Everywhere around me, you see that Art Nouveau jewelry is so popular. And not only because people pay a fortune at Sotheby’s and Christie’s to get one excellent piece of Art Nouveau jewelry.
But why is this jewelry so popular? Why do people pay a lot of money to obtain a genuine piece in this style? And why is there a stunning exhibition in one of the most prominent museums in Amsterdam/The Netherlands about this style of jewelry?
Altogether great reasons to talk about Art Nouveau jewelry a bit more. And maybe after reading this blog you agree with me that you can say: Art Nouveau, 1 excellent jewelry style!
What is Art Nouveau?
Art Nouveau is an art movement that flourished between 1890 and 1914. It was a reaction to the art style of impressionism, where all the shapes in art faded, and you did not really know what you were looking at.
The start of Art Nouveau was in England, the center of the Industrial Revolution and mass production. It is called the Arts&Crafts Movement there. It spread to France (Art Nouveau), Germany (Jugendstil), and the rest of Europe.
Artists and with them, a lot of people did not like the industrial products and especially the design of those products. All individuality was gone and art was not unique anymore. It was more a cheap mass-productive way of making objects.
The most important inspiration was nature, an optimistic worldview, and a belief in a great future. Artists loved to experiment with new techniques and disliked symmetry. This art style manifested itself in glasswork, architecture, furniture, book designs, painting, etc, and also in designing jewelry.
How did Art Nouveau originate?
Around 1950, the age of the Industrial Revolution in England, people valued everything made with machines. No more handwork, no more hard labor (they thought), machines did all the work. People earned a lot because the products got cheaper, and they longed for objects that the really rich folks owned.
The result was that there was no real design anymore, but one copied the designs of earlier times. The products were made fast to meet the demand, and those products were made sloppy and with mistakes. There were artists who resented all this and started to make new products, with new designs and made by hand, watching and controlling the whole process. This movement was called the Arts&Crafts Movement.
Mr. William Morris was the most famous man who came up against industrial production. He did not want a new style, but a new design principle: nice and decent objects for common people. That did not work, since the new products were too expensive, but the movement got noticed by Tiffany in the USA and designers in the rest of Europe.
Art Nouveau and jewelry
Before 1890 jewelry was made for the show, large and expensive, using a lot of precious stones, like diamonds. It was not important whether the jewelry was beautiful and how it made the woman look stunning. No, it had to be expensive and you had to see that.
In the time of Art Nouveau for the first in a long period, jewelry is designed as art objects. That had to make the ladies beautiful and seen. The jewelry designers like René Lalique and George Fouquet created original and artistic pieces of jewelry that stunned the world.
In their jewelry, they loved ornaments, like flowers, birds, and ladies. No mass-production, but handmade jewelry and using unusual material and techniques. And the idea was to make this jewelry for ‘normal’ people, not for the rich and famous.
How did jewelry look like before Art Nouveau?
The Art Nouveau jewelry designers resented the ‘old’ jewelry that just seemed to be made to look exclusive and expensive. The most expensive gemstones, all faceted, were in the middle of the design attention. Only gold and silver were used as precious metals and their ‘task’ was to show the gemstones as stunning as possible.
In the 1860s diamonds were found in South Africa and the result was that only diamonds were used in the jewelry of the 19th century. That expensive jewelry was called ‘joaillerie’ and purchased by the rich. Jewelry for the less fortuned people, made from cheaper materials, was called ‘bijouterie’ and not worth looking at according to the rich people.
In this system, jewelry designers worked for large companies, like Cartier, and nobody knew their names. Luckily, due to the fast production of jewelry in the 1950s, the jewelry was tacky, and all the mistakes made were covered by a lot of ornaments.
In the 1890s the longing for artists professional jewelry designers and jewelry makers started.
Well, to start with… from the beginning of Art Nouveau the pieces of jewelry, made by hand, were expensive. They were unique and exclusive and made with a combination of expensive gemstones and cheap material, like horn or enamel. But you needed a lot of skills to master the enameling, and a lot of the experiments failed. So the idea of making cheap but beautiful jewelry failed (the cheap part, I mean).
The jewelry was based on asymmetrical lines, that expressed emotions. The design was the most important factor and not the material, like before. The jewelry designers always found material that made the design work, also when they had to work with very unusual material, like enamel and horn. The faceted gemstones were only used to match the colors of the design and diamonds were not used as a focus-point, but a touch of light.
The pieces of jewelry have a design based on nature. Gracefully styled plants and flowers with long stems, like lilies, chalices, irises, poppies, or rosebuds. Also, birds are favorite especially swans and peacocks, but also dragonflies, clouds, and slim female figures.
Designers like René Lalique and George Fouquet, Henry Vever in France, Louis Comfort Tiffany in the USA, and others stood up and changed the jewelry world, once and for all!
Let us dive a bit deeper into this beautiful art style, that has given us such a lot of stunning pieces of jewelry too. And I want to show you, especially the influence of the ‘ladies’ and ‘nature’ in the designs.
The female muse of the jewelry designers
We all know that women are for many artists a muse, a course of inspiration to make art. You see that especially in paintings already for ages and ages. But you hardly see that in jewelry. But that changed at the end of the 19th century. The Art Nouveau style jewelry used the woman to express their emotions and fears in their designs.
A new art style or Art Nouveau style developed between 1890 and 1914. The new style was a reaction to industrialization in the 19th century that caused prosperity and progress, but also fear and doubts since values of the present did not look at the values of the past at all. People got confused.
The time of industrialization was also the age of mind-numbing labor. The market is flooded with cheap machine-made products and jewelry that the emerging middle class can afford. As early as the middle of the 19th century, the artists feared that human civilization would perish from ugliness.
To escape the tensed reality the artists returned to subjects from nature and fled in fictive worlds full of female cliches, like dreams, memory, and the past. European writers prefer to flee into decadence and imbue their novels with fear and death. Both worlds – that of good and evil – are very attractive to Art Nouveau artists.
Emancipation of women
The French actress Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923) knows the power of advertisement. In 1895 she hires Alphonse Mucha for 5 years, to use her as the ‘goddess’ on his posters. This makes them both more or less immortal and rich. Sarah Bernhardt as an icon of the Art Nouveau style sold on the posters of Alphonse Mucha a lot of products, like cosmetics, clothing, and Lefèvre-Utile cookies.
She also was a kind of patron or muse for the artists since she bought several paintings of Alphonse Mucha and ordered a lot of Art Nouveau-style jewelry from René-Jules Lalique. Other muses were the nightclub performer Jane Avril or the dancer Loie Fuller, who started to dance in the Folies Bergère in Paris.
This is also the age at which the women’s emancipation movement started. Women started working and studying and the Art Nouveau artists supported them. For instance by designing dresses in which the ladies could move, no corsets and jewelry that made a lady unique. But all the ladies depicted in the Art Nouveau style were highly idealized, feminine, seductive, slender, and often naked. Where did those artists really support women’s emancipation? Or is the woman again exploited?
Idealisation of female figures
The ‘new’ art uses idealized female figures with long luscious locks of hair and sheer robes. Their divine appearances are borrowed from classical antiquity, Byzantine icons, or Medieval legends.
The mythical ladies depicted in the Art Nouveau style jewelry do not just represent beautiful women, but they are modern symbols, standing for something more than just the girl. Often these goddesses, nymphs, sphinxes, fairies, and angels are higher ideals, timeless substances of universal values. As bearers of ideas, they offer a foothold for a society that moves between fear and desire.
Flora, the Roman goddess of Spring, is for the Art Nouveau style jewelry designer the ideal figure to represent the ‘new’ art. Fairies from the Medieval tales represent pure life. Against that stand cruel women showing fate. For instance, the Greek Médusa or the Biblical Salomé is the perfect ‘femmes fatales’, the embodiment of decay and destruction.
The political and economic tensions at the end of the 19th century were ideal to develop nationalism. The French-German War (1870-1871) just passed by and the industrialists were afraid of the foreign competition. There was a fierce longing for a strong identity and the national traditions are popular again.
Art Nouveau style jewelry in France
The French society was not that keen on the development of women’s emancipation. Especially the men feared the moment what would happen if the women got equal rights. When women started to study and work outside, the birthrate would drop, and then there were not enough soldiers for the next war.
This is one reason why the Art Nouveau style jewelry was so woman-centric. More or less the idea of ‘love them to death’. The pieces of jewelry showed or depicted a lovely, unthreatening woman with long flowing hair, a nice face, and mostly nude. The jewelry designers designed jewelry with ‘fantasy’ women as sexualized mermaids and fairies with wings. Or they depicted scary ladies like Médusa or Salomé, which represent the dichotomy in French male society.
The female figures in the Art Nouveau style jewelry were placed next to insects and flowers and a lot of garlands. The ladies who started to wear this type of jewelry were wealthy (this type of Art Nouveau style jewelry was expensive) and a bit bohemian, like the French actress Sarah Bernhardt, the dancer La Belle Otero (1868-1965), or rich fashionistas like Countess Greffulhe (1860-1952).
Famous French Art Nouveau Style jewelry designers were René-Jules Lalique, Henri Privat-Livremont, brothers Verver, Georges Fouquet, and many other, less known artists. Lalique not only designed jewelry for Sarah Bernhardt, but also for the actress of the Comédie Francaise, Julia Bartet. She wore this jewelry on stage and Lalique designed these pieces made of lightweight material, like aluminum, so that it was comfortable to wear them for hours. The design was more important than the material used.
Art Nouveau style jewelry in England
Queen Victoria loved jewelry of the ‘old style’; large gemstones and a lot of them, the price was more important than the design. A lot of times she started a jewelry fashion: she was an important patron for the jewelry designers. Until her husband died in 1861.
She withdrew from social life and isolated herself from the public. That same public disconnected with the monarchy and could not follow her jewelry ‘line’. The result was that British women did not wear a lot of jewelry in the 1870s anymore.
In the Victorian Age, people objected to the decorative use of the female body and face, other than a mythological figure in a cameo. But when the Art Nouveau style jewelry was started in England by the Arts&Crafts Movement )1880-1920) using the feminine curves and lines, with natural themes, the women embraced this new jewelry.
The goal of the Art Nouveau style jewelry designers was to create handmade jewelry, stuffed with social and political implications. An important factor in England was the development of women’s emancipation, which changed the female role in society and inspired the Art Nouveau style jewelry designers. They designed new flamboyant jewelry for women, like actresses, singers, and dancers, who ordered and wore the new jewelry. You cannot think of a better advertisement.
The ladies with talent and time wanted to make their own living and they too started to design and make Art Nouveau style jewelry. Famous female jewelry designers in those days were Ella Naper and Charlotte Newman, who were recognized as the first female jeweler in the second half of the 19th century.
A female ideal or caricature
The female figures used in the Art Nouveau style jewelry, but also on posters and in paintings were no real women, but an ideal invented by the designers or painters. The body depicted had an ‘S’ shape, which is rather unnatural. The woman wore a corset which pushed her chest forward, the waist was unnatural tight and there was a focus on her buttock.
Although the ‘woman as muse’ motif was a strong theme in the Art Nouveau style jewelry world, the male designers had problems with accepting that woman as a modern woman and equal partner in their art.
This is a bit strange since you know by now that the Art Nouveau style jewelry designers and the other artists embraced women emancipation, and used women as their muse. But all the attention for the ladies did not change the status of the women, by the end of the day. It looks as if those artists love to look at beautiful ladies but don’t want to live with a working woman.
The similarity of the pieces of jewelry made by FlorenceJewelshop and the pieces made by the Art Nouveau style jewelry designers is that we both regard the design as most important. We use unique designs and use precious and semi-precious gemstones. Not the price is most important but the design that makes you beautiful.
Nature as inspiration for new jewelry
Art Nouveau jewelry is one amazing explosion of birds, insects, clouds, and water. Some elements return in the jewelry designs and a great thing is that the jewelry designers break with every rule concerning the use of gemstones, expensive gemstones! Their design was more important than the price of the gems.
Motifs in Art Nouveau jewelry
The Art Nouveau style as a movement was a protest against Industrialisation and mass production. According to the artist it only produced bad quality and very ugly utensils and art. As a result of that, jewelry designers and other artists like painters used motifs from nature in their work.
They loved to use birds, like swans, peacocks, snakes, owls, and bats. But also insects like dragonflies, butterflies and a lot of flowers. Orchids, irises, poppies, chalices, and roses were very popular, especially with long stems.
And don’t forget the female figures with long wavy hair. Jewelry designers loved to combine all these motives, like pendants with a naked female figure surrounded with flowers, branches like garlands, and the wings of a butterfly. Read my blog about that aspect of Art Nouveau jewelry.
The Whiplash Line
The Art Nouveau Jewelry designers did not like straight lines, that looked too much on machine-made objects. They were in favor of handmade, so no straight lines but asymmetric lines. And the flowing whiplash line was their trademark.
The whiplash line symbolized movement, passion, and vitality. You can see undulating lines in plants, in the hair and curves of the female figures. According to Robert Melville, the whiplash line was a ‘visible wave of erotic vertigo’.
Before the time of Art Nouveau jewelry designers made expensive pieces of jewelry filled with faceted huge gemstones, not the cheap ones but the precious gemstones, like a diamond, sapphire, ruby, and emerald.
The Art Nouveau jewelry designers wanted to design jewelry for the middle class, cheaper jewelry, but handmade. They started to use opal, amber, pearls, ivory, horn, enamel, and less expensive gemstones in their designs. The idea was that the design was the most important and you look for materials that express the design. And not the other way around.
Techniques used in the Art Nouveau jewelry
In the period before Art Nouveau, there were great artists and jewelry designers that stayed at the well-known techniques and motifs. They did not dare to go any further or innovate. This art was very traditional. The Art Nouveau jewelry designers overcome the fixed art ideas and break free of these shackles.
The Art Nouveau jewelry designers wanted to bring originality and creativity back into the design, together with craftsmanship. And that craftsmanship was needed to make a perfect surface decoration mostly using the enameling technique.
There were three enameling techniques: the plique-à-jour, the baisse-taille, and the Guilloche. All three of them needed excellent jewelry makers to make the enamel as stunning as demanded by the clients. The techniques were extremely difficult time-consuming, and therefore extremely pricy. Which was not the intention of the jewelry designers at the start of Art Nouveau.
Besides the enameling, the technique in casting and carving of gold needed high craftsmanship too. But the most important technical innovation was the enameling and then, especially the plique-à-jour.
Plique-à-jour is also called the backless enamel, since it allows the light to come through the rear of the enamel and it looked like three-dimensional, creating an effect of translucence and lightness.
Plique-à-jour means ‘letting in the daylight’ in French and that is what it should do; allow light to pass through, just like a stained glass window does. The jewelry makers were able to make a butterfly, so real, that you might think it is flying away any moment.
To feel the touch of movement of those wings the parts were often set ‘en tremblant’, which means that separate parts were set on wires or springs and could move, together with the movement of the bearer of the jewel.
The hidden parts were carefully finished. It was very important that the piece of jewelry (especially the larger pieces) felt well on the body.
Basse-taille and Guilloché techniques
Besides the plique-à-jour technique two other techniques were frequently used; the baisse-taille and the Guilloché technique. Working with the baisse-taille technique means that you engrave a lower part in silver or gold. The Guilloché technique works with a machine that produces repetitive patterns into an underlying material.
The famous jewelry designers of the Art Nouveau jewelry
There are some awesome jewelry designers designing and making Art Nouveau-style jewelry. I’d present to you some of my favorites.
René-Jules Lalique (1860-1945)
Lalique combined the craftsmanship of making jewelry (goldsmith) and the art of designing jewelry and grew into a phenomenon. Studying in London he got acquainted with the Arts&Crafts Movement. Returning to Paris he noticed the public started to gain admiration for handmade jewelry and he tried to fulfill that need.
He was a kind of jewelry visionary and in his designs, he looked for the best material to create his idea. And those materials are different, cheaper, but they must respond to the realization of his designs. Like horn, instead of turtle, semi-precious gems instead of precious gemstones, enamel.
There was a great risk that society might consider his work as ‘bijou’ instead of jewelry, because of the cheaper material. But the designs were so popular and stunning that the clientele bought his pieces anyway.
First, he worked for large jewelry houses and his jewelry was sold under their name, quite soon he got his own orders. Some of his clients were so well-known, like the actress Sarah Bernhardt, that working for her was an advertisement on its own.
His reputation as a jewelry designer and maker was at his peak at the World Exhibition in Paris in 1900, but after that, he wanted something else and started working with glass.
Henri Vever (1854-1942)
Henri Vever was a jeweler operating his family business started by his grandfather in Paris. His company made a lot of the most gorgeous Art Nouveau jewelry you can imagine.
Georges Fouquet (1862-1957)
He is the son of a Parisian goldsmith and jeweler and he started in his father’s jewel shop in 1895. A few years later he designed and produced Art Nouveau style jewelry made of opal, gold, and pearls mostly.
His enameling technique was exquisite and he gave his jewelry a number, so it is easy to recognize and date his jewelry. Also, Alphonse Mucha was often his partner in designing and making jewelry.
The clients of the Art Nouveau jewelry
There was a very special and dedicated group of women who had the money and the guts to wear Art Nouveau jewelry. First of all, a lot of jewelry depicted nude female figures and that was very shocking in those days. And they could be large and extravagant.
Knowing that these pieces of jewelry were unique or one-of-a-kind, time-consuming to make and the used technique (enameling) had a tendency to break easily, the result is that the Art Nouveau jewelry was not really for the middle-class ladies.
These expensive pieces of jewelry were purchased by unmarried women, with wealthy lovers. They stood on the fringes of the accepted society. Like actresses, dancers, and muses of a famous artist. But the ladies who dared to wear this extravagant jewelry were followers of the woman’s emancipation movement.
And be frank… the Art Nouveau jewelry designers also designed quite a lot of jewelry, that was a little less remarkable and could be worn for the less courageous women.
It did not last!
Art Nouveau jewelry was very popular and the rich people could afford it. Actresses, like Sarah Bernhard, promoted the pieces of jewelry of René Lalique in theatre and that meant an extra boost on sales. But when something is popular the copy-cats come up and in no time cheap and not that beautiful copies started to overflow the market.
In 1914 World War I started and people were not that interested anymore in purchasing and making jewelry. Surviving was the most important thing in those days. And although the Art Nouveau style was very different and intense, and had a lot of influence on art and designing utensils, it ended as fast as it started.
Expensive Art Nouveau jewelry, even today!
You might think. OK, beautiful jewelry, but made only about 20 years. And not with the most expensive materials. Why is this jewelry so extremely expensive?
There is a very easy explanation for this. Art Nouveau jewelry is rare, due to the short period it is made and because it is mostly made of enamel, which breaks quite easily. Genuine, good-quality Art Nouveau jewelry is very hard to find. And when it is designed and made by a famous jewelry designer, like Lalique or Fouquet or Tiffany, then the price goes up and up.
Just calculate for a pendant or brooch, made by René Lalique, in a good condition between $200.000-300.000. It does not come into the million dollars, but maybe when you wait too long?
FlorenceJewelshop designs modern gemstone pieces of jewelry. Every design is used only once, so you never meet another lady with the same piece of jewelry made by FlorenceJewelshop. Guaranteed! It is unique and genuine, but less expensive as an Art Nouveau piece of jewelry (another style too).
The resemblance is that FlorenceJewelshop and the designers of the Art Nouveau style love precious and semi-precious gemstones. And when you want to know more about them, if only because you want to know more about a gem, when you consider buying it, ask for the free e-book ‘Birthstones in stories’. You will find a lot of interesting facts and fun stories about the birthstones and a lot of other gemstones. Just let me know where I can send it to.
Hug, Florence of FlorenceJewelshop