We look at three homegrown brands specialising in products with discreet details known only to the wearer or owner, but with the power to lift spirits and keep heritage alive. In the last of a three-part series, master enamellist Charlotte Hoe shares how she is keeping the traditional art of painting on metal alive

There are many things in life that are unpredictable by nature but are things of beauty or can be made into works of art, from the Northern Lights to precious gemstones, just to name a few. You can add the traditional art of painting on metal, or enamelling, to the list as you never know what you are going to get when enamel, or powdered glass, is fired in the kiln.

“The colours burn at varying temperatures, and the metals react differently with the colours every time. There’s a lot of experimentation, and trial and error, before you get the result that you want,” explains Charlotte Hoe, a master enamellist at Royal Insignia, who has dedicated much of the last five years developing her craft. The luxury house, renowned for creating bespoke gifts and diplomatic regalia such as orders, decorations and medals for royalty, such as the Johor and Brunei royal families, and heads of states, is also known for its impeccable craftsmanship in fine jewellery and objets d’art.

One of Hoe’s recent works is a collaboration with other homegrown artisans for Singapore’s first-ever métiers d’art watch series, Project Coalesce, created by Feynman Timekeepers, a collective of watch enthusiasts and artisans. Each of the three timepieces features Peranakan-inspired art, which has been hand-enamelled onto a silver dial. It was the first time that Hoe had worked on a watch dial.

Read more: Why Enamelled Watch Dials Are Highly Sought After

“At Royal Insignia, we do mostly objets d’art, or bigger items, and also medals, so a watch dial is something new for me. We had to make sure that the hands would run across properly without hitting the surface and, if the watches are worn in different climates, that the enamel would hold its place—and not contract when it’s cold, or crack when there’s too much tension,” explains Hoe.

And then there is the Jiwa enamel brooch, worn by president Halimah Yacob at National Day Parade 2020. The collaboration with the I’mable Collective by SG Enable, which is dedicated to enabling persons with disabilities, features the paper cut-out collages of two artists from the Singapore Association of the Visually Handicapped. Hoe is currently working on restoring a set of very old medals to its former glory, with some dating back to the 15th century and issued by countries that no longer exist.

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She may be one of the very few enamellists in Singapore today, but Hoe didn’t have much of an interest in enamelling, or silversmithing for that matter, when she first joined the family business in 2016. “It was more of a duty to assist my father,” she shares. The product design graduate from the Lasalle College of the Arts, in partnership with Goldsmiths, University of London, started off as a designer but later discovered that she had the talent for craftsmanship.

Her interest developed from the botanical watercolour painting classes she took, before slowly moving to enamelling. “Enamelling is like watercolour painting. Even though it’s a different medium, the techniques on how you apply colour are pretty much the same,” shares Hoe.

She later took on an apprenticeship with a master enamellist in the UK, where she was exposed to the different enamelling techniques, such as cloisonné (where wireframe cells are filled with enamel powder), champlevé (where cells are carved onto a metal surface and filled with enamel powder), and her personal favourite plique-à-jour, which is French for “letting in daylight” where enamel powder is applied on a wireframe with no backing to give it a stained-glass effect. And then there is painted enamel, where just like watercolour painting, the enamel adheres to the surface in the heat.

In case you missed it: This Singapore-based Art Restorer Is Preserving Fine Masterpieces From History's Greatest Artists

Hoe is always finding opportunities to spread the knowledge of enamelling through hands-on workshops. She takes inspiration from flora and fauna, and being around nature, which she says “makes me happy and calms me down”. At the start of the pandemic, she set up a home studio, complete with a small kiln, which overlooks the garden of the family home, and now finds herself increasingly working there rather than at the workshop. She says that it has been helpful for her creative process where she can get into the proper headspace “to be an artist and create good work”.

  • PhotographyDarren Gabriel Leow
  • Art DirectionJana Tan
  • HairBenedict Choo
  • Make-UpBenedict Choo
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