An enamel restorer’s colorful existence
Rosanna Polizzotto spends many of her days restoring tiny portraits and landscapes on fine enamel pieces -- vases, pendants, pocket watches. It’s fitting, then, to find her inhabiting a miniature world of her own. Her Topanga studio packs living quarters, office, work area, art gallery and library into a single room less than 20 feet square.
A woman whose hand is steady enough to add a come-hither expression to an eye the size of a pinhead, Polizzotto easily threads her way between refrigerator and repair bench. As a New York City native, she’s accustomed to tight spaces, although, she says, the previous day was a challenge: The studio was also warehousing eight boxes of objects waiting to be mailed back to their owners.
What kind of objects? Among her clients, most of whom she never has met, are several here and in the United Kingdom who collect cosmetics compacts. Their obsession is easier to understand when she brings out an example that has its own cunning lipstick attached. Even more alluring is one with silvery leaves all over that flicker beneath the colored surface.
To produce the effect, known as guilloche, the design was machine-tooled directly onto the metal. The technique of covering the intricate, almost Op Art-like patterns with layers of translucent enamel was popularized by the Russian jeweler Peter Carl Fabergé at the end of the 19th century. (Examples of the technique can be seen on his famous eggs.) Most of the guilloche compacts Polizzotto is working on date from the 1920s and ‘30s, their bold geometrics reflecting a fascination with streamline design.
The durable art of enameling -- in which powdered glass is heated on metal until it fuses in a translucent layer -- requires heat that reaches almost 1500 degrees. The resulting bond between glass and metal is strong, but still, as the pieces awaiting Polizzotto’s attention attest, chips happen. The cherubs on an 18th century bracelet are flaking away, a Victorian vase has lost most of the meadow at its lovers’ feet and some of the guilloche compacts are so battered they will have to be stripped.
Before the development of the resin process known as cold enamel, restoring a missing cherub wing on the antique bracelet would have meant exposing the fragile gold work to extreme heat. Polizzotto shudders at the thought of $70,000 possibly going up in smoke. The cold enamel process requires more time but no firing. It achieves its glassy finish through a chemical reaction between two resins, though working with the material is like painting with honey.
Cheese domes and fluted glass cake stands line the shelves in her work area, offering protection during the hours a repair takes to harden. The minutest speck of dust will cause a smooth surface to bubble. Anything less than exact proportions when she mixes the two resins will result in a finish that remains soft and easily scarred. She clearly enjoys the need for precision, carefully weighing small amounts of one resin before adding the second, drop by drop.
Polizzotto learned none of her enameling skills in her years at New York’s Art Student League and School of Visual Arts. Trained as a painter, she supported herself with jobs as seamstress, clothing designer, chef. At the suggestion of an antiques dealer she worked for, she began teaching herself about resins. She began her business in 1993, and the bulk of her clients were dealers. Lately her website, enamelrestoration.com, has attracted more retail customers, including one with a damaged clock face and a priest with a chalice needing repair.
The object presently on her worktable is a brooch in the shape of a butterfly whose translucent wings -- now showing obvious holes -- offer an extra challenge. Because enamel’s depth and intensity of color rivals those of precious stones, early artists borrowed jewelers’ techniques, creating patterns mosaic-fashion by setting sprinklings of powdered glass in separate cell-like pockets. In cloisonné enamel, thin wires separate the cells and form a fine tracery of lines on the finished surface. Polizzotto’s specialty is a related style, plique a jour. Originating in medieval France, it too traps enamel between a net of wires, but these have no metal backing. The effect is like that of a stained-glass window.
Polizzotto stirs two clear substances together, then adds droplets of color to the resulting jelly-like mix, eyeing the plique a jour brooch to get the proper match. She likes to work with a four-power lens but switches to 10-power magnification for the most detailed repair. The violet-blue glop, which she applies with a fine brush, stretches like a bubble to span an empty cell of the butterfly’s wing. Shiny now, it will dry matte but translucent, like the rest of the piece. What creates that controlled viscosity? Polizzotto smiles. That’s her secret.
This restoration will cost the owner about $65. Prices vary according to the time involved. The vase whose landscape she had to research and repaint will run around $250. A single guilloche compact costs $30 to $60.
Success can depend on color. She holds up a pastel case. The lines engraved beneath the enamel seem to ripple. At one spot, though, there’s a slight interruption, or what she calls a shadow. It’s caused, she explains, by minute damage to the metal. If the cover color were cobalt or dark red, the flaw would be unnoticeable. “Enamels magnify,” Polizzotto says. Like water, the clearer they are, the stronger the effect. Of course, that’s their fascination. Under their fluid layers, unsuspected worlds become visible.
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