The Art Nouveau period (c. 1890–1914), although brief, had a significant impact on jewelry design and on other disciplines of fine and decorative art. As part of the Belle Époque; a time of growing wealth and a flourishing arts scene, it was the perfect opportunity for experimentation with new techniques, materials, and motifs.
Created by a select group of avant-garde artists, Art Nouveau jewelry originated in France, Belgium and other parts of Europe, and marked the transformation from the Victorian period to the modern. In part a reaction to increasingly mass-manufactured jewelry, the style was vastly different in aesthetic with its free-floating forms inspired by the natural world, innovative materials, and entirely new design principles. It reinvigorated what had become a formulaic naturalism with new forms drawn from outside sources, including the Arts and Crafts movement in Great Britain and the arts of Japan. Artist-jewelers chose to work with semi- and even non-precious materials, and their creations are treasured for their originality and design excellence, rather than the intrinsic value of raw materials.
Early Influences on Art Nouveau Jewelry
One of the major influences on Art Nouveau was the Symbolist movement, which was inspired by the Pre-Raphaelites and William Blake. This was combined with some of the elements of Arts and Crafts philosophy to create an aesthetic that was highly varied and asymmetrical; reflecting the era’s political unease.
Spurred by the boldness and purity of the recently popular Japonisme, a French term that described Western interest in Japanese art, Art Nouveau jewelry created a striking contrast to the mainstream Edwardian designs of that time. Although jewelry with a similar aesthetic could be found in other countries during the same time, true Art Nouveau jewelry was decidedly French.
Common Colors and Motifs
The mood of Art Nouveau was often soft, mystical and romantic with it’s pale and muted colors and flowing, undulating curves. The nymph-like female forms and a variety of flora and fauna, such as dragonflies and butterflies, were transformed into decorative shapes and translated into motifs that were often loaded with symbolic connotations reflecting the Fin de Siecle spirit of the era.
Women in Art Nouveau Jewelry
The depiction of women in Art Nouveau jewelry was simultaneously eroticized and romanticized, often imbued with insect and floral motifs and inferred sexuality. This was perhaps a reaction to the changing role of women at the time — most notably aligning with the Women’s Suffrage movement that permeated European countries in the early 20th century. It is perhaps unsurprising that the most avid wearers of this type of jewelry were wealthy but bohemian women of the time, including actress Sarah Bernhardt (1844–1923), La Belle Otero (1868–1965) and socialites like Countess Greffulhe (1860–1952).
Art Nouveau jewelry was developed in an effort to bring originality and a sense of craftsmanship back to jewelry, with many pieces designed as one-off creations.
Art Nouveau is known for its skillful treatment of surface decoration. As well as a mastery of technique in casting and carving of gold, the single most important technique used by Art Nouveau designers was enameling, specifically plique-à-jour. Known as backless enamel, plique-à-jour allows light to come through the rear of the enamel and gives a distinctive three-dimensional quality, creating an effect of translucence and lightness.
This technique was extremely difficult and time-consuming, requiring the highest standards of craftsmanship. As with any piece of skillful craftsmanship, the hidden parts were also beautifully finished and articulation ensured that the larger pieces sat well on the body.
Basse-Taille and Guilloche
Plique-à-jour was often combined with other techniques such basse-taille, which are low-reliefs usually in either silver or gold that are created by engraving. Guilloche, a design technique that produces intricate and repetitive patterns by mechanically engraving into an underlying material, was another popular technique leveraged by makers of Art Nouveau jewelry.
Breaking with tradition, Art Nouveau jewelers placed more emphasis on settings rather than the gemstone itself, granting a license to experiment with beautiful enameling techniques as well as with different materials including semi and non precious stones. This also meant placing more of an emphasis on hand-crafted artistry and redefining collective notions of what determines value.
As a result, gems and metals were used in innovative ways alongside more unusual materials such as horn, amber, ivory, glass and blister pearls, framed by delicate goldwork. Diamonds were used more so as accent stones, while moonstone, amethyst, opal, amber, citrine, peridot, and freshwater pearls were common.
Art Nouveau Jewelry Makers
Perhaps most synonymous with Art Nouveau is French glass designer and goldsmith Rene Lalique (1860-1945). His creations embodied the very essence of the movement and had a profound effect throughout Europe. Among Lalique’s contributions was the development of new subdued tones whose color could change in natural light throughout the day. As a complement to his subtle coloring, Lalique also successfully employed a range of new materials: semi-precious stones, amber, mother-of-pearl, tortoise-shell, horn, pearls, and base metals. Often created as hybrids, his pieces are set apart for their unique ability to combine elements of sculpture, painting, and the Arts and Crafts movement.
His use of exotic and often fragile materials, particularly moulded glass, enamel and horn, was revolutionary, as was his choice of iconography. Breaking free from historical styles, he based his designs on plant, bird, and insect forms, celebrating their shape by lavishing them with the most meticulous attention to detail.
Another key jeweler-artist from the period was Georges Fouquet (1862-1957), who gained notoriety for his collaborations with then unknown Czech painter Alphonse Mucha. Fouquet’s body of work included an extraordinary serpentine bracelet of gold, enamel, diamonds and opals, which was designed for actress Sarah Bernhardt. Selling at Christie’s in 1987 for $757,246 — approximately the equivalent of $1,000,000 today — it was, and remains, the most expensive piece of Art Nouveau jewelry ever sold at auction.
Although the House of Vever was founded in 1821 and had been producing jewels in the Renaissance style since 1871, Henri Vever (1854–1942) aligned the house with the Art Nouveau movement when he exhibited pieces in the new style at the Salon in Paris in 1900.
Other notable Art Nouveau jewelers from the time include Lucian Galliard, Eugene Feuill Tre and Leopold Gautrait.
The combination of Art Nouveau as a fleeting period within history, combined with the fragile materials used, makes it rare to find pieces in excellent condition today. This, in turn, makes rare examples highly desirable at auction and has driven their prices to lofty figures. Pieces that are unusual and in good condition will fetch anything from around tens of thousands to a few hundred thousand dollars, with some items ultimately selling for more than twice their estimate. Other examples featuring Art Nouveau’s quintessential whimsy and free-flowing forms by lesser-known makers can be attained for a few thousand dollars, making these examples very attractive — and far more attainable.
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