There is an age-old phenomenon, a fine pattern of dense cracking called “craquelure,” that sometimes occurs on the surface of oil paintings and ceramics. It comes from the French word craquele. The Italians call it crettatura, and today we call it “crackle” or “crazing.”

It happens, in part, because over time, dried paint shrinks and loses its flexibility. In the case of paintings on canvas, the canvas eventually slackens and the paint cannot endure the long-term stress of stretching. Understandably, the crackling at the edges is larger than in the center.

Craquelure can help art experts determine the age and authenticity of a painting. And, depending on the technique applied and the paint’s formula, distinct patterns may help them identify its country of origin. Usually, Italian patterns are perpendicular and look like individual islands. Flemish and Dutch patterns look like connected networks, and French patterns are curved.

When craquelure occurs on ceramics, it usually does so intentionally. That is, the artisan has deliberately used a technique expecting this decorative outcome. The art of crackling pottery has a long history and was particularly practiced by the Chinese during the Song and Yuan dynasties. Such was the case in the making of Guan ware and Ge ware where crackling occurs during the cooling phase when the glaze and body expansion factors differ.

When crackling is not the intended result, the blame typically lies with a flawed glaze. This is commonly called “crazing.” Today, you might see crackled ceramic tile. Although some will call the pattern “crazing” (unintentional), it is most likely intentional. A side note: If you choose such a tile, seal it before installing. Although it is otherwise unnecessary to seal ceramic tile, it should be done so here so that grout does not creep into the broken glaze.

In my design work, I have not thought of craquelure since the 1990s when faux finishing was becoming popular. At that time, I would hire specialty painters to create “fake” plaster, patina, or crackled textures on walls and furniture. Now, years later, this technique would be the answer to one of my long-time design complaints. What and how?

I’ve been roaming design centers and specialty shops for more than 25 years. Given all that they offered, they’ve always came up short in one category: interesting lamp shades. I once found a pair of matching tole (painted tinplate) shades for a client. But when I looked again on behalf of another client, the shades had been discontinued.

And so the familiar search began again. It was during this search, in and out of scores of showrooms, walking up and down dozens of hallways, and punching many an elevator button, I’d mumble to myself, “I should just make them myself.” Famous last words, right?

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This self-imposed threat became an eight-month endeavor. Research, experimentation, and failure. My first attempt was inspired by my own personal decoupaged and crackled shades. But before copying them, I wanted to contact the artisan who had made them 20 years ago. He had hand-painted them with large, floral images and then antiqued them with a crackling glaze.

Fortunately for him, he long-retired to the Hamptons and unfortunately for me, my attempts to recreate his shades were lacking. Just as I was ready to give up, I simplified, nixed the florals, and concentrated on the crackling pattern.

I finally developed a successful eight-step process with the last step inspiring the name that I would give my shades. I noticed that the top layer of contrasting wax created a bit of a sheen that reminded me of gems. So I continued with the French craquele theme and named them “Bijoux” (French word for jewels).

As it turned out, they did need a name because they would later be shown at the San Francisco Design Center and during Sausalito Open Studios. You can see them all at www.plcinteriors.com/shop. Be sure to zoom in to be allured by the craquelure.

Patti L Cowger is a Napa-based interior designer and owner of PLC Interiors. For more information about her design services, visit her website at plcinteriors.com call (707) 322-6522; or email plcinteriors@sbcglobal.net. Her column, Demystifying Design, appears every other Saturday.

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