written by JC Blackburn
Art Nouveau began as an opposing force to the somber, mass produced jewelry of the late Victorian era that was ushered in by the Industrial revolution. A protest, if you will, of all things mechanical and overengineered.
The artisan jeweler wanted the world to know that individual, handcrafted art of making jewelry was still very much alive and well.
While the Art Nouveau era was short, spanning from 1890 to 1906, the style overlapped into architecture, furniture, graphic design and painting in addition to jewelry.
It was overwhelmingly the style of the times in France while also influencing jewelry design in the rest of Europe and even the United States, though to a lesser degree. Decidedly, it was France who birthed the movement and, rightfully so, claimed it as their own.
Arguably, no artisan was more important to the movement than Renee Lalique. His stunning designs, matched with a masterful application of Plique-a-jour enamel (miniature stained glass) created works of art like the world had never seen. His masterful works were part metalsmithing, part sculpture and part painting.
Other famous Art Nouveau jewelers of the era were Louis Comfort Tiffany, Karl Faberge and George Foquet, to name a few.
Artisan jewelers borrowed inspiration from the Renaissance period of decorative art where free flowing, nature themes along with mysticism and fantasy expressions, came together and provided an organic and often supernatural element.
Typical designs often included religious imagery, mystical creatures and eroticism that was inspired by the Symbolist movement of the 1880’s. Soft, curved lines and free flowing contours often featured flora and fauna inspired themes like birds, flowers, and other animals. Pastel colors were used, often fading and transitioning to other colors within the plique’ a jour enamel.
Art Nouveau jewelry did not focus on expensive materials. Instead, utilizing semi-precious stones such as agate, garnet, and opal, baroque pearls and organic materials like ivory, amber, glass and horn. The effect was more important than the intrinsic value of the materials.
Much more than just a break away whim of a few talented designers, Art Nouveau represented a “freeing” of modern constraints, particularly those of women who desired to pursue their own dreams.
At that time, France had been humbled by the loss of the Prussian war and typical male sentiment was to keep women at home to bear children. Fear of women working and not producing men to protect France from future wars was a real concern for French society at the turn of 20th century.
Art Nouveau , with it’s natural expressions of the female form and passionate iconography, often caused shock by the general public. Art Nouveau jewelry was expensive and worn by the upper class French intelligentsia women of the time who would push the boundaries of what was considered decent at the time. Perhaps the most famous woman of the era who embraced and promoted Art Nouveau jewelry was Sandra Bernhardt. She worked closely with Rene Lalique and others to create a stunning collection of jewelry that would be worth millions today’s collectors market.
The Art Nouveau movement was also influenced by the Ukiyo-e movement in Japan because of increased communication between Asia and Europe. Japanese ukiyo-e was the elaborate process of creating woodblock prints. The use of space, color, and decorative patterns greatly inspired the same elements in Art Nouveau.
At the Paris World Fair of 1900, 104 countries exhibited their individual marvels of the period. The style and décor of the show was overwhelmingly Art Noveau and the world got a glimpse of France’s embracing of it. Everything from the poster art promoting the show to the entrance and the pavilions was draped in the Art Noveau style and it was clear the movement was the fashion of the day.
When World War I came along, the Art Nouveau style became all but extinct. The world had moved on and the Art Deco movement in jewelry and architecture was to become the flavor of the day soon afterwards.
Because of it’s incredible, handcrafted workmanship, extremely delicate materials (enamel) and short lived period, original Art Nouveau jewelry is very collectible today and commands high prices. It’s rarity almost assures that prices will continue to increase as time goes by.