Enamoured by enamel

Materials World magazine
1 Aug 2010
Pendants: Vitreous enamel, copper and silver

The Innovation in Enamel Symposium at University of West England in Bristol, UK drew an earnest crowd eager to discuss the possibilities of a material weighed down in tradition. Ledetta Asfa-Wossen reports

A lack of ‘vocabulary’ and the need for the UK enamel industry to go beyond traditional enamel practice and explore techniques commonly associated with large-scale and panel enamelling, was a repeated concern highlighted at the intimate symposium held at Bristol’s University of West England (UWE) on 15 July. At the event, Designer and Research Fellow at the UWE Enamel Research Unit and Centre for Fine Print, Jessica Turrell, presented her primary findings from her fellowship, ‘Innovation in Vitreous Enamel Surfaces’, to an open forum, to tackle the industry’s stagnation.

The use of etching and enamel to create a more ‘ambiguous and expressive surface quality’ has been the focus of Turrell’s recent experimental work, something she believes is lacking in the UK contemporary enamelled jewellery community. ‘The etched pieces are often made up of multiple layers of monochrome mark or text uppermost allowing for a glimpse of underlying
enamel in bright jewel like colours,’ she explains.

First trained in jewellery and enamel at Central School of Art (now Central St Martins) in London, UK her materials background was based on traditional teachings, until she embarked on her own research into mark making using innovative techniques.

The third dimension

A key aspect of her work, which consists of practical, technical and theoretical research, has been to take novel mark making techniques and apply them to 3D jewellery forms, to encourage a more exploratory style. ‘My proposition was that if a 3D piece could be created, relatively easily, with no solder joints that might be harmed by high temperature firings and that had the potential to be replicated any number of times, this might allow the enamelling process to be approached with a greater sense of freedom and playfulness’.

To create the 3D forms, with an intention for simplicity, she used an electroforming technique – a process which involves metal particles being deposited onto a base form through the process of electro-deposition, in a layer that is thick enough to be self-supporting.

Using a 100-litre tank, designed specifically for the production of copper electroforms and consisting of copper sulphate and sulphuric acid. Turrell was able to create repeatable forms, using wax-based mandrels, coated with a copper or silver based electro-conductive paint before being electroformed.
‘I consciously designed and built an electroforming set-up that is as simple as possible, and relies on observable results to keep the solution in balance and that could reasonably be replicated in an enamel studio’, she explains.

‘One of the main issues with electroforming is that the chemical composition of the solution in the bath is constantly changing in response to ambient temperature, use and the passage of time.

‘Different proportions of additives need to be added to keep the solution in balance. In order to do this accurately the whole process needs to be performed under controlled conditions preferably with a computer-controlled system, where the chemistry is regularly analysed and additives added as required.’

Wax base forms proved an ideal starting point as she was able to easily cast, carve and shape the wax and remove it, once the electroform was complete.

To refine the method, further trials of the electroforming process itself, looking at all the variables of time, current and temperature to provide a smooth surface of the correct thickness to be enamelled were also studied.

Pushing forward

Although not fully explored due to time contstraints, Turrell, along with Dr Peter Walters, a colleague at UWE, investigated the potential for creating base forms through the process of rapid-prototyping using a Z-Corp 3-D printing process. She explains, ‘We began by scanning a group of hand carved forms, and inputting the data via a computer programme. The objects where then built using the Z-Corp system where layers of powder and binder are printed to build up a 3D object. The finished objects were then impregnated with a hardener that allows them to withstand immersion in the electroforming solution.’

However, while non-traditionalresearch is a step forward for the sector, to maintain a sustainable level of experimentation and development, the curriculum, quality of teaching and technical instruction available to students will need to evolve. A ‘lack of information, facilities and appreciation of enamelling history’ were all issues of concern at the event. And Turrell is particularly aware that the sector could stall in light of wider Government education cuts, particularly when compared with universities that specialise in enamel in Germany and the USA.

Her soon to be completed project of a publicly accessible database for industry will be a significant step forward for UK enamel work.

The fellowship is due to end in September.