Plique à Jour - Valeri Timofeev
Yesterdays Technique Today
by Bill Helwig
from Vol. 11, No. 3, June 1992
Plique à 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 à 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.
technical considerations of design and structure for the metal
and enamel have stylized the overall appearance in a plique à 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
Valeri Timofeev in
many ways is captured too, but the reasons are far
different. For Valeri, plique à 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
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 à 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
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.
excessive about design principles and procedure, what
follows is a capsulization of Timofeev's instructions for plique à jour.
Photo 1 depicts the paper
pattern, filigree wire, clippers, tweezers and a work in
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.
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.
Photo 3 is the
finished pattern, with all wires in place. Finished work
from photo 1.
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.
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
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.
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
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 the 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 1-1½ 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 procedure 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.
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 their 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
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
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 to trail the wet mass,
into contact with all sides of the single opening filigree
wall. The tool is extracted from the wet granular
mass without touching the filigree wall. The surface tension of
the liquid suspends the enamel mass within the filigree
wall. The twists or 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
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 1400°F. The
piece on its stilt is inserted into the center of the heating
chamber and the door closed. The temperature should not
exceed 1430°F. 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
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
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
Small metal spheres
and foils may be added to individual windows of enamel for
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 à 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.