Meaning the ‘Beautiful Era’ in French, the Belle Époque was a period of peace and prosperity marked by increasing wealth and flourishing arts. Known as the Edwardian Age in Great Britain and the Gilded Age in the United States, this was an extraordinary and transitional time in human history – and Belle Époque jewellery was certainly made to reflect that.
The arrival of the Second Industrial Revolution, modern-form electricity, and other technological advances gave birth to mass production, which led to considerable economic growth in Western society. This created the social layers of the bourgeoisie and nouveau riche, whose parties and sumptuous lifestyles left a signature mark on the Belle Époque style.
The time’s overall optimism and exciting atmosphere were felt above all in urban areas, where excessive receptions dominated the flashy social and cultural lifestyle. Bright, original, and breathtaking jewellery defined the period, at least until its premature end.
Let’s dive into this lavish era associated with beauty and splendour that has always been fondly remembered by the French.
Belle Époque Jewellery Overview
The Belle Époque overlaps with the Victorian Era and is believed to have begun in 1871, following France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War. This period before and after the turn of the 20th century saw several other countries in peace after war or turbulence. It was a time of prosperity that sadly ended with the arrival of WWI in 1914. It would be called “Pax Britannica” in England, “The Gilded Age” in the US, and “The Restoration” in Spain. The newly-rebuilt Paris gained international attention as the centre of the world, hosting two World Fairs and flaunting impressive new landmarks like the Eiffel Tower and the Grand Palais.
It was the legendary Place Vendôme, however, where all things elegant and beautiful came to be – for the right price, of course. Some of the most notable high-end jewellers settled here during this time, namely Boucheron, Cartier, Chaumet, and Van Cleef & Arpels. Although their clientele was mostly aristocracy and bourgeoisie, their true ambassadors were none other than Paris’ celebrities at the time, the courtesans.
These picky socialites were trophy companions of powerful men (royalty included), receiving lavish presents in return — from diamonds to mansions! Seen as the ultimate Parisian woman, courtesans dictated fashion and lifestyle trends during the Belle Époque period. As cinema boomed in the late 19th century, the trendsetter title gradually moved from European royalty and bourgeoisie to Hollywood movie stars.
Where Three Genres Meet
Belle Époque jewellery included machine-created as well as hand-fabricated pieces influenced by the time’s different art movements. Spectacular jewels never failed to make an appearance on both formal and informal occasions, inspired by three distinctive jewellery design periods encompassed within the era:
♦ Arts and Crafts Movement (1880-1920)
The Arts and Crafts movement started as a rebellion against the mechanisation of jewellery production, aiming to revive the days of artisanal craftsmanship. Jewellery created in this style usually featured silver or non-precious metals, semi-precious gems, enamel, and simple, straightforward lines. Nature inspired the designs, as did the Japanism craze of the time, along with Gothic & Renaissance Revival, Art Nouveau, and Edwardian Era motifs. However, this return to the old ways was in direct opposition to the period’s exploding decadence. Hence, it was short-lived and not very popular amongst the nouveau riche, who preferred intricate metalwork and heavy carats. Arts and Crafts jewellery is highly coveted by collectors today due to its rarity and handmade quality.
♦ Art Nouveau Movement (1895-1910)
Although inspired by the Arts & Crafts movement, Art Nouveau jewellery came mostly in gold, platinum or silver, and featured fluid lines, sinuous curves, and asymmetrical patterns. The jewels aimed to capture the movement and often depicted natural scenes, mythical creatures, and female forms that appear to be alive or as if they’ve just emerged from a painting. Evocative of magic and fairytales, these wearable works of art usually featured crystal glass finishes and dreamy gemstones like aquamarine, ivory, and opal. What really defined the Belle Époque jewellery of the Art Nouveau period, however, were the popular enamelling methods plique-a-jour, cloisonné, and basse-taille.
♦ The Edwardian Era (1901-1915)
The Edwardian Era covered the short reign of Great Britain’s King Edward VII (1901-1910) and was the last jewellery period to be defined by a British monarch. Edward was known for his lightheartedness and love for luxury, as well as his close ties with nouveau riche plutocrats and intense social life. The lifestyle cultivated by this wealthy upper class called for the finest jewellery made of platinum or gold and, of course, diamonds. Delicate yet aristocratic designs were inspired by the Neoclassical and Rococo motifs of 18th-century French courts and were usually crafted in what is known as the “garland” style. Ethereal and lacy-like bows, ribbons, and wreath motifs were often encrusted with gemstones such as sapphires, pearls, and amethyst.
Sadly, these dreamy and artsy periods that framed the Belle Époque ended with WWI, but not without having paved the way for the jewels of the Roaring Twenties and the Art Deco era.
Materials Used In Belle Époque Jewellery
Belle Époque-era jewellery was made mostly with white or yellow gold and platinum. The latter was especially favoured due to its durability, and it dominated as a jewellery metal. Following the invention of the acetylene torch in 1903, platinum was used to create light and delicate lacy patterns dotted with shiny gemstones.
Many jewellery makers also used rolled gold and multi-coloured gold, while silver, copper, and aluminium were usually preferred by Arts and Crafts jewellers. The Japanese art of enamelling also featured strongly in the jewellery of this time.
Belle Époque Gemstones And Cuts
With the French colonial empire at its prime, the Belle Époque period saw an increased trade in rare and precious gems like emeralds, sapphires, and rubies. The exploitation of the South African mines in the late 1860s also secured a supply of high-quality diamonds, which remained the stone of choice throughout the period. Fancy-coloured diamonds were in high demand, particularly pink, yellow, and blue. This fondness for soft shades made dreamy semi-precious stones like opal, aquamarine, and topaz a hit.
Natural pearls also retained their popularity, and while the first cultured pearls were being harvested in Japan, they wouldn’t become accessible to the public until 1921. Other gem materials used during this period include amber, amethyst, moonstone, chrysoberyl, malachite, tourmaline, peridot, horn, tortoiseshell, and demantoid garnet.
Common gem-cutting styles during the Belle Époque were:
♦ Rose Cut: Round shape with a flat bottom and domed top.
♦ Old Mine Cut: Rounded square shape with multiple (58 or more) facets – similar to the modern round brilliant cut.
♦ Old European Cut (from 1890 onwards): Round shape with a small table, large culet, and 58 triangular facets.
♦ Cabochon (especially in Arts & Crafts jewels): Flat bottom with a rounded top.
Belle Époque Jewellery Styles & Motifs
Jewellery designs of the Belle Époque period revolved around white opulence, with a focus on platinum jewels encrusted with large carats of diamonds or white natural pearls. Résille (French for hairnet) designs were very much in vogue, and the fishnet-like pattern helped to accentuate the intricate metalwork. Millegrain was also a popular design technique during this time, which added detailed borders around the jewels in the form of tiny metal beads or dots.
Another fashion hallmark of the era is the layers and layers of sparkling jewels, from impressive necklaces and head tiaras to fancy brooches and stomachers (or devants de corsage). Iconic fabric-like designs often featured nature-inspired themes, including leaves, garlands, flowers, feathers, shamrocks, and wheat. Other common motifs were bows, wreaths, lace, ribbons, stars, crescent moons, wings, horseshoes, and sporting themes.
Belle Époque Jewellery Staples
State-of-the-art brooches were an essential accessory in Belle Époque fashion, from basic bar designs adorned with gemstones to elaborate shapes dotted with diamonds. Garland, bow, and floral motifs were especially popular.
Elaborate choker necklaces (also known as colliers de chien or “dog collars”) were another must, particularly in Edwardian-period jewellery styles. The neck-hugging design gradually evolved from the velvet band that was common in Victorian times to rows of pearls and elaborate motifs with significant coverage. This trend was highly popularised by King Edward’s wife, Queen Alexandra, who famously wore a multi-strand pearl choker to hide a scar on her throat.
Festoon necklaces were a type of structural draped necklaces that often continued the ornamentation from where the chokers ended and descended all the way to the chest. Their multiple, intricately connected layers usually resembled wreaths, garlands or even spiderwebs, and were accented with all kinds of precious and semi-precious gems.
Lavalieres were pendulum-style necklaces consisting of a pendant, usually a chandelier design and/or a gemstone, attached directly to the chain rather than hanging from a bail. This style was first popularised in the 17th century by King Louis XIV’s first mistress, the Duchess of La Vallière, and enjoyed a revival during this period. The French court was, after all, a great source of inspiration for Belle Époque jewellers.
Sautoirs were long necklaces, usually consisting of woven or twisted ropes of pearls, that suspended a tassel or other ornamental object. This design came in response to the columnar styling of dresses in the early 20th century and helped to reinforce the elongation of the feminine silhouette.
Screw-back earrings were invented in 1894, setting the trend and, therefore, the need to have one’s ears pierced. Small studs of pearls or diamonds were often swapped with ornate, artfully-designed pendant earrings which looked and felt much lighter thanks to newly-developed techniques.
Head tiaras were mandatory for balls and banquets, and their size often reflected the wearer’s age and status. With the rise of jewellery brands like Cartier and Van Cleef & Arpels during the Belle Époque, stunning tiaras were made not only for royals and aristocrats but also for the socially-ambitious elites and nouveau riche who wanted to impress at evening parties.
Hair ornaments usually accompanied tiaras or completed a hair-do, adding to the multiple layers of jewellery – literally from head to toe – typical for the period. Women grew their hair long but always wore it in an upstyle in public and decorated it with jewels, hairpins, and feathers.
Refined rings were a must for every jewellery box, with platinum and diamonds being the most in-demand combination. Pearls, rubies, and sapphires also featured strongly, usually with the typical for the period Millegrain finishing. Designs varied from breathtaking to understated and incorporated classic Belle Époque motifs, while reeded and scroll-engraved galleries were also common.
Stomachers (or devants de corsage) were large, eye-catching adornments similar to brooches that filled the centre panel of a dress’s bodice, also called a stomacher. During the Belle Époque, stomachers evolved into ornate jewels made of gold, platinum or silver and were usually decorated with diamonds and pearls. Often part of a parure (same-design jewellery set), they were used to complete formal court robes and ball gowns and, much like tiaras, convey social status. Due to its weight, a large stomacher could only be worn if the lady wore a corset.
The Golden Era That Ended Too Soon
The carnage and tragedy of WWI put a halt to the artistry and luxury of Belle Époque jewellery. With people focused on fighting a war and hoping their young men returned home safely, there was no longer room for throwing lavish parties and displaying opulent jewels. The joyful vibes and sumptuous lifestyle came to an end almost overnight.
Nevertheless, this lively period of history gave birth to some magnificent designs that paved the way for the jewellery periods that followed while continuing to inspire jewellery makers to this day. It was a time as intense as it was short, making Belle Époque jewellery relatively rare due to its limited production.
Today, pieces from this brief bygone era are highly-prized treasures and extremely sought-after by antique collectors worldwide. It’s important to note that they are also quite fragile due to their age and delicate finesse, which encourages most people to exhibit rather than wear them.
I hope you enjoyed this little time travel to eras past and found inspiration from the timeless Belle Époque jewellery trends that you can incorporate into your own style.
And if you’re looking for a real treasure trove of time-honoured jewels, head to YazJewels and discover my curated vintage collection of fine and costume pieces with a story to tell.
Til the next jewellery period, Vive la Belle Époque!