In its two-century history Rostov enamels have repeatedly gone through the periods of florescence and decline. The main theme of the craft - a tribute to the beauty of the native land and to man's lofty spirit - was, however, never abandoned. Rostov enamellers have preserved to our day and carried on the best traditions of Russian enamel miniature painting. The craft never existed in isolation: while developing the local tradition of icon painting, it came under the influence of other schools of painting. The technique of cloisonne enamel was known to have been employed in Kievan Rus way back in the 11th century. It was referred to as "finift", which is the Old Greek for alloy or shining stone. The vitreous surface of enamel, decorating old ritual vessels, women's diadems, colt-pendants, barmy-shoulder pieces and so on, indeed shone with a deep light of precious stones.
The enameling did not start from scratch in Rostov, whose icon painters and silversmiths were well acclaimed in the past. The Rostov bishopric was known to have had an icon-painting workshop since olden days. It is hard to say when the expensive craft of enamelling struck root in that provincial town. Legend has it that an exiled Italian enameller taught his craft to local icon painters in the reign of Empress Anna Ioannovna, but there is no documentary evidence of that fact. Many scholars sought to shed light on the obscure history of the emergence of Rostov enamels. Some connected it with the activity of metropolitan Iona Sysoyevich, who contributed to the development of the Rostov bishopric in the late 17th century. The bishopric workshop was operational until the late 1780s, fulfilling clerical orders from different Russian cities and towns. After the metropolitan's office was transferred to Yaroslavl, some enamellers continued to execute the bishopric's orders, while other, such as the Isayevs brothers were granted relative independence and came to be registered at the enamel workshop of the Rostov artisan tribunal. That fact can be considered as a starting point in the development of enamelling as a full-fledged trade in the town. The Rostov bishopric workshop had an important role to play in the evolution of Rostov enamels.
The Rostov enamel tradition is, however, far more versatile. It developed for centuries in close contact with other major art schools and grand styles. From the outset Rostov enamellers espoused the flamboyant symbol-laden baroque style and evolved, on its basis, their own artistic tradition. The pictorial style of Rostov enamels began to be renovated in the first half of the 19th century both due to a change in taste and due to the impact of the classicist principles of Rostov's temple architecture and its interior decoration. Enamel miniatures, which decorated church utensils formed but a minute segment of the entire ensemble and, naturally, adopted the pictorial idiom of the new style. Rostov enamellers used as models engravings from paintings by West European and Russian artists, as well as numerous original religious paintings that landed in Rostov monasteries and churches in the form of donations. Rostov craftsmen sold their wares in different Russian cities and towns and, when visiting the capital, could see works by Academy artists. Less tied up with religious canons, enamellers living in cities were faster to assimilate classicist pictorial techniques. They naturally took in iconography and traditional shapes, as well as the lofty aesthetic ideals of the new style.The special atmosphere of a provincial town and the affinity between the local townsfolk and peasants could not but influence the development of enamelling. Though guided in general by St. Petersburg trends, Rostov enamelling remained true to the values of local folk culture in the first half of the 19th century. By the mid-19th century there were about 50 enamellers in Rostov, some of them running their own businesses but the majority working at home. United by a trade corporation, the enamellers remained independent both in their work and in marketing their products. The best of them retained individuality and their own original idiom.
After the 1917-revolution Rostov's craftsmen formed an artel, which produced enamel caskets, boxes, brooches and cuff links. Many talented painters capable of carrying on the local tradition joined the business in the late 1960s. They analysed new possibilities for the development of Rostov enamels. A close-knit group of gifted craftsmen appeared at the factory in the 1970s and the 1980s. Graduates of different art schools, skilled in the craft, mastered the secrets of the pictorial tradition and the decorative art of enamelling. The best of them, endowed with bright creative individuality, worked to renovate the idiom of Rostov enamels and to modify jewellery designs.The decorative nature of miniature paintings, which could embellish both big and small objects, ensured the longevity and the wide application of Rostov enamels. They shine with motley hues in jewellery pieces produced by today's craftsmen. A frame of metal wire twining in fancy patterns complements exquisite enamel miniatures. The painters and jewellers pool efforts to create extraordinary integral works of art, be it a decorative panel, a casket, a portrait or women's jewellery. Though not indispensable, these things add colour to our households and life, giving joy and warmth to the inhabitants of this cold industrialised world. When we look at these miniature pictures of Russian nature or old history, we are brought back to our sources and eternal values.
The Rostov enamel business has an immense creative potential. While embracing the local pictorial tradition, every new generation of artists imparts a new world outlook and their own idea of beauty to Rostov enamels. However, like any truly folk craft, Rostov enamels retain unchanged the ideal of the beauty of Russian nature and man.