An introduction to enamel

Anyone who has played with the wax dripping from a candle burning atop a wine bottle will know how incredibly satisfying it can be. I’ve completely lost track of conversations in pubs and cafés where candle wax is available for the peeling, melting and construction of miniature skyscrapers. The distraction has proved so difficult to resist that, on one occasion, the person I was with snatched the wax encrusted bottle away and plonked it on a neighbouring table. When I saw the glee of my table neighbours, who now had two waxy bottles to play with, I began to seriously assess whether I should remain friends with the bottle plonker. I generally prefer when people join me in my waxy urban planning. If somebody had told me that playing with wax could be a legitimate career I’d have signed up to be a jeweller years ago.

My latest rings are variations of the original bombato ring I mentioned in earlier blog posts (see it in progress here and here). After a great deal of trial and error I managed to make a few decent wax copies of the original ring. Ignacio then showed me how to play around with the copies to get different surface textures and decorative effects. I used a spirit lamp to heat the tip of the wax-working tool and began scraping lines and melting holes in the surface of the wax models. I’d be quite happy to sit at my bench and do that forever. I ended up with three perforated models that I was happy to have cast. Ignacio showed me how to melt one end of a wax rod to attach it to the inside of a rubber sprue base, which fits like a lid on the casting flask. The ends of smaller wax rods could then be melted and fused to the wax rings. When the small wax rods were fused to the larger one, the whole piece resembled a little tree. Once it was complete, the little wax tree was placed inside the casting flask and the rubber lid pressed down firmly. A sheet of paper was wrapped and taped around the open end of the flask and plaster was poured in, completely encasing the wax ring tree. The plaster needed to dry so it was left aside for a day and I headed home for the evening, planning on relaxing and getting an early night because we had a 7.45 am start the next morning.

Ollie was away working in the beautiful northern Italian city of Trento, so I spent the evening watching back-to-back episodes of Boardwalk Empire and eating copious amounts of chocolate. Whenever I belatedly get into a t.v. series like this, I overdose on it and then will forever associate the theme of the programme with whatever else is going on in my life at the time. So, smartly-dressed illicit alcohol peddling and jewellery making in Florence are forever linked now. The last time this happened I was still working in the museum sector in the UK. I watched the entire first series of Breaking Bad during a week spent working on repacking the collection of parasols at Bath Fashion Museum. Jane Austen and crystal meth are inextricably married in my memory as a result.

The early start next morning was necessary because the furnace and kiln needed to be fired up early, in preparation for burning out the wax and pouring the silver into the remaining void. Unfortunately binge watching a murderous prohibition-themed t.v. series and eating chocolate didn’t result in a restful night and I turned up at Metallo Nobile having had only two hours sleep. Agasi had opened up the school and was already ripping the paper and tape off the casting flasks when I arrived. Two other students were there observing Agasi cutting the excess plaster away and making the surface of the moulds in the casting flasks look very neat and tidy. He scratched the name of the appropriate student in the top of each plaster mould and then popped them in the kiln. The kiln would melt the wax models leaving just their negative image in the plaster, ready to be filled with silver.

Once the moulds were heating up we were free to go and have some breakfast, and I made a bee line for the coffee machine. But before I had a chance to reach it Agasi told me that it was out of bounds for the day. Because we were using the kiln and furnace, a larger amount of electricity was being used than on a normal day, so non-essential appliances in the rest of the studio couldn’t be used for fear of overloading the system. Myself and my two sleepy classmates, Mirko and Alex, headed off to a nearby café to knock back espressos instead. Alex doesn’t speak much English or Italian, but I had a good old chat with Mirko who is from Piedmont and speaks very good English. The previous day he had made an incredible wax tree for the numerous pieces he had made. It was so perfect it looked like a little bouquet.

As the morning passed I became so engrossed in my work that I ended up making huge progress on my rose quartz ring in a few hours. This was a piece that I had started with the square ring some weeks ago and had kept on the back burner for days where we have to wait for furnaces and kilns to do their magic. The moulds in the kiln were soon ready to be filled with molten silver, so Ignacio instructed me to measure out the correct amount of pure silver and copper for my piece and he poured the metal granules into the crucible for melting. When the metal was hot enough he poured it into my mould, which was held from the neck down in a vacuum chamber to suck the molten metal into every crevice and avoid defects caused by air being trapped. Once the mould had cooled a bit it was plunged into a bucket of cold water and the plaster began to fall away. When the silver emerged from the plaster it was black,  a normal effect of oxidation. The holes in the surface design were still filled with little dots of plaster and the rings bore a resemblance to some kind of mollusc. One ring didn’t turn out very well, having an unplanned hole in the surface where the wax model must have been too thin. But the other two were in good shape so I was happy enough. Now began the work of cutting the rings loose from the excess metal, cleaning them up and refining the surface.

In the process of working on the rings I took note of my classmates who come from all over the world. Many speak their own language, plus Italian and English, but some have a more limited ability to communicate, myself included. Agasi and Ignacio are so patient with everyone and will repeat and simplify what they are saying, using drawings if necessary to communicate exactly what they mean. I have noticed in the past few weeks that I understand a great deal more of what is being said to me, without repetition or additional diagrams being required, and I can speak Italian more easily than when I first started here. It’s far from flowing conversation but I can usually get my point across and comprehend the response. Sometimes I’ll make a stab at guessing the correct word to use, based on the similarity of some Italian words to English and more often than not I’ll get it right. For example, when Ignacio was explaining how to melt holes in the wax he told me not to be hesitant as it makes a mess of the surface. I knew what he meant and said ‘devo essere decisivo?‘, wondering if I had found the right word for decisive, to which he replied ‘esatto’ (exactly). I always think that not being afraid to make mistakes is a key way to make progress in learning a language, or doing anything else for that matter.

Ignacio had explained to me that I could use enamel to fill the holes in the silver rings and gave me a catalogue of pigments to select from, explaining that some were opaque and others transparent. I always veer towards the bluey-green end of the colour spectrum and chose a transparent enamel to use. He showed me how to correctly mix the coloured sand-like powder with water and how to fill the holes so that the enamel wicks into them. It didn’t take long to get the hang of it and soon the rings were ready to be fired in the kiln. The powdery granules of enamel turned into beautiful transparent drops of glass after two minutes, and I kept repeating the enamel filling and firing process until there were no dips or gaps in the surface decoration. The surface of the entire ring then had to be sanded down to remove excess enamel, which seems counter-intuitive because it scratches the lovely glassy pattern. But after sanding the excess enamel and polishing the ring, it can be placed back in the kiln which melts away the scratches! Such a lovely process.

Two enamelled rings
Enamelled bombato rings

The finished rings look especially beautiful when the light streams through the enamel with a turquoise glow, but once you pop them on your finger the pattern looks dark and more teal coloured. I think perhaps if I were to use transparent enamel again, it would work really well on a pair of earrings, because they would always be illuminated from behind. Ignacio whisked the rings away to be photographed and I made my way home feeling very satisfied. I ran to catch my train to Bologna, looking forward to some more 1920s criminal mayhem when I got home.


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