How much labor in Cloisonné vase?
January 25, 2012 6:18 AM   Subscribe

How many hours of labor do you estimate it takes to produce a high-quality Chinese cloisonne vase, 12 inches tall? A couple of these vases are owned by the school that I teach at, and I would love to be able to tell my students a ballpark figure of how much effort goes into producing these luxury goods--from making the metal base, to adding wire lines, to filling it with enamel, to firing, to final polishing. Our vases are polished to a high gloss, and they have an intricate geometric pattern in the background. There is no area in the background with a gap of more than 2 mm. The foreground consists of well-rendered flowers and foliage. Any thoughts about such objects would be most appreciated.
posted by mortaddams to Society & Culture (5 answers total)
[Folks, maybe a do-over? OP is clear they want a rough estimate. Thank you.]
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 7:55 AM on January 25, 2012

Google is not helping!

Here's a product page that talks specifically about the tasks required to complete a Cloisonné basin, but does not provide any labor estimates. It might be a good place to start.

Here we go, found an appraisal page that seems to provide exactly the information you are looking for.

Total: As much as 40 days of labor.
posted by kalessin at 8:38 AM on January 25, 2012

I went on a tour at a Chinese cloisonne factory about five years ago and I'm a metalsmith who has done some very minor cloisonne before. One of my professors is about as famous of an American cloisonne artist as they come, meaning not at all unless you're involved in "the scene." It depends on several things.

If it's a vessel like a vase it's typically spun. Basically, they push a disc of metal over a usually wooden form on a lathe. This can be done with multi-part forms so you can spin a shape with a narrow opening and get the form out. It doesn't take very long at all, and someone with experience would be able to bang those things out in five minutes, as you see the guy in the video do. If it's something like the dragon shown in your wikipedia article, I'd have to guess it'd take me, oh, 30 or 40 hours to construct. A professional in that specific field would be faster, but not by an incredible amount.

In a production setting, they will have jigs to form all of the little wires in bulk, so the time needed for the wires on a specific vessel is almost negligible. Say an hour on the high side. If it's one-off in any way, or non-standard like the dragon, then they'd build jigs for some things like the scales (or your geometric patterns), but everything else would be hand formed, which is damned painstaking, and even with the jig, a lot of the scales would have to be adjusted to the curves they sit on. Depending on the shape, size and complexity, they might be soldered on in batches or more or less as they go, wired on and soldered in a kiln, or pasted on with a sticky solder/flux mixture (that I've never actually used or seen... I think it's modern), or a combination of all three in multiple steps. A production vessel your size might take 5 hours here, a one-off vessel 10 or more, or that dragon... maybe another 40.

Now they fill the spaces with an enamel paste. This is complicated. Not only do different colors need to be fired at different temperatures, but when you fill an area and fire it, the surface will be concave from the goo that makes a paste with the colored glass dust burning out, so you have to fill and fire again. Also, you might do multiple firings layering different colors for more subtle effects, or multiple firings of thin layers to manage dripping. So, depending on what exactly is being done it can take two firings and 5 hours or many firings and a hundred.

So that's done, and now you grind down the glass to the level of the wires and polish it. In the factory i visited, this was done with different grades of sand and a wet leather belt (!) and was told it took a very long time. It's hard to know how long. I'd guess 10 hours. At some points in there there will be short firings that just smooth out the surface. With modern abrasives and a lathe and such, a vessel like that wouldn't take too long, maybe a few hours not including firings (if done), and that dragon would have to be done by hand, taking who knows... 40 more hours.

THEN it's probably sealed in some way depending on the metal used. Definitely if copper, maybe not if silver, gold, bronze, etc. It might just be waxed or lacquered, or a clear layer of glass might be fired on top of everything, meaning the polishing process happens again.

So anywhere from on the order of 40 hours (this is still in a factory setting!) to hundreds and hundreds for some of the most impressive work I've seen. If you can show us a picture of the vase in question, I could be more specific if you don't feel you can ballpark it from here.
posted by cmoj at 12:09 PM on January 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

If you want to know how long it would have taken to make the vases the school has, how old they are is going to be a factor. Not just in using electric tools and kilns, but in having things like enamel paste and different gauges of wire readily available.
posted by yohko at 4:11 PM on January 25, 2012

I maybe should have said that I think this Chinese factory that I mention was probably pretty representative of the last 5,000 years of cloisonne what with the leather and sand polishing and everything. I didn't actually see the kilns, but I wouldn't be at all surprised if they were wood fired. The enamel paste, though, is something the ancient Egyptians used, though I'm not sure what it's made of, and wire is fairly easily drawn to whatever gauge you like.
posted by cmoj at 5:29 PM on January 25, 2012

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