About Art Nouveau Jewelry

Art Nouveau Period - 1890 to 1910

The Art Nouveau design movement emerged in fin de siecle Paris, during the final years of Victoria's reign, and was showcased at the Paris Exposition Universelle in 1900. It blossomed for a brief time into the twentieth century, during which Queen Victoria died (1901) and Edward VII ascended the throne. Like the concurrent Arts and Crafts movement, Art Nouveau was based on a return to craftsmanship, and an emphasis on design over material.

Turn-of-the-century fashion emphasized the figure with lightweight materials and a feminine S-shaped silhouette. The soft curves, sinuous lines and pale colors of Art Nouveau jewelry complemented the fashion of its day. It was popularized by the patronage of actress Sarah Bernhardt. As part of a larger stylistic movement, however, Art Nouveau jewelry bears more relation to the architecture, furniture and textile design, than to the clothing, of the period.

Semi-precious Stones: The aesthetics of design were considered more important than the intrinsic value of the materials. Accordingly, semi-precious stones like moonstone, opal, amethyst, citrine, peridot and freshwater pearls were widely used.

18K Art Nouveau watch chain. 18K Art Nouveau watch chain.

Enamel: Emphasis on the designer as artist motivated the use of beautiful enameling techniques in jewelry, such as cloisonne (in which gold wire forms partitions into which the enamel is poured); champleve (in which the enamel fills recesses cut out from the background metal; basse-taille (in which an engraved design in the metal is covered with, but still visible through, a transparent enamel); and plique-a-jour (in which the backing metal is removed from the translucent enamel after firing, resulting in a stained glass effect).

Non-precious Materials: Non-traditional jewelry materials that were popular during this period included horn, bone, copper, shell, ivory, and carved glass.

Nature Motifs: The Victorian interest in the natural world continued into this era. Butterflies, dragonflies, snakes, poppies, orchids, irises and waterlilies were prevalent motifs.

Asian Influence: Organic motifs were not rendered realistically, but rather in a more stylized manner characteristic of the Asian arts. The world had become more familiar with Asian design from the international exhibitions of the latter nineteenth century. Sinuous, free-flowing lines were integral design elements.

Symbolism: The representation of a female head with long flowing hair is prevalent in Art Nouveau jewelry. It was also an important motif of the concurrent Symbolist movement in literature and painting, which used images to present ideas.

Mystery/Fantasy: Turn-of-the-century uncertainty fostered a sense of mystery and fantasy in design. Accordingly, Art Nouveau jewelry often features mythical hybrid forms and near-colorless translucent stones like moonstone and opal.

Several motifs and themes are common to Art Nouveau Jewelry. Natural motifs such as butterflies, dragonflies, poppies, orchids, birds, reptiles, orchids and irises were very popular.Snakes symbolized life, eternity and sexuality. Remarkable Art Nouveau bracelets, rings and pendants depicting writhing serpents were created by Rene Lalique and Georges Fouquet. Beautifully rendered bats, owls and vultures lure us into some eerily haunting Art Nouveau pendants. Peacocks were perfect for showcasing both the elaborate enamel techniques utilized during the period and the narcissism that often defined Art Nouveau jewelry. The dream-like quality of swans was also a favored subject for Art Nouveau brooches and pendants. There was a sense of mystery and fantasy which took on a surreal and mythical form. Grotesques and winged hybrids had a nightmarish quality that was counterbalanced by their overwhelming beauty.

The female form was one of the most popular themes for Art Nouveau jewelry. The femme-fleur could represent either virginal beauty as depicted in the renderings of Alphonse Mucha or an emaciated, dark eyed temptress common to the graphics of Aubrey Beardsley or Gustave Klimt.

Art Nouveau This is very typical Art Nouveau.

Non traditional materials such as horn were often used in Art Nouveau jewelry. It is thought that Rene Lalique was the first to incorporate horn into his work. Its translucency created a mood that appealed to the designers of the time. It was used along with ivory to create Art Nouveau pendants, brooches, hair ornaments and general accessories like letter openers. Glass was commonly used in jewelry of the period. Popular gemstones were opals, amber, garnet and agate. Diamonds were used sparingly, usually as a subtle accent or to bring emphasis to a linear element. Cultured pearls made their first appearance as long necklaces during the period.

The most important material used during the Art Nouveau period was enamel! Techniques for plique à jour were perfected during this time. This technique produces an effect like stained glass windows. It is similar to cloisonné, except it is done with transparent or translucent enamels without a backing. Plique à jour was known to Byzantine craftsman as early as the 6th Century AD but it had become a lost art. Extensive experiments were carried on in France in the second half of the 19th Century to recreate this technique. Champlèvè and basse taille engraving techniques were also commonly incorporated into designs.

Art Nouveau left a great legacy to jewelry design. It was responsible for creating jewels that were works of art reflecting the revolutionary cultural and social changes going on at the turn of the last century. Unfortunately after 1900, the Art Nouveau style became so fashionable that the motifs and themes were often poorly and cheaply copied. The commercialization of the original style eventually caused its down fall.

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