Inside Job: enamel worker

Frank Hersey is trying every job in Beijing. This month: apprentice cloisonné craftsman

Somehow a craft workshop is the quietest place in Beijing. Despite the lathes and carving equipment, there’s a peace, if not an absolute silence, that makes you want to get your head down and work on an enamel plate for hours.

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Due to the nature of this column, I skip the four-year foundation course and join the apprentices on their training scheme. As a big part of the course had been developing a ‘sense of what is beautiful’, there’s a possibility my output might differ.


My fellow trainees have been twisting metal in cooperative silence for an hour when I take a place at the table and realise I have no idea what cloisonné is or what anyone is doing.


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‘What flower do you want to try?’ asks the aunt-like head of metal twisting, who’s too shy to want her name in print. Chrysanthemum turns out to be the wrong answer. We soon switch to a plum blossom – just five circles.


We’re doing qia si (掐丝), twisting flat copper ribbon into shapes that are then stuck to an object and filled with coloured glaze to make up the overall cloisonné design. If I’d done the full training course I’d probably know how to hold the tools at the very least. Even the scissors are alien. My mentor slows everything right down and praises each nipping of the pliers and furling of the ribbon I hash out. ‘Let me just tidy it up,’ she says, deftly teasing the strip into the planned plum blossom. When I ask if my subsequent attempts are good enough, she says, ‘If they’re comfortable to look at then they’re good enough,’ then hands them back to me to keep as souvenirs.


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The plates the apprentices are making need up to a thousand shapes, so I use some ready-made ones when I take a turn at the gluing. ‘We use Chinese medicine to stick the copper shapes on to the foetus,’ explains Yu Xin, who’s co-ordinating my one-day apprenticeship. ‘Foetus’ is the term for the framework, the base object on which the metal shapes are stuck to to make up a design. We’re all working on a series of Peking opera designs and I have to glue miniature clouds into rows to form the background. Totally engrossing.


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Lunch comes early and on metal trays that are insultingly plain. It’s customary to gather in a circle in the yard to play ball games, whatever your rank in the organisation. Further entertainment is provided by feral cats padding around the flowerbeds and basking in the sun.


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I graduate to the process of dianlan (点蓝), adding the enamel. This is done with bowls of coloured granules, water, pipets and a brass watering can, penhu (喷壶). Instead of pouring the water out of the spout, you blow into it, spraying a fine mist over the foetus. ‘You can’t add enamel to a dry foetus,’ is a sentence I never expected to hear. I’m shown how to get the powder into a pipet. Then we fill in the red for Peking opera character Guan Gong’s face. When it comes to doing the black lines there’s a shout of ‘get the narrower pipet’ as I start depositing black on the wrong side of the shapes. Even this isn’t enough and we later resort to enamel ‘guns’, lanqiang (蓝枪), though they’re really just metal scrapers. I learn to blend colours as blending ‘is one way to tell the quality of a piece’. We soak up the excess water with cotton wool to see how uneven the enamel powder is then try to fill in the gaps.


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At this rate I’ve about a month of work to do on the plate before it could go into the kiln for just the first round of firing. Each item needs around four layers followed by grinding and polishing. That’s why everyone is doing the job nine till five and why I would need another five years before I could take on something like the pens in the display cabinet that were given to world leaders at the APEC summit.


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I leave hoping I haven’t ruined anyone’s plates and that the enamel pieces will be made in perpetuity, one copper flower at a time.

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