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Cloisonne: the new appeal of an ancient art

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Cloisonne! Even the syllables--cloi-son-ne (nay)--sound rippling and romantic and faintly exotic as they roll off the tongue.

Equally exotic is the complicated process involved in making this art form--an ancient and traditional skill the Chinese describe as one of their ''minor arts.''

Cloisonne involves a surface decoration set on a metal shape set in enamel within bent wire cells that have been glued (or soldered, in early days) to the metal body of the box, plate, vase, or figure being made. After the cloisons have been set in their patterns--which could depict pictorial scenes, animals, birds, flowers, tendrils, or leaves--a craftsman takes a small brush or spatula and carefully spreads enamel frit mixed with distilled water and more glue to hold it in place until the firing. The object is then heated in a kiln until the frit (made up of various oxides and ground glass) melts. The process is repeated four or five times until the cooled enamel is level with the top of the metal cloisons. Then the whole thing is ground and polished smooth.

The Chinese have been making cloisonne enamels for over four centuries, having absorbed and refined the Byzantine enamel techniques that came to them via the Near East in the 14th century. Earliest authenticated examples date back to the Ming dynasty.

Cloisonne has been in continuous production since then. Modern-day visitors to China can visit the factories that produce it, watch craftspeople meticulously make it, and then buy superb contemporary examples to take home.

But you don't have to go to China to see modern Chinese cloisonne. It is featured in every department store's China promotion, in mail-order catalogs, Chinatown shops, and specialty stores across the country. The China Resource Products (USA) Ltd. at 1133 Avenue of the Americas in New York is an exhibition center featuring cloisonne and many other arts and handicrafts made today in Peking.

Mitch Morse, who recently opened a professional showroom called China Spectrum at 305 East 63rd Street in New York, also includes a large selection of cloisonne wares.

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