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Gorham Antique Sterling and 'Translucent' Enamel Vase or Dish, Providence, RI, 1893, almost certainly designed and executed for the World's Columbian Exhibition, Chicago, 1893

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Unique, this spectacular dish is an extraordinary example of American plique-a-jour or 'translucent' enamel work and was almost certainly part of Gorham's award-winning exhibition at the Columbian World's Fair in 1893. 

The frame is formed by shaping rope-twisted sterling wire. Each area would then be filled with the various enamels. Plique-a-jour items are very delicate and extremely difficult to execute and therefore, few were made and many did not survive the test of time. This fragility is especially true for this vase, supported only by very thin wires.

This vase or dish has an everted rim and pedestal base. The design of the bowl emanates from a central floral design of cobalt and emerald green enamels. Russian blue, cobalt and red enamels are used with pale beige and translucent enamel to build the remainder of the bowl. The curved rim uses emerald green, Russian blue and red to create a striking border. These fine enamels are also used to create the pedestal base. The intricate design and degree of difficulty to execute such a piece could have only been achieved by master silversmiths and enamelists.

Count Gyula de Festetics, an award-winning enamelist,(1) was hired by Gorham to run the enameling workshop in their New York shop, where most of the employees were women. 

In an 1894 pamphlet reviewing Gorham's exhibit at the fair, art historian and lecturer at the 'Wheaton Seminary', Julia Osgood, wished to "call attention to the broad field now open to American craftsmen of both sexes"(2) and noted de Festetics, "designs are executed by young women, mostly American, chosen for their artistic tendencies...".(3)

The Jewelers' Circular, while discussing Gorham's "remarkable specimens of enamel work" at the Fair, observed that de Festetics, "prides himself on his female assistants, who in some respects are fully equal to their male co-workers."(4)

Julia Osgood was particularly taken by the translucent enamels.  She says: 

It is scarcely a year since the Gorham Company commenced the production of translucent enamels; yet this work is of such high order that one of the German commissioners at the fair has purchased a specimen of it, a low open vase of white and ruby translucent enamel, to be placed in the Royal Kunstgewerbe Museum of Berlin. (5)

On September 20, 1893, The New York Times noted Gorham's successful enamel exhibit, "is the equal, if not the superior, of any product in enamel on a silver surface made by the best enamel workers in Europe...Prof. Lessing of the Royal Museum in Berlin has purchased several pieces for the museum as representative of the highest proficiency in this art."(6)

Gorham's records indicate they made about 16 unique 'samples' (special pieces that were their highest quality designs and workmanship) of translucent enamel during 1893.  About half of these were made in time to bring to the Columbian Exposition, where Gorham won several awards for their enamels including one for translucent enamels. 

Exceptionally delicate, the translucent enamels made by Gorham were clearly intended to be cabinet pieces.  The only other two known surviving examples of these 16 unique pieces from 1893 are part of the Gorham Gift Collection at the Rhode Island School of Design Museum and both have significant damage.  Neither of these can be documented as likely exhibited at the fair.

This is the only known surviving piece we can document that was almost certainly exhibited at their award-winning display at the Columbian Exposition.  

It is marked underneath with Gorham's trademark and 'STERLING' along with the 'Sample' code '5336' and date mark for 1893. It measures just over 6 inches in diameter by 2.75 inches high. There is restoration around the rim, most notably to and around the blue stars, and two small areas of restoration on the foot.  Otherwise, it is in excellent antique condition and a remarkable survivor.

Exhibition: Almost certainly exhibited at the World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago, 1893.

Endnotes:
  1. 'A Glimpse of the Gorham Mfg. Co. Exhibit. Part IV' in The Jewelers' Circular, 17 May 1893, Vol. XXVI, No. 16, p. 35.
  2. Julia Osgood, The Silversmiths' Work in the Liberal Arts Building Columbian Exposition A.D. 1893, (Providence: Gorham Mfg. Co., 1894), p. 13.
  3. Osgood,p. 3.
  4. 'A Glimpse of the Gorham Mfg...', p. 34.
  5. Osgood, p. 5.
  6. 'Silver at the World's Fair' in The New York Times, September 20, 1893, p. 5.

 

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