No other art form has celebrated the love for the unique, magical, and even erotic the way that Art Nouveau jewellery did. Translating to New Art in French, this short but impactful design period aimed to find an original way to class beauty through entirely new principles.
Art Nouveau-period jewellery is best known today for prompting, if not encouraging, stares and whispers through its extensive use of female forms and inferred sexuality – making it quite scandalous and, thus, more exciting!
At a time of growing wealth and flowing absinthe, it shifted the attention from intrinsic value to out-of-the-box design, bringing a whole new meaning to the term “conversation starter”.
Let’s take a leap in time and explore this magnificent form of jewellery art that continues to awe both enthusiasts and mere viewers to this day.
Art Nouveau Jewellery History
Part of the prosperous Belle Époque era, the Art Nouveau period is generally believed to span between 1895-1910, a time also referred to as the Fin de Siecle (French for ‘end of the century’). Brief yet revolutionary, this antique art of jewellery-making marked the transition from Victorian to more modern designs. Increasing wealth and flourishing arts made it possible to experiment with innovative techniques, giving birth to an entirely new style that had never been seen before.
It’s important to note that, although jewellery with a similar aesthetic was also created in other countries during that time – like Jugendstil in Germany, Stile Liberty in Italy, Modernisme in Catalonia, etc. – true Art Nouveau jewellery is decidedly French.
The rebellious art movement was created by a select group of avant-garde artists, who combined the simple yet elegant aesthetics of the emerging Japonisme with the return to handcrafted goods preached by Arts & Crafts artisans.
However, it was inadvertently named by Samuel Bing, a German-French art dealer who introduced much of the time’s Japanese art to the West. In 1895, Bing organised an international exhibition to celebrate the reopening of his renewed Asian art gallery in Paris under the name “Maison de l’Art Nouveau”. This event brought together the artists who would form the movement’s core.
Described as anything but mainstream, jewels created in this original aesthetic were large, expensive, and often a bit over-the-top, making them suitable for a very select part of society.
The style’s ambassadors consisted mostly of well-known entertainers like actress Sarah Bernhardt, courtesans with rich lovers like La Belle Otero, and wealthy, artistic socialites like Countess Greffulhe.
Unfortunately, the onset of WWI put a halt to the imagination and creativity of Art Nouveau design only about 15 years after its inception. It would be replaced by the Art Deco style in the 1920s and enjoy some revived interest during the 1960s Psychedelia.
Art Nouveau Jewellery Characteristics & Influences
The boldness and purity of Japonisme were translated into natural themes that served as reminders of mortality and humanity’s connection to nature.
The ‘back-to-basics’ philosophy of the Arts & Crafts movement inspired the emphasis on innovative materials and design excellence rather than heavy carats and mass-produced mediocrity.
And the Symbolist movement’s reaction against realism sparked the use of symbolic depictions and metaphorical images to represent absolute truths.
But the main characteristic of Art Nouveau design is perhaps the free-flowing line, sometimes called the “whiplash” line, which was used to suggest the movement and shapes found in every corner of the natural world; from free-floating leaves and flowers to sinuous female curves and winding hair locks.
Aiming to break down the traditional boundaries between fine and applied arts, Art Nouveau jewellery incorporated painting and sculptural elements to create lifelike shapes that look as if they’ve come alive or emerged straight from a picture.
Common Themes & Motifs
Soft, mystical, and romantic themes coupled with pale and muted colours embody the essence of the Art Nouveau jewellery style. Nature and free-flowing movement inspired the period’s most common motifs, often filled with symbolic connotations reflecting the “turn of the 20th century” spirit.
A wide variety of fauna and flora were artfully depicted like never before, such as butterflies, dragonflies, and plants, along with stars and crescent moons. Mythical creatures like nymphs, fairies, and mermaids also featured prominently in a fresh plethora of shapes, colours, and reliefs that added a standout factor.
But these mesmerising pieces of wearable art also had something else in common: nudity and erotica! Some Art Nouveau designs were considered quite shocking for the time, featuring naked female forms, creatures of fantasy, and other whimsical motifs that sparked interest and controversy. This Renaissance-inspired fascination with the female form undoubtedly makes Art Nouveau extremely woman-centric, reflecting the changing role of women at the time.
The Suffrage movement inspired women to fight for equal rights, including getting an education, having a job, and voting. This idea frightened the French, who had recently suffered a humiliating defeat in the Franco-Prussian War and feared that a birth rate drop would result in insufficient men to support future armies. Women were now both revered and feared.
Hence the dichotomy of the female representation in Art Nouveau jewellery: some depict a romanticised, unthreatening woman with flowing hair and sweet features, whereas others depict a sexualised “fantasy” woman with wings or “scary” figures like Medusa.
Unsurprisingly, the most avid wearers of this type of jewellery were the affluent but bohemian women of the time.
Materials, Techniques & Gemstones
For Art Nouveau jewellery makers, the gems and materials were less important than the excellence of the design. This focus on the settings rather than the gemstones made way for a change in the philosophy of value; that a piece of jewellery could be made without precious stones like rubies and sapphires but still be valuable because of its inherent beauty.
Innovative designs saw yellow gold and platinum used alongside semi-precious and unusual materials such as glass, carved ivory, and horn from domestic animals like cows.
Amber, moonstone, aquamarine, and opal were often framed by delicate metalwork, while diamonds were mostly used as accent stones even in engagement rings. Other common gemstones in Art Nouveau jewellery include amethyst, aquamarine, citrine, lapis lazuli, agate, peridot, and freshwater and blister pearls.
However, this new type of creative design wouldn’t be the same without the artistic use of enamel, and particularly three techniques of surface decoration:
Known as backless enamel, the plique-à-jour (French for “letting in daylight”) technique mimics the translucence and lightness of stained glass. It allows light to come through the rear of the enamel, giving a distinctive three-dimensional quality to the jewel.
This was an extremely technical and time-consuming job, as every piece was beautifully handcrafted to perfection, even when viewed from an angle. Art Nouveau brooches and earrings usually featured small delicate aspects, while larger pieces like Art Nouveau pendants utilised larger sections, allowing the enamel’s dreamy colours to shine through.
Basse-taille (French for “shallow-cut”) is an enamelling technique in which a metal surface, usually gold or silver, is engraved or carved in low-relief levels and then covered with translucent coloured enamel.
This technique dramatises the play of light and shade over the low-cut design and also gives the object a tone of brilliance. This was another way in which Art Nouveau jewellery designers created brilliant and innovative jewels that played with the light and gave the wearer a sense of the piece shining from within.
Cloisonné comes from the French word “cloison”, which translates to ‘partition’. It is the most ancient enamelling technique, dating back to ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt. In this process, different colours of enamel are separated by partitions made of thin metal wires.
These thin strips are usually made of gold or silver and are fused onto a base layer of enamel to shape intricate designs. Once mounted, the partitions are filled with layers of enamel until they level with the top of the wires. The metal remains visible in order to accentuate the beautiful patterns.
Notable Art Nouveau Jewellery Designers
The shifts in philosophy about mechanisation and the reliance on mass production found a footing in the Art Nouveau school. This select group of avant-garde designers rebelled against this conformity and found freedom by marrying handcrafted artistry with creative techniques. They attempted to redefine what constituted value, from the method of production to the materials used.
Some of the most notable jewellers with sizeable contributions to the Art Nouveau movement are:
⬧ René Lalique
René Lalique (1860-1945) was a French goldsmith and glass designer whose work was highly influential throughout Europe and within the genre itself. Lalique was unique in introducing new subdued tones that would change their colour throughout the day in reaction to natural light, which made the pieces seem alive.
His choice of iconography was revolutionary, as was the range of semi-precious, exotic, and often fragile materials he introduced in his hybrid designs. These hybrids combined elements of sculpture, painting, and the Arts & Crafts movement, executed with the utmost attention to detail. Actress and big Art Nouveau fan Sarah Bernhardt admittedly had much to do with René Lalique’s rising fame at the time.
⬧ Henri Vever
Although founded in 1821, the House of Vever didn’t start producing Renaissance-style jewellery until half a century later. It was in 1900, however, that Henri Vever (1854–1942) aligned the house with the Art Nouveau movement by exhibiting pieces in the new art aesthetic at the Salon in Paris. One of Vever’s great successes was exquisite hair combs with plique-á-jour enamel and pearls with organic motifs.
⬧ Georges Fouquet
Georges Fouquet (1862-1957) took his father’s jewellery firm in a whole new direction by using opals, coloured gemstones, and enamel over chased gold. He worked with several influential artisans to design some of the period’s most magnificent jewels. One of his collaborations with then-unknown Czech painter Alphonse Mucha would go down in history.
The two combined forces to create an extraordinary slave bracelet in the form of a snake for actress Sarah Bernhardt made of gold, enamel, diamonds, rubies, and opal. The piece became the most expensive Art Nouveau jewel to be sold at an auction to this day, selling for $757,246 at Christie’s in 1987 or the equivalent of about $1,000,000 in today’s money.
⬧ Lucien Gaillard
Paris-based jeweller Lucien Gaillard (1861-1933) was another notable Art Nouveau contributor whose designs were tremendously influenced by Japonisme. He specialised in plaques for dog collar necklaces, pendants, and hair combs, often using enamels, coloured stones, horn, and opal in his work. However, his firm was primarily renowned for its patination as well as masterful Japanese-style metalwork, for which he specifically recruited artisans from Japan to work at his Paris atelier – a remarkable feat in 1900.
The Legacy of Art Nouveau Jewellery
Art Nouveau was a brief moment in time with a lasting legacy in almost every art form. Often described as an art total, the rebellious movement spread from jewellery and architecture to painting and literature. It manifested differently across several countries, from Celtic patterns in Great Britain and folk art motifs in Scandinavia to Tiffany’s iconic stained glass in the United States.
Unlike the parallel Edwardian designs that served to display one’s wealth and status, Art Nouveau jewellery was an avocation of the artists and designers that challenged mass production and called for a homage to the essence of art itself.
Unfortunately, the end of WWI found the public more open to modern developments, while the first ladies’ suits were also beginning to appear. This sparked a shift toward straight lines and more streamlined jewellery, rendering Art Nouveau pieces outdated.
The combination of the short-lived production and the fragile materials used makes it really hard to find jewellery of this period in excellent condition today. Naturally, this means that rare well-preserved findings are highly desirable to collectors and their prices often rise to lofty figures at auctions.
I hope you enjoyed the alluring mystique and sensual flowing lines of Art Nouveau jewellery and have been inspired to start your own collection of antique and vintage treasures.
Don’t forget to visit YazJewels and explore my curated collection of time-honoured jewels carrying stories from eras past.
Until the next jewellery period, long live the curves (of Art Nouveau or otherwise)!