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When the Engine Turns

Most people believe that the term 'guilloche' (pronounced gee-oh-shay) refers to a type of enamelling, but strictly speaking it describes a process.

The word guilloche is derived from the French word meaning engine turning, and its literal translation is 'engine turning patterns'. A precise, intricate design is carved into metal and the pattern is filled with translucent enamel paint that pools and collects in the engraved lines, creating a depth to the design. The machines that were used to create the guilloche patterns were called rose engines - hence engine turning. Carl Faberge used the technique to magnificent effect on his Faberge eggs in the 1880s.

Engine turning machines were first used on soft materials such as wood and ivory from the 16th century. The lathe was adapted in the 18th century for use on metal, and engine turning was used in everything from architecture to automobile parts. The design is usually a series of lines that appear to be interwoven into one another, and any pattern of this type engraved on metal, printed (on banknotes, for example, making them extremely difficult to forge) or found on wood or stone is referred to as guilloche.

In the 19th century it was mark of status to own guilloche -enamelled silver, and for the wealthy the use of such objects was part of everyday life. Items such as jewellery, jars, flatware, clocks and compacts were decorated using the guilloche process, often with detailed hand enamelling to finish.

It was Faberge who elevated the art to new heights. He oversaw the development of ever-more intricate designs that were engraved more than once before being fired with enamels in a choice of more than 140 colours and up to six layers. Once fired, each piece was hand polished using a chamois leather on a wooden wheel. Faberge exhibited his stunning enamelled wares at the Paris Exhibition of 1900, and a French fashion for the Russian designs soon followed.

Design houses such as Boucheron, Tiffany & Co and Chaumet began producing guilloche enamelling, but it was Cartier who was the most entranced, visiting Russia several times and ordering the finest enamellers to produce objects designed in his workshops. He introduced new colour combinations such as blue and green, and created new shades of opalescent enamel.

Guilloche enamelling was applied to clocks, watches, cigarette cases, picture frames, hatpins, vanity cases, combs, mirrors, pens, buckles, lorgnettes and many other items of luxury. In 1908, Cartier sold a pair of cufflinks and a belt buckle in guilloche enamel to the Dowager Empress Marie Fedorovna. The luxurious design was a hit and by 1910 the company had become the official supplier to the Russian Imperial Court.

The years from 1890 to the early 1920s are considered the heyday for guilloche enamelled luxuries. The post-war years ushered in a new style, and extravagant items that had been considered a status symbol were seen as outdated and even inappropriate. But fashions come and fashions go - and then come back again, and today guilloche enamel is once more appreciated and highly sought.

A word of warning: any damage to enamel on an object will adversely affect value. Repair should only ever be carried out by an expert, and even then it may not increase the value to any great degree unless done with perfection. "Enamel is a beautiful but fragile medium," says antique enamel expert Keith Seldon, "as breakable as fine glass. All enamel objects are reliant on the base they are set in, and this can need attention itself." For more information on enamel repair, have a look at Keith's web site: www.keithseldon.co.uk

This information first appeared in the Winter 2014 edition of Antiques and Collectables for Pleasure & Profit