Art Nouveau Jewelry 1895-1910
In the last decade of the 19th century, Art Nouveau (French for “New Art”), which arose in reaction to the prior artistic movements of that century, flamed brightly for just fifteen short years before burning out due to over exposure and poorly designed cheap copies. At a time when the turn of the century was fast approaching and breaking from the traditional Victorian styles and forms, Art Nouveau displayed a fresh new way of looking at design which impacted architecture, books, fabric, furnishings and jewelry. Its characteristic flowing and curvilinear lines in jewelry presented the perfect manner in which to express this new design the most creatively.
Known as “Art Nouveau” in France and Belgium, the philosophy of the movement was known in Germany as “Jugendstil,” or “young design,” in Austria as “Sezession art,” and in Italy as “Stile Liberte,” after the London department store known to help initially popularize this type of design. Design emphasis became more focused on nature than on classical motifs; as with the jewelry of the Arts and Crafts period, aesthetic value took precedence over material value. Avant garde forces were in sharp contrast with Edwardian style at the turn of the century. The Paris Exposition Universelle of 1900 provided the perfect showcase for additional exposure of this new art form, after which even traditional jewelers had to acknowledge its influence and obligingly manufactured jewelry suited to the tastes of a growing consumer class.
Important Design Elements
Certain characteristic design elements help pinpoint the Art Nouveau style, particularly fluid and curving whiplash or entrelac lines depicting hair or serving alone as undulating free-form designs, as if to suggest movement and vigor.
The female form in the new jewelry, nude or clothed, was very much in evidence, although previously frowned upon and considered in poor taste. Female forms are often depicted with wings in either plique-a-jour enamel—a technique that fosters a transparent or translucent enamel—or gemstones, or both, and are termed “hybrids” or “grotesques.” The fusion of a human form with an animal or insect was a popular design motif and, along with delicate pastel colors and phenomenal gemstones, helped to convey a dream-like quality that was sought after by jewelers of this period. As with Arts and Crafts jewelry, peacocks and other birds also were popular subjects for Art Nouveau jewels. Stylistic renditions of nature suggest single plant forms or entire landscapes and were very much in evidence. Unlike the Victorian era, with its emphasis on replicating nature, Art Nouveau deliberately stylized natural forms to help convey a perception of nature. In addition, the then recent influx of Japanese art associated with the opening of that country’s cultural doors in 1860 was also a huge influence on linear form and its importance in Art Nouveau design. As the 19th century wound down, Art Nouveau design dwelt increasingly on the cycles of life, death and rebirth, resulting in images involving dreams, the mystical arts, and decay in general.
Popular Art Nouveau Enameling Techniques
Most noteworthy of Art Nouveau jewelry materials is the generous use of enamel—distinctively employing the use of plique-a-jour enamel to confer a delicate stained glass effect. Enamel starts out as a powdered colored glass that, when heated, can be employed many different ways. In plique-a-jour enamel (French for “letting in daylight”) vitreous enamel is confined within wire cells, as with cloisonné enamel, but without a backing, providing a translucent see-through or window effect. This technique was perfect for rendering winged female forms or creating landscape pieces. A variant of plique-a-jour enamel is cabochonné, whereby layers of translucent enamel are built up to impart a rounded effect, as with a cabochon cut precious stone. On larger surface areas, champlevé enamel was often employed. This technique of enameling is produced by hollowing out a metal background and filling the resultant negative space with colored enamel. Basse-taille enamel, whereby a hand engraved patterned ground is covered with translucent colored enamel, was also commonly used. Glass itself was also a popular material found in Art Nouveau jewelry; with a polished or frosted matte finish known as pate de vere, it provided subtle effects in cast or cut glass. The soft colors of enamel enhanced by the intense color of accompanying gemstones provided very effective designs in jewelry.
Favorite Art Nouveau Materials
Favored materials were sought after more for their effect rather than for their value or opulence. Diamonds were relegated to serving as accent stones. Translucent and cabochon cut stones, like moonstone and opal, suited the mystical flavor of these jewels, and baroque pearls were often used as drops or finials to pendants or earrings. Also in common with the Arts and Crafts movement was a preference for cabochon cut stones over faceted stones. Inexpensive materials, particularly horn and ivory, were used to great effect and are frequently found carved and/or stained. Metal medallions were another popular Art Nouveau jewel, usually French in origin. These medallions would be used as pendants or brooches and were usually in the form of figurative bas reliefs.
Noted Art Nouveau Artists and Jewelers
Pre-eminent among jewelers during this period is René Lalique. Later famous for his art glass, Lalique began as a jeweler at Maison de l’Art Nouveau, the gallery owned by Seigfried Bing in Paris, France, and for which the name of this style was originally coined. Bing’s gallery was designed by Henry van de Velde, a well-known German architect working in the Art Nouveau style, and this popular and innovative gallery featured a number of jewelry designers that became recognized for their Art Nouveau jewels. These alumni included Edward Colonna (formerly of Tiffany & Co.) and Henri Vever, another celebrated jeweler who was also the author of an important three-volume set on fin-de-siècle (turn of the century) jewelry design. The Spanish Alphonse Mucha was a major influence on the Art Nouveau style in general, and worked with the Spanish jewelry firm Masriera to create delicate plique-a-jour jewels that are once again being created in the 21st century. In America, Louis Comfort Tiffany, of Tiffany & Company, mirrored the career of Lalique in France, beginning with artistic Art Nouveau style jewelry and then graduating on to art glass.
All Images by Ernst Faerber