Collecting vintage Norwegian enamel

Fusing glass to metal in a kiln has long been an art Norwegians have excelled in. Vitreous enamel was first used in ancient times – from Persia to Greece and China – and was adopted in Norway by the Vikings. The heyday of Norwegian enamel, however, wasn’t until just over a century ago. At the end of the 19th century a Viking revival swept the country, coinciding with the advent of art nouveau and resulting in the creation of some of the finest enamelwork ever made – jewel-like ornaments and tableware that today are attracting renewed attention, with prices ranging from a few thousand pounds to six figures.

“Norwegian enamel from that time is exceptional,” says John Atzbach, an expert and dealer in both Norwegian and Russian enamel, based in Redmond, Washington. “The two most proficient manufacturers were Marius Hammer in Bergen and David-Andersen in Christiania [now Oslo]. Their very best work stems from 1885-1915, and was exported to Europe’s elite.” Atzbach’s extensive stock currently includes an intricate bowl ($5,500) by Hammer in the style of a medieval Scandinavian mead cup, with double horse-head handles, as well as an equally stunning and vibrantly decorated tabletop Viking boat ($7,250) by David-Andersen.

Both were created using a technique called plique-à-jour, literally “open to daylight”. “With this technique the enamel has no backing, so light can shine through, a little like a stained-glass window,” says Atzbach. It’s possible to find some extremely unusual one-off pieces made in this way. As well as some of the more traditional Viking boats, Alan Kaplan, owner of ceramic and glass specialist Leo Kaplan in New York, has a rare plique-à-jour footed bowl depicting a swan, priced $150,000; it was made in 1907 by either Gustav Gaudernack or Thorolf Holmboe, both of whom worked for David-Andersen. A similar piece exists in Oslo’s National Museum.

Norwegian expertise in plique-à-jour was due in part to its neighbour, Russia. “Culturally, the two countries are very connected,” says Michael James, owner of The Silver Fund, a London-founded dealership now based in Florida. “A lot of Norwegian enamellers trained in Russia and many worked for Fabergé, but their use of colour – vibrant blues, reds and yellows – and the fact that they made practical things like candlesticks and coffee sets in enamel, which no one had done before, set them apart.”

To a trained eye, Russian and Norwegian enamelling can be easily differentiated. “Scandinavian shapes tend to be more rounded than Russian designs,” says Alex Pushkin of Pushkin Antiques, based in London’s Grays Antiques market. And while plique-à-jour is often admired for its intricacy, designs from a slightly later period often employ the translucent qualities and vibrant colours to simpler yet just as striking effect, including those made using guilloché. “The makers would create a stippled effect on the silver underneath the translucent enamel; the silver then becomes oxidised so you can see the pattern,” says James, who has a pair of brilliant blue c1950 enamel candlesticks by David-Andersen for sale at £17,268 through 1stdibs, while Pushkin has a small (9.8cm) c1920 David-Andersen blue guilloché and silver box at £1,395.

“Guilloché work is a characteristic of art deco,” says Widar Halén, director of design and decorative arts at Oslo’s National Museum, which has a glamorous 1931 guilloché on gold-coloured enamel coffee service by Guttorm Gagnes for David-Andersen (a red enamel version was given to President Roosevelt by Crown Prince Olav in 1939). Another fine art deco example of Norwegian guilloché, again by David-Andersen, is available from 20th-century art and design dealer Adam Edelsberg, based in Providence, Rhode Island; the luminous green guilloché and silvercocktail shaker with a rooster design on the lid (£7,849 through 1stdibs) is dated 1935 and comes with four cups. In London, Smith & Robinson Antiques has a c1925 vibrant yellow, lidded silver and enamel guilloché bowl (£2,291) with ring handles and finial.

David-Andersen continued to produce enamelware into the 1950s and 1960s – a pale-green guilloché necklace and earring set from this period is available from Rhinegold Gallery in Düsseldorf for £1,240 through 1stdibs – but there are other names to look out for. “M Johansen is one,” says Eric Beugnet, who runs Oslo‑based dealership ModernTribute and currently has two 10cm painterly enamel plates by the Norwegian craftsman; at NKr2,400 (about £230) for the pair, they are a good starting point for would-be collectors. “Bjorn Engo is perhaps better known,” he adds. “He created enamelware as well as furniture.”

But for collector Bob Corson, a former aerospace engineer living in Washington state, only the finest plique-à-jour will do – with nearly 500 pieces, he probably owns the world’s largest private collection of this refined enamelwork. His favourite piece is his most recent find – “a shot glass with an enamelled holder by Georg Adam Scheid that I found on eBay.” He first discovered Norwegian enamel 50 years ago in a Washington, DC antiques shop. “I saw a small demitasse spoon with a simple finial plique,” he recalls. “It was marked JGK, the mark of Johan G Kjaerland, who worked in Bergen, and it cost $35. I became fixated on plique; of the four major manufacturers, three were Norwegian – Andersen, Hammer and J Tostrup. They were all fine jewellers who turned technologists in their workshops. The enamel is the icing on the cake.”

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on pinterest

Be the first to discover new acquisitions...

We email every two weeks with new acquisitions, upcoming events, and the occasional party photo.