Guilloché is a highly decorative technique used in metalwork, which combines mechanical engraving and translucent enamels to create surface embellishment.
Guilloché enamelling can only be achieved with specialised machinery known as ornamental lathes. These mechanised tools were first developed in the 16th century to carve flawless geometric patterns onto soft organic materials, such as ivory and wood. This ornamental technique, known as engine-turning, became a fashionable hobby amongst European elites. Between the late 17th and early 18th centuries, lathes were adapted for various materials and purposes. The invention of the rose engine lathe opened up the possibilities of engraving delicate, intricate lines or precise geometric forms such as ellipses – similar to drawing with a modern spirograph – at a faster speed than engraving by hand.
Around the 1750s silversmiths began to use the rose engine lathe to cut metal surfaces with intricate patterns – such as waves and ripples, staggered lines, or sunburst rays – at an even depth and with unprecedented precision. Soon, these engraved grooves were being enhanced further by applying a layer of coloured glass powder, fused to the metal with intense heat, and polished to a high shine. This new marriage of engraving and enamelling marked the creation of guilloché, with its richly coloured, luminescent, glassy effect on metal surfaces.
See how a metal plaque is decorated with guilloché enamelling, combining mechanical engraving with centuries-old enamelling processes:
Guilloché enamelling became especially popular from the 1750s onwards for the decoration of snuffboxes, watch dials and jewellery. The technique reached its height on the cusp of the 20th century, at the House of Fabergé. The famous firm's creativity and fine craftsmanship spurred the production of all kinds of highly decorative luxury wares – from their renowned imperial eggs to candlesticks, cane handles and match boxes – all glimmering with guilloché enamelling in a wide variety of patterns, and in 145 shades perfected by the firm.
Find out more about Fabergé.