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Plique a Jour

Plique Jour - Valeri Timofeev
Yesterdays Technique Today
 by Bill Helwig
 from Vol. 11, No. 3, June 1992

     Plique jour for most enamelers is a mystery, the tour de force of enlightenment, a man made jewel, a conquering of dynamic difference that traps the minds' imagination.  To others a frustrating road to compromise and quick failure.  The puzzle is how to capture enamel successfully within a filigree framework of silver or gold for a desirable objet d'art and not destruct along the way.

     Just as the enamel can be captured, the viewer is captured, but it is the enamelist that must accomplish the task of capturing.  This skill can lead to one of the most attracting of gems in the field of enamel.  There have been few masters of the art of plique jour, most notably, Fernand Thesmar, Gustave Gaudernack, Rene Lalique, and P. Ovchinnikov.  There are no recognized masters of this technique in the United States and few practitioners.

     The extreme technical considerations of design and structure for the metal and enamel have stylized the overall appearance in a plique jour object.  This gives almost no freedom to break with that which has become virtually set by tradition.  One can only marvel at the beauty of such an enameled object and dare using it functionally only with precious care.  Mostly the objects are set somewhere to catch the light and attract the viewer much like that of the spider web to the fly.  Once caught one can hardly get away from its mystery and unusual appearance.

     Valeri Timofeev in many ways is captured too, but the reasons are far different.  For Valeri, plique jour objects produce an income while his stronger up-to-date works in cloisonne, fall into the category of being very modern in design.  Set, so to speak, in a cold frozen space that appears to be completely controlled as a modern man made trophy that questions reason and reward.

     Mr. Timofeev exists in the grand tradition of the dynamic enamelist whose convictions and workmanship respect, but know no master.  Hs is completely independent from any influence that would suggest a side track, a reliance upon tentative worth or speculation.  His great resonance and command can only be faulted by knowing too much and by being far too resourceful for the more modern habits.

     It is doubtful that there isn't anything that he couldn't do once his mind was set to it.  His ability to invent and make tools, use fundamentals to solve problems, and construct processes and procedures render him into the class of being truly a modern alchemist.  He understands the principles of how and what answers are composed.  In no way does he deny fundamental truths, nor does he extract a price for that which has been handed down or historically proven.

     Valeri Timofeev is not secretive about the process that he has learned and developed through his own workmanship.  What he offered in the many workshops that he taught for Thompson Enamel in the latter part of 1991 was nothing beyond common concept and workmanship knowledge.  He reflected and practiced the basic traditional metalsmith's 'old school' skills by which the art of filigree and enameling has long been practiced.

     Theophilus in 1123 laid down the basic principles in On Divers Arts, as did Cellini (1500-1571) in his Treatise on Goldsmithing.  Both books have been widely reproduced throughout history and are still available today.  Much of what Valeri had to offer was an insight into complete commitment without added distractions.  When placed into the context of his country's social-political history, it is no wonder that he would be so skilled.  Moscow, Russia, has long been known for its respect and demands for the classical approach that have greater historical root when compared to the more youthful short-rooted fragmentation as taught within the United States.

     Words and experience differ greatly when it comes to actual understanding and communication.  To any master of metals and enameling techniques, the processes are quite common though practiced infrequently due to design limitations and intensive labor and time demands.  While most of the world marvels at the plique jour object, the metalsmith sees it more as a natural tour de force involving the principles of filigree soldering and the interfacial tension between glass and metal under the conditions of heat.

     Considering current trends, modern metalsmiths may have little interest in traditional techniques that substantially break from currently existing rules for soldering and illustrate a far more devious and in some respects flexible approach.

     Without being excessive about design principles and procedure, what follows  is a capsulization of Timofeev's instructions for plique jour.

     Photo 1 depicts the paper pattern, filigree wire, clippers, tweezers and a work in process.

Figure 1     The wires are literally glued  (general purpose, white) together.  Pins hold individual pieces together while the glue dries.  A thick block of Styrofoam is used to support the design and pinning.  The major rims and supports are sterling silver, square or on edge rectangular wire; the filigree, fine silver cloisonne type wire.

Figure 2     Photo 2 is of a work in process.  The larger areas are created first and then filled with the smaller filigree forms.  Strong rims are very important for strength and durability.

 

Figure 3

 
     Photo 3 is the finished pattern, with all wires in place.  Finished work from photo 1.

 

 

     The unsoldered, glued together, work is completely and liberally fluxed with a saturated solution of household borax and water.  This can be done before or after being placed on an oxidized sheet of iron or steel.  Tangent points have had solder applied by brush and a flux solution or the fluxed piece has been sprinkled with solder before the flux dries.

     The solder, as made by Mr. Timofeev, is composed of 72 grams of silver and 28 grams of copper, both pure.  The metals are melted in a crucible, sprinkled with borax and covered with a piece of wood.  The melting of the metals in the crucible is produced by heating in a furnace or with a torch.  The wood cover with its charcoal helps to prevent oxidation.  The molten alloy is poured into a mold to form an ingot.  A very course file is used to grate filing of the alloy from the ingot for use on the piece as silver solder chips.

Figure 4     Photo 4 pictures a flat piece that will be later formed after soldering.  There is a flat piece of iron or steel on the bottom and a flat piece of steel screening on top.  Binding wire is also used to bind specific parts together and on the piece to the iron or steel sheet metal.  The top screening helps disperse heat as well as hold the individual pieces somewhat even with each other.  The paper and glue burn off during the initial stages of heating.

     A soft flame is used from a large tipped torch held far enough away so as to cover the whole surface with a yellow flame.  The silver surfaces of the wires are watched.  When the silver surface that has taken on the color of heat turns black, the soldering is complete.  While the piece is still hot, it is dipped into flux, not a water or an acid bath.  (Borax dissolves in water.)  The binding wire is removed along with any char of paper and glue.  The flat piece is turned over and reheated to draw the solder through to the other side.

     The piece is then examined for non-soldered contact points and resoldered if necessary using the same procedure.  It is suggested that all wires forming the openings have at least three soldered contact points.

     When the soldering is completed on the flat piece, the piece can be shaped around an oxidized iron form.  Before shaping, all coatings of flux must be removed so as not to emboss the wires or facet the form during bending.

     Binding wire is used to hold firmly the ends that must meet together for soldering.  If the surface has been cleaned of the protective flux coating for purposes of shaping a form, it is important to re-flux completely the entire piece for the next soldering step.  Additional wires may be added to insure a complete pattern.  Soldering may also occur on the piece when it is off the iron support form, such as when applying foot or rim rings.

Figure 5     A previously soldered bottom is bound in place to the piece using binding wire.  It is fluxed by dipping to insure total coverage rather than by brushing.  The piece is bound to the iron form, see photo 5, right.  The piece is placed back on the iron Figure 6 form to keep the flame from plowing through the piece for greater control and to reduce overheating or melting the filigree wires.  The same large soft yellow flame is used for soldering in all filigree processes, photo 6, left.  A blue flame is not  suggested or deemed successful for the filigree soldering.  The piece and support form after having been removed from each other is shown in photo 7, below right.  The same soldering procedure is used for theFigure 7 foot support ring.

     The entire piece is checked for any loose wires or joints and corrected by fluxing and soldering, as necessary.

     After all the soldering work has been completed, all flux on the surface is removed.  The piece is then placed in a furnace at 1430F for 1-1 minutes.  Cool, by fanning the door, if necessary, to maintain temperature level.  The piece is removed, cooled, and placed in a 10% sulfuric acid bath for 5 minutes.  This procedureFigure 8 is repeated 5 times until the silver surface achieves a fine frost or snow-like appearance with no appreciable metallic character.  The purpose of this procedure is to oxidize the surface copper of the solder and sterling portions and then remove the copper oxides by acid etching.  The result is a layer of pure silver on the entire surface, including those made of sterling silver or any excessive solder, photo 8, above right.  The piece does not go into the acid bath after the last heat treatment.

Figure 9     Photo 9, left, shows a piece designed and soldered in sections on the supporting iron form.  The ready to be soldered areas show silver.  Previously soldered portions show to be copper scale coated due to the previous soldering process.  It should be noted that the soldered pieces are not cleaned of theirFigure 10 protective flux coating until the entire piece is completed.  Photo 10, right, shows the completed metal piece with constructed sterling silver base, after all copper oxides have been brought to the surface and removed with acid.  The fine silver surface of the cup is ready for enameling.  Photo 11, below, shows the piece after completion.  All exposed metal surfaces have been gold plated.
 Figure 11

     The enamel to be applied to the individual filigree openings in -80 +150 mesh.  There should be a close relationship in expansion coefficients and softening points of the various enamels used.  The transparent enamels should be pre-tested for clarity and the similarities of important characteristics.  The enamel is saturated in a mixture of 5 parts water to 1 part Klyr Fire.

Figure 12     The enamel is picked up with a curved spatula tool tip, photos 12 & 13.  The wet mass is touched to the inner wall of the filigree wire.  The tool is moved Figure 13 to trail the wet mass, 
 
pulling it into contact with all sides of the single opening filigree wall.  The tool is extracted from the wet granularFigure 14
 
mass without touching the filigree wall.  The surface tension of the liquid suspends the enamel mass within the filigree wall.  The twists or Figure 15 riffle
 
of the tools' mid section is bowed along an outer edge of the piece.  This vibration settles the enamel particles into a compact alignment.  The mass of wet enamel is then blotted with the edge of a piece of blotting paper, photos 14, above right, & 15, above left.  This pulls out the liquid and allows the mass to dry more quickly.  Though fragile, the granular mass is relatively strong.

     It is important not to try to overload the individual filigree space with enamel.  A fine thin film of particles is all that is necessary to bridge the gap.  After firing, the fused enamel bridge will be sufficient to hold the addition of more enamel.

     All of one color is applied before moving on to another color.  If an error in application occurs, just remember it is easier to remove dry enamel than wet enamel.

     It is important to keep enamel off the top edge of the filigree wire.  This is especially true when the wire is beaded or twisted.

     The piece with its filled enamel openings is allowed to dry and warm on its stilt on the top of the furnace before firing.

     The firing is very important and requires deliberate concentration.  The furnace is cooled to a temperature below 1400F.  The piece on its stilt is inserted into the center of the heating chamber and the door closed.  The temperature should not exceed 1430F.  The amount of time is possibly 45 seconds.  IF the enamel has not reached 'orange peel' or further stage after 45 seconds, the piece is removed and rotated 180.  Before re-inserting, the piece still on its stilt should be slightly cooled.  Then the piece is re-inserted and fired under the identical as possible conditions 2 or 3 seconds longer.  This process is repeated until the enamel has reached at least the 'orange peel' stage.  The length of the firing time should be noted and used in subsequent firings as an indicative guide for successive firings.  The piece is allowed to cool naturally.

     The desirable result after the first firing is a fine web of enamel across the filigree opening with multiple same size small holes rather than one large hole in the center with heavy enamel massing on the wire walls.

     The next application is to fill holes and apply the second coat of enamel.  Like the first application of enamel, the desire is to have an even distribution of enamel 2 or 3 grains thick across the intended surface.  The same riffling and blotting is required for the same previously stated reasons.

     Any openings which by chance fill on the first firing also have enamel applied.  The piece is allowed to dry and warm on the kiln as before.  The same firing sequence is followed.

     Third and subsequent coats become a repeat of the preceding procedure.  The individual enamel filled openings should be convex on both sides.  It is not important to have the enamel even with the top of the filigree wire.  In fact, it is desirable to have them convex because it shows a greater charm, facets and reflect light with variety, intensifies the depths of colors and adds strength, due to flexibility.

     It is generally agreed that individual openings for this technique should not exceed 3/16 of an inch.  (For larger openings, a different technique is applied.)  Areas smaller than the thickness of the wire wall would reduce the source of available light that could enter and pass through the space, and therefore should not be considered.  Larger dimensions must take into account, support strength, as its major consideration.  When the space is larger, and the enamel softens, the film bridge tends to pull apart, due to gravity.  Logically such extremes can be bridged, but the application and firing processes may become excessive.

     When the openings are all filled sufficiently to consider the enameled portions finished, the surface of the object may require stoning to remove any enamel that coats the tops of the filigree wires.  This may be done with the usual care and processes.  A subsequent firing would be required to heal any enamel surface scratches.  If individual openings with enamel become cracked, a small thin coating of enamel should be applied and the piece refired.  Either or both procedures would require the same care and routine as those which predicated the earlier stages.

     Small metal spheres and foils may be added to individual windows of enamel for decorative purposes.

     The upper and lower portions of cylinder forms tend to develop expansion related cracks.  This can to some extent be controlled by designing small openings in these sections, introducing opaque colors, reduce the thickness of the enamel, and slowing the cooling process of such pieces.

     With practice, the use of several colors, or types of enamel, can be used within an individual opening with great success and design invention.

     One should not worry about the maturity of individual enamels within the openings.  They will mature during later firings, but do not add enamel to an immature surface, because water residue patterns will be developed and become permanent when fired.

     Mr. Timofeev works with, not against, his materials.  Although his works appear to have been made with complete control, they are indeed a respectful contract agreement between him and the materials and the processes with the equity of understanding.

     Many of those who took the workshops in plique jour expressed that they were glad to have had the experience, but probably wouldn't continue with the technique.  For whatever reason for their decision, it must be remembered that all techniques require logical reason, result and purpose.  The surface tension of the enamel and the nearly eutectic method of soldering vie with the other mysteries of life.  What attention they receive is relative only to that which an individual deems of importance.  Both prime fundamental processes, along with others, have been here before and will remain here long after, as elemental explanations to how things work. 

 

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