ETYMOLOGY OF ENAMEL
by Woodrow W. Carpenter
from Volume 1, No. 3, October 1982
Most people in our discipline use the word ENAMEL to identify both the glass which is fused to metal, and the finished product.
However, we should not be as possessive as the art potter who believes the word CERAMICS always refers to a pot made of clay.
Many people associate ENAMEL with something other than glass on metal.
This is easily understood because many words, when isolated can have more than one meaning depending upon the experience and knowledge of the viewer.
For instance, there is no way to interpret the meaning of a simple word like "does" when isolated.
The grammarian will see it as the present tense, third person singular of "do".
The zoologist may see it as two or more female deer.
Dictionaries normally list five meanings for ENAMEL:
A vitreous material that is applied to metal, or to porcelain.
A work executed in such material: a fine Cloisonne enamel.
One of the various glossy lacquers or varnishes used for leather, paper, wood, metal, etc.
A kind of cosmetic or paint for the face supposed to imitate exactly the natural gloss of the complexion.
The layer of hard, glossy, calcareous material forming the exposed outer covering of the teeth.
There are many references in literature referring to enameled brick, stoneware, terracotta, tiles and glass.
In all cases, the word ENAMEL is used to denote something that was considered to be beautiful or durable, and in many cases both.
It is very doubtful that the etymology of ENAMEL will ever be traced to the beginning, for the beginning is lost in the mists of antiquity.
Obviously the word ENAMEL is English.
According to Mrs. Dawson1, amell, emal and esmal are also English.
We have seen no other reference concurring with this. Robert Herrick, an English poet, published his poems in 1648.
One of the poems describes an "Enamelled pansy", going on to say, "truly nothing can resemble the rich depth of colour of this lovely flower better than enamel".
It is interesting that in his early years Herrick was a goldsmith.
Robert Milton and Andrew Marwell, both English poets used the words enamel or enamelled in their poems to describe flowers and colors in the mid-17th century.
In 1668, an English translation of Natural
Magic2 by John Baptista Porta, originally published in Latin in 1558 gives formulas for making "smalt or ennamel".
On the same page reference is made to enammeling on gold, and on the following page he talks about enamelling gold.
The three spellings may have been a lack of proof reading. However, when the author said "smalt or enammel" it would be logical to assume he was giving the Latin name along with its English equivalent.
The earliest known recipe specifically for enamel is a Latin treatise on alchemy written in an English early 14th century hand, Sloane MS #1754 in the British
Museum3. Formula 231, "Ad facendum emallum, etc.", has been translated:
To make enamel, we would tend to believe emallum is Latin, rather than English.
In France the word is email. Garner4 quotes Marie-Madeleine Gauthier:
The French term esmail or esmal was first used in the 13th century being
derived from the 12th century plural form esmauz, itself derived from the latin smaltus.
We note Brongniart5 in 1854 used email.
In Germany the word is email. According to Dr. Heiko
Steuer6 the Germans first began to use the word about 1700.
Earlier smaltum was used, preceded by smalzen, which followed schmelz.
According to Mrs. Dawson the mediaeval Latin words smaltum, smaldum and esmalctum are often used in lists of rich benefactions of the popes as early as the 7th and 8th centuries.
Dante (1265-1321) used the word smalto and in the old chronicle of Casino there is a curious account of a golden altar front set with smalta and sacred ornaments of metal enriched with superficial colors and figures described as productions of Greek art, procured from Constantinople, 1058 A.D.
Mrs. Dawson also indicates the Greeks used the word maltha, to melt.
Both Cunynghame7 and Mrs. Dawson mentions the Hebrew word hasmal or hashmal, which Jerome (346- 420 A.D.) translated as electrum (Latin).
In the Septaugint (written 280-130 B.C.) it is rendered electron (Greek).
The words electron or electrum is thought to represent three things.
The most generally accepted is amber. Amber is fossilized resin of ancient coniferous trees.
Usual color is light yellow to dark brown, although red, green, blue, and black ambers are known.
It's property of being electrically charged when rubbed with cloth or fur was known by the ancients.
When heated to 350 to 400oF it softens and can be worked, yielding pressed amber.
When heated to about 500oF it decomposes, yielding amber oil, succinic acid, and a resinous substance, colophony.
The latter, dissolved in linseed oil and turpentine, yields a valuable varnish called amber varnish.
Amber is a natural glass according to the definition of glass subscribed to by many modern glass scientists.
Electrum or electron also refers to native gold containing 20-40% silver used by the ancients.
And third, according to Mrs. Dawson, Theophilus used the word in his early 12th century treatise for enamel. Hendrie, his translator, in a note says that this electrum was a transparent glass stone or gem set in filigree work.
Again both Cunynghame and Mrs. Dawson refer to the Hebrew version of Ezekiel, chapters 1-4.
(Reportedly written early in the 6th century B.C.) in describing his vision when he saw a "great cloud and a fire unfolding itself, and a brightness was about it, and out of the midst thereof as the color of amber of hashmal, out of the midst of the fire."
The King James version mentions only the word amber. Some writers have suggested this may mean
resembling the brightness of an enamel drawn from the furnace, though it seems a bit speculative.
According to Cunynghame, the Greek writers, Homer , Hesiod, Sophocles, Aristophanes, Virgil, Strabo, Martial, Pausanias and Tertullian, living between the 9th century B.C. through the 3rd century A.D. all used the word electrum to mean some sort of beautiful, lustrous, shining material used for ornamenting shields and other things.
According to Mrs. Dawson the objects discovered by Schliemann in the Homeric graves at Mycenae include bronze sword-blades richly inlaid with gold and silver set in a non-metallic substance or hard paste which would seem to have been fired into the design.
She quotes book XI of Homer's Iliad: "ten stripes of black Kyanos".
The present writer's copy of the Iliad, published by The University of Chicago, gives the following description of Agamemnon's breast-plate:
"It had ten courses of dark cyanus, twelve of gold, and ten of tin.
There were serpents of Cyanus that reared themselves up toward the neck, three upon either side, like the rainbows which the son of Saturn has set in heaven as a sign to mortal men."
A few lines further: "On the body of the shield there were twenty bosses of white tin, with another of dark cyanus in the middle:
this last was made to show a Gorgon's head, fierce and grim, with Rout and Panic on either side.
The band for the arm to go through was of silver, on which there was a writhing snake of cynaus with three heads that sprang from a single neck, and went in and out among one another".
Mrs. Dawson also quotes from Homer's Odyssey, Book VII:
"a cornice or edging of kyanos". The present writers copy in describing this ornate room gives the following description:
"The walls on either side were of bronze end to end, and the cornice was of blue enamel".
This appears to be a liberal translation. Perhaps it should not be
According to Garner, the Greek authorities do not consider the references to Kuanos to mean enamel.
They say the processes described are more applicable to the working of iron than of bronze.
Nevertheless, in book 18 of the Iliad an account of Vulcan making a shield says, "He threw copper into the fire, and tin, with silver and gold."
No mention is made of iron.
Various facts point to the first half of the 9th century B.C. as the time when Homer's Iliad and Odyssey were composed.
However, written forms seem to be first evident about the middle of the 6th century B.C.
No doubt much has changed since the original composition and that there would be various interpretations is understandable.
"Enamel" has been known by several names throughout history and most of those names stood for other things at the same time, but the name always referred to something beautiful and/or durable.
Dawson, Mrs. Nelson, ENAMELS. Methuen & Co., Ltd. London (1912) p.10
Porta, John Baptista. NATURAL MAGIC. Reprint of the 1658 Translation by Basic Books, Inc. New York (1957) p. 184-186
Chamot, M. ENGLISH MEDIAEVAL ENAMELS. Ernest Benn Ltd. London (1930) p. 14
Garner, Harry. CHINESE AND JAPANESE CLOISONNE ENAMELS. Faber And Faber. London (1976) p. 13
Brongniart, Alexandre. Traite des Arts Ceramique, ou des poteries considerees dan leur Histoire, Leur Pratique et leur Theorie. Paris. 2nd Ed. Rev. 1854.
Steuer, Dr. Heiko. EMAIL, KUNST, HANDWERK, INDUSTRIE. cataglog of exhibit at Cologne Town Musuem. June 2- August 23, 1981.
Cunynghame, H. H. EUROPEAN ENAMELS. Methuen and Co. London (1906) p. 29