Finift – Russian enamel – is a special kind of applied art, which uses enamel (as a basic material) in combination with metal. As a Russian folk craft the art of painting on enamel originated in Rostov (Yaroslavl province) in the 60-s of XVIII century, when a small workshop was set up at the bishop’s house. Later individual masters appeared in the city; they carried out assignments of local churches and monasteries and painted mostly small-sized icons to decorate the church interiors. During 19th century finift production in Rostov became widespread. The number of masters grew and they started to get a more narrow specialization concentrating on certain stages of the enamel production. Special schools where they taught the art of enamel opened up in the city, they usually consisted of a Master host, 1-2 apprentices and 1-2 students. In the second half of 19th century trade-dealers took the leading position in promotion of the handicraft. The dealers supplied materials to the workshops, bought the finished products and distributed them in different Russian cities. Mass production increased, small-sized icons were in the greatest demand, but the artistic style of 19th century Rostov finift became less uniform in comparison with the previous period. If Rostov finift products of the second half of 18th - early 19th centuries show the influence of the Baroque style combined with Russian iconographic traditions and elements of folk art, starting from 20 to 30-s of 19th century, the influence of classicism became more pronounced.
Intensive development of mass production caused a negative effect on the artistic level of the works. While leading artists, aspiring to reach new heights of excellence, followed principles of the academic art, mass production of finift objects, represented by numerous amateur or half-amateur artists, bore obvious signs of the low folk culture. At the end of 19th - beginning of 20th centuries attempts were made to overcome this critical situation. Numerous school-workshops were set up; they were headed by professional artists, who experimented with different ways of applying painted enamel decorations, including even household objects.
After the October Revolution of 1917 a special workshop for production of decorative enamel items was organized. In the 20-30-s of 20th century its artists mastered production of needlework boxes, brooches, powder-cases, picture frames and other items decorated with painted enamel. Subjects included portraits of important political and public figures of the Soviet state, sometimes portraits of writers, scenes from everyday life, or flower arrangements. During World War II 1941-1945 the workshop activities came to a standstill, but after the war resumed with new force. In 1960 it was transformed into a factory named "Rostov Finift". The second half of 20th century is characterized by rapid growth of the production volume, diversification and improvement of the quality of art. Along with manufacturing of standard "mass" quality items the artists work on developing new original designs. Nowadays in Rostov this ancient craft is not confined to the enamel-producing factory only; many individual artists have set up their own personal workshops and are pursuing different genres, styles and trends.
People like finift for its subtlety, grace and lightness. The painted enamel retains its gloss and color transparency almost forever. Unlike paintings, it is indifferent to the destructive effects of such factors as light, temperature drops, humidity and pollution. Icons, crucifixes, portraits made in the technique of finift are extremely durable, decorative, bright and pure of color. And finift jewelry (earrings, brooches, pendants, bracelets, rings) is absolutely unique. Rostov finift is considered to be the finest in Russia, since Rostov is the place of origin of the whole artistic direction.
The technology of finift production is as follows. A thin copper plate of a desired shape and size, convex on the front side, usually serves as a base. The plate is covered with enamel primer - a mixture of white enamel, pulverized into powder, and water. This mixture is applied to the metal plate in three layers. After application of each layer the plate is dried in an oven and fired in a muffle furnace (at 700-800 degrees C) until the enamel melts and the surface becomes smooth. To protect the plate from any possible deformations during the firing its flip side is covered with a thin enamel layer, called "counter-enamel".
While the base is being prepared the design is worked out - first on paper. After the drawing is completed another sheet of paper is placed underneath it and the contour of the drawing is outlined by piercing the paper with a needle. As a result a dot print pattern appears on the lower sheet. This sheet then is superimposed onto the front surface of the primed plate and rubbed with turpentine mixed with soot thus the pattern is transferred to the enamel base.
Fireproof paints are used for making the ornaments - these are prepared from carefully grounded pigments mixed with turpentine and the lavender or turpentine oil. Each pigment melts at its own temperature and during the firing changes its original color. Therefore artists use a special "working palette" – a white enamel plate with samples of various pigments. They determine the melting temperature of each of them and the way it changes color after the firing. At the first stage the artist, using a fine brush, makes the so-called "underpainting" (marking the main spots of color). Afterwards the plate is dried in an oven to remove turpentine fumes from the paint, and then fired in a muffle furnace until the paints melt and acquire the necessary brightness and luster. Extracted from the muffle furnace the plate is left to cool and then the second stage of painting starts. During this stage the artist draws only main details of the composition and outlines areas of light and dark. Then the plate is again dried, baked and cooled. During the third stage of painting the artist concentrates on minor details, works out undertones and refines color combinations. This stage is followed by a third firing.
When creating a simple composition with the use of a limited palette the process is completed after the second or the third stage. But in order to make a complex miniature with a rich color palette requires from 4 to 7 drawing stages and as many firings.
Creating painted enamels is close in technique to painting on porcelain; – it is quite time and effort consuming which prevents artists from producing enamel items in large quantities. Therefore, finift has always been and still remains an elitist form of art.
The finished finift jewelry item is set into a metal casing, made by a jeweler - a master of filigree. Filigree is one of the oldest forms of artistic metal processing – a pattern of thin gold, silver or copper wire, smooth or twined, is soldered onto the metal background. The elegant enamel miniatures go perfectly well with the fine filigree. The twined wire is further decorated with grain (small metal balls), which makes the item even more beautiful.