FUTURE/CRAFT: HOME GROWN

Pamela Harper, CEO at Halcyon Days, on the art of enamelling, preserving traditional techniques and supporting British craftsmanship

12 June, 2020

Halcyon Days was established in 1950 as an antiques shop in Mayfair. The original founder, Susan Benjamin, had a particular interest in sourcing enamel boxes from around the world. Fascinated with the artefacts and their history, she decided to revive the craft of enamelling as a decorative artform, which had died out during the early 1800s.

‘There formed the true beginning of Halcyon Days,’ says chairman and CEO Pamela Harper. The brand began producing its own decorative boxes and became a guardian of the enamelling on copper artform, which can be traced back to the 1740s in England.

In 1970, the brand received a special commission from Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother to produce a box depicting her Clarence House residence, and this marked the beginning of a long association with the British Royal Households.

‘We are one of only 14 companies in the world to hold all three Royal Warrants,’ says Harper. This official recognition of Halcyon Days as a supplier to Her Majesty The Queen, HRH The Duke of Edinburgh and HRH The Prince of Wales is symbolic of the brand’s commitment to upholding the very highest standards of service, quality and excellence.

 

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Oval-shaped copper boxes ready for enamelling; Halcyon Days chairman and CEO Pamela Harper

 

Harper joined Halcyon Days in 2011, having previously held senior positions at luxury brands including Burberry and Hermès. She brought 30 years of experience with her and a passion for preserving and promoting British craftsmanship and manufacturing.

‘Everything we do is authentic,’ says Harper. ‘The products we offer are designed, handcrafted and decorated here in England. As an English business, it’s of great importance to stay true to our heritage, we are so lucky to employ a team of talented craftsmen and artisans using skills from bygone generations.’

The traditional English enamel production process begins with fine sheets of copper that are moulded into the desired shape of the box before being washed and treated with various solutions to prepare the surface for enamelling.

Small particles of glass – called frit – are ground to a fine powder and mixed with china clay and water to create the liquid enamel. The copper parts are then coated with the enamel, using dipping or spraying techniques, before being fired in a kiln for eight minutes at 800°C. This extreme heat fuses the enamel to the copper and the process is repeated a minimum of five times to create a hard, smooth and glossy base. At every stage, the results are checked meticulously to ensure a flawless finish is achieved.

 

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Copper parts are washed in a variety of solutions to prepare the surface to receive the base layers of liquid enamel, shown here applied to the brand’s dome-shaped, annual Easter egg edition boxes.

 

‘The processes of enamelling take a great deal of care,’ explains Harper. ‘Each and every enamel box requires multiple rounds in the kiln and depending on the pigment colour of the box, and the heat, one bubble that emerges, or one discolouration, can cause a crack meaning the process has to start all over again.’

The next stage sees a lithographic transfer applied to the enamel, which outlines the decorative design. Fusing this to the enamel requires another two minutes in the kiln, followed by another inspection for any imperfections that may have emerged. ‘It takes years to perfect the different stages of creating an enamel piece,’ says Harper. ‘Our team make it look very easy, but don’t be fooled.’

The final stage of creation sees a highly skilled artisan use enamel paints – made from finely ground glass, metal oxides and oil – to paint the design onto the box. This part of the process can take anywhere from hours to weeks to create, depending on the complexity of the design and whether it is a signature piece or a bespoke commission.

‘It’s a timely and delicate process but the best things in life are worth waiting for,’ says Harper. ‘Each and every piece is unique, no two ever the same. The techniques used by our team – the small details and the various pairs of hands that contribute to the process – meticulously craft the most exquisite enamel boxes that are designed to last at least a lifetime.’

 

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The St James’s Palace Chapel Royal musical box is an example of ornate, hand decorated enamel artistry; the English fine bone china factory in Stoke-on-Trent

 

Harper highlights the brand’s musical enamels as an example of Halcyon Days’ craftsmanship at its finest. ‘They are ornately hand painted and you can feel the layers of enamel applied within the intricate design,’ she explains, citing the recently released collection inspired by the St James’s Palace Chapel Royal as an example: ‘The ornate details of the Hans Holbein ceiling decorates the musical box and, if you look closely, you can see the brushstroke details of the 24ct gold applied to the box. It’s simply divine.’

This tangible human touch, embodied in every creation, is what lies at the heart of Halcyon Days, and is nurtured at its UK workshops. ‘We are wholly committed to develop, maintain, promote and cherish British craftsmanship and manufacturing,’ attests Harper. ‘Training can take many years and we are delighted to be a part of QEST – the Queen Elizabeth Scholarship Trust – and working with the local communities; we are dedicated to educating the next generation on such a special gift of a craft.’

In 2015, Harper oversaw the acquisition of the Caverswall China Company, a charming English fine bone china factory. ‘We’ve two factories in the heart of England,’ says Harper. ‘Our enamel factory sits in Wolverhampton and our English fine bone china factory is in Stoke-on-Trent. Both factories lie within the origin of their craft residences, which is something I couldn’t be more proud of.’

A fellow Royal Warrant Holder, the Caverswall China Company sources its clay from Cornwall and the entire fine bone china process takes place at the Stoke-on-Trent site. ‘Like our enamel factory, the demonstration of the skills is something to behold and we working with the communities surrounding the factories to draw in and educate the young,’ says Harper.

 

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A finished enamel box showing a traditional design; the Parterre Black, Cream & Gold Bangle from Halcyon Days’ fashion jewellery line is an example of the beautiful designs and finishes that can be achieved using enamelling techniques

 

Under Harper’s expert guidance, Halcyon Days has expanded its product lines to offer fine bone china homewares, fashion jewellery, watches and accessories. Decorative designs range from the traditional to more modern and playful pieces such as the brand’s hand decorated stacking bangles, which feature bold geometric enamelled patterns.

‘Our vision is to continue to strengthen our ties with English craftsmanship and manufacturing,’ says Harper. ‘This year we are celebrating our 70th anniversary, and we look forward to many more years of creating luxury English-made goods.’ With authentic craftsmanship and localised manufacturing becoming increasingly valued, it seems Halcyon Days is ahead of the curve.

 

SEE HOW A HALCYON DAYS ENAMEL BOX IS CREATED:

Pamela Harper is chairman and CEO at Halcyon Days. Learn more about Halcyon Days’ hand decorated enamel creations, handcrafted English fine bone china, jewellery and fashion accessories at halcyondays.co.uk

Our Future/Craft series explores the skill and creativity that lies at the heart of modern luxury, highlighting the stories behind some of The Royal Exchange’s exceptional retailers and their approach to craftsmanship and innovation