Diane Echnoz Almeyda has always enjoyed making jewelry, but when she stumbled upon a little-known technique called plique-à-jour, she fell in love with the challenging and secretive art form. Today, she is perhaps the only artist in the world who creates plique-à-jour in miniature. She explains the technique and what draws her to the tedious, yet rewarding, work reminiscent of the great Art Nouveau jewelers and artists Rene Lalique, Louis Comfort Tiffany and Peter Carl Faberge.
What is plique-à-jour?
The term loosely translates as “light of day.” It is a jeweler’s technique which is the most technically difficult form of enameling. There is no metal backing, thus allowing light to shine through the enamel (which is what we call glass fused to metal).
How does plique-à-jour differ from stained glass creation?
In stained glass, the pieces of glass are cut to fit the design and the metal framework is formed around the glass. In plique-à-jour, the fine metal framework is made first and then finely ground glass is melted into each of the cells.
Explain the process.
First I shape fine silver wire and solder the many individual pieces together with a high temperature silver solder. This process is repeated until all wires are soldered where they touch each other. It is an extremely delicate process as the tiny protruding edges are easily melted by the torch.
Once completely soldered, the piece is alternately heated and pickled (an acid bath) to remove any traces of copper from the surface of the metal. The result is a fine silver surface onto which the enamel (ground glass) will fuse.
Specially formulated glass enamels are then ground to a fine sand consistency and added to each of the wire openings (cells). Care must be taken as there is no metal backing to hold the unfired enamel in the cell. When a number of cells are filled, the piece is put in the kiln at approximately 1400F to melt/fuse the glass. The ground glass melts and contracts when it is heated and fuses to the wire “walls” of the cell. Each individual cell will need to be refilled 3-5 times for the enamel to ultimately span the entire cell. That means a small piece like a 1/12-scale lampshade may have 50 or more firings.
The interesting part of adding the enamel is that I get to create my own color combinations. As the grains of enamel don’t mix as water colors do, the shading and various colors within the same cell are all done through a series of layering and firings. When all the cells have been spanned by the enamel, the surface of the wires is ground to remove excess enamel and to expose the metal. Finer and finer abrasives are used until the metal has the desired polish. During this process of “finishing,” the thin glass cells sometimes crack and must be fired again to close the opening. When all holes are closed and wires are polished, I then use a chemical oxidizing agent to apply a patina to the silver wires to give an antiqued look to the piece.
How did you get started with plique-à-jour enameling?
I first learned of plique-à-jour through the Florida Society of Goldsmiths, when they offered a workshop on the technique taught by a Russian master jeweler. I was making jewelry in silver and gold and decided to add this technique to my work.
What type of items do you make using this technique?
I make gold and silver jewelry as well as small vessel forms. I also make enamel and silver buttons for button collectors. These are in addition to my miniature items, including my “stained glass” windows and lampshades in scales of 1/12, 1/24, and 1/48.
Tell us about your inspiration.
For the most part, nature is my inspiration, as well as the beautiful designs of artists of the past, such as Rene Lalique and others, who worked in the Art Nouveau style. When I work at making wire designs, however, the wire often tends to have its own mind and the design that comes from my hands is sometimes a surprise.
Tell us about your most challenging piece.
The larger the piece, the more difficult it is. There was a largish bowl form with a peacock design which I worked on for months. When it was nearly complete, the stress between the enamel and metal actually ripped it apart. It no longer exists.
What is it about the art that you enjoy the most?
I love the challenge . . . the physical properties of glass and metal are such that this process probably shouldn’t work (expansion/contraction differences in the heating and cooling cycles). It is also very time consuming, fraught with potential disasters at every step, and the items are fragile. Each piece is truly a miracle! I enjoy all of the varied facets of design and construction that go into the creations. I am never bored!
What are you currently working on? What is in your head to create that you have not started.
I am working on some new designs for lampshades as well as several door panels. I have a couple ideas for pieces I would like to create for the Kansas City show.
Any pieces you have created that you cannot part with?
I made three rather large baskets, one of which was in 18K gold. Each took months of work and I don’t know that I have it in me to make another. So, at least for the time being, these are mine. I also tend to give my parents pieces I am especially fond of because I know I can still see them whenever I want.
Describe some your favorite pieces.
Usually, my latest piece becomes my favorite, but I do have a couple of covered containers I love. One is in fine silver with 18K gold accents with only blue and clear enamel. It is a Judaica design. I also made a small vessel with a pond and shore bird design with a cast 18k gold heron standing on the rim which now belongs to a collector of plique-à-jour.
What do you enjoy when you are not working?
I enjoy my family and try to spend as much time as I can with them. I also enjoy traveling and spending time outdoors, always being amazed by the incredible beauty of nature.
I’m honored to have some of Diane’s pieces in miniature as part of the KSB Miniatures Collection. See more of her remarkable work at www.plique-a-jour.com