhere you turn in Tbilisi there’s another shop showing off these vibrant and intricate works of art. I know by looking at these pieces that a great deal of time and effort goes into making them, and a few weeks ago, I was able to see for myself exactly how difficult this process is.
Georgian Cloisonne Enamel dates back to the 8th and 9th centuries. The technique was borrowed from the masters of ancient Byzantium. Not surprisingly, the majority of products from this period are made with religious motifs. The art continued to develop in Georgia until the 15th century. This period is often viewed as the golden age of Georgian Cloisonne Enamel, and there are many locally famous stories about specific pieces. Perhaps the most well known is that of the Khakhuli Icon. In 1859 it was stolen out of the Gelati Monastery where it hung and was not returned to Georgia until 1923. The period in between remains mostly a mystery.
Then, in the 20th century, the technique of cloisonne enamel went into decline and gradually disappeared. The world, and Georgia, nearly lost this beloved and ancient technique. However, about two decades ago, a handful of enthusiasts decided to revive the ancient tradition. Today, Georgian Cloissone Enamel is a staple for any tourist or traveler looking for an authentic Georgian souvenir.
I must admit, I’m not enthralled by the jewelry. I completely understand the time, patience, talent, and artistry that goes into each piece, it’s just really not my style, personally. However, I have always found the pictures and statues crafted from this ancient technique stunning, and have been on the search for “our piece” since we arrived. (It may or may not be the featured image on this blog.)
Periodically, the CLO office puts together enamel classes with a group of internally displaced persons who have made enamel their way of life. I finally attended a workshop a few weeks ago, and these women graciously welcomed us into their homes and shared their supplies and knowledge with us. I knew it would be difficult, but I was wholly unprepared for exactly how delicate this work truly is.
We started with our base forms. I chose earrings. We were then given tiny pieces of silver wire to work with to create designs. This was insanely frustrating for me. I have rather large hands that aren’t made for such intricate work, and the silver wire was extremely pliable. Any little bend was difficult to undo or change. I also am not the most creative person in the world, so attempting to figure out a design on my own was a bit of a nightmare for me. I changed my mind three times. And I never got the pieces of wire to look the same to make the earrings match. But truthfully, I expected this much.
After the first firing to “glue” down the silver fragments, it was time to add color. The “paint” isn’t actually paint at all. It’s a mixture of tiny glass beads and water. We would add a layer of glass, send it for firing, let it cool, and repeat the process over and over until the glass was even or heaped over the silver. The entire process took about four hours. From here, our teachers would polish and seal the designs. We should have them back this week.
Everyone who had previously attended the class told me it would all come together after the masters put the final touches on our jewelry, but I honestly can’t see how they will possibly be able to salvage my rudimentary attempt at their delicate craft. Perhaps they will work some kind of miracle, but I’m not hopeful. Even if the earrings don’t turn out as well as I wish they would have, I’m still very glad I attended to get a glimpse at how difficult the Cloisonne Enamel technique really is.
Now allow me to leave it to the professionals.