The Ins and Outs of Art Nouveau Jewelry

Posted by Mark Nielsen on

There is no question that the Art Nouveau style of jewelry is definitely unique and appealing. It definitely left its mark on the jewelry industry – arriving by storm and disappearing just as quickly. The period of this style of jewelry began in 1890 and seemed to fizzle out around 1910 at the beginning of World War I.

At the time, it was considered a "total art," which means it influenced all types of media from literature and music to architecture, painting, and, without a doubt, jewelry. The Art Nouveau movement even inspired amazing pieces of street furniture, with many amazing examples of ironwork from this period still gracing virtually every Metro entrance in the city of Paris.

The Beginning and Struggle to Create Art Nouveau Jewelry 

The art nouveau jewelry pieces represented a break from the various revivalist styles. It was ushered in by the purity and boldness of the Japonisme, which had recently gained popularity. During the 19th century, designers and artisans did not seem like they could go any further or do anything differently. They were drowning under tradition, unable to innovate, and not understanding how they could do more or better than their predecessors. As a result, many artists took a long time to be able to break free from the invisible shackles they were bound by.

Why Was Art Nouveau Jewelry Created?

Similar to any art, the spirit of any era is written in the way the jewelry is designed. Art Nouveau jewelry was considered a reaction to several things that were going on in the French society at the time, which included the fight of women to try to secure more rights for themselves beyond the home by seeking an education and a job.

While this was common across the globe, the French especially, seemed to have an unusual and rather intense fear of what may happen in their society if women were to achieve the equal rights they were working toward. This, in part, was because of the country's loss during the Franco-Prussian War, which was extremely humiliating, and that left the entire country of France feeling exposed and vulnerable. The mere idea of women leaving home to go to work created fears of a drop in the birth rate, which means there would not be enough men available to support the future armies.

This is one of the main reasons that most of Art Nouveau jewelry is so women-centric. Most of the pieces encountered will depict a beautiful one of three basic scenes. One is an unthreatening woman with a sweet face and flowing hair. Another is the image of "fantasy" women, such as furries with wings or romanticized mermaids. There were even figures like Medusa, which were considered the epitome of evil and scary women, and that represented the view of women that French men of the time had. Women were revered, but, in many ways, they were also feared.

Also, along with images of a woman, Art Nouveau jewelry implemented nature in a manner that had never been seen before, with flowers and nature that featured a romantic nature. This was all new and innovative for the jewelry industry – there was nothing like this before.

What Does Classic Art Nouveau Jewelry Look Like? 

The Art Nouveau style was marked by easy to follow lines and cures, with nature and women being the primary subjects in many of the historical jewelry pieces that are still around today. Some of the most recurrent motifs found in this style of jewelry included butterflies, dragonflies, other insects, peacocks, botanical themes, and nymph-like maidens.

The influence behind the "Origin of the Species" from Darwin is also evident in both realistic anatomical and realistic detail. In the designs created by Rene Lalique, the wasp is what was focused on, with a significant amount of detail, making it unique and breathtaking. According to the author of "Rene Lalique, Schmuk und Objets d'art," Sigrid Barten, in the Art Nouveau style, just like with classic Japanese style of art, for example, there is no significant difference present between the decorative arts and the arts majeurs.

Jewelers who specialized in Art Nouveau pieces opted to work with semi- and non-precious materials. The focus of these was on the design's originality and craftsmanship rather than the components material value. Some of the elements that were favored for creating these pieces of jewelry included a new synthetic plastic that was called Galalith, enamel, and molded glass. These were framed by beautiful and delicate goldwork, often found in very realistic and organic forms. Plique à jour enamel was used quite a bit to add a translucent effect to the jewelry. Even though this technique was challenging to master, the results are incredibly beautiful. 

The works created by these jewelers and artists were not designed for the general public. In fact, it was the general public that was outraged by the jewel's eroticism. However, for the elite individuals of the Paris intelligentsia, who were able to afford this impressive and daring new look and style, it was something they could not resist. In fact, a high-profile client of Rene Lalique, actress Sarah Bernhardt. Lalique even designed more lightweight jewels made from aluminum for her to wear while on stage for more extended periods.

While these pieces were intricate and usually made with fragile materials and similar techniques like window enamel or thin opal slices, the jewels were made for people to wear. By adhering to the high standards of craftsmanship, every jewel is one of a kind. Even the back part of the jewels was finished to a level of beautiful intricacy, which ensured that the more prominent pieces sat well on the body when worn.

Who Wore Art Nouveau Jewelry? 

There is no question that the Art Nouveau style of jewelry was designed for a select part of society. These pieces were very large, often somewhat flashy and attention-grabbing. This style of jewelry was also quite expensive, which meant that most of the pieces were worn by the artistic and wealthy class of people.

The demimonde or unmarried women who received support from wealthy lovers and who were considered to live on the fringes of acceptable society often wore these pieces, along with many entertainers.

Who Were Considered the Most Important Jewelers of the Art Nouveau Style? 

According to history, the most important jewelers in the Art Nouveau style included Henri Vever, Georges Fouquet, and Rene Lalique. In fact, jewelry was viewed as one of the most impressive triumphs in the Art Nouveau time period, and the jewelers of the period experimented with techniques and materials and considered the jewels they made just as much of an art form as drawing or painting. Some of the other notable jewelers from this era included Leopold Gautrait, Vican, and Lucien Gaillard.

The work produced by Lalique is considered a "synthesis of all arts." The relief, contours, and shapes are reminiscent of a painting. He worked to push the boundaries of the art he created with each of the jewelry designs created. He also introduced an array of new materials, semi-precious and hard stones, glass, and ivory. He also began using all types of enamel. This jewelry maker had a palette that was much more diverse than that of even a sculptor or painter.

Why Did Art Nouveau Jewelry Fall Out of Favor?

At the beginning of World War I, the style of Art Nouveau jewelry faded away. The romantic feel and soft lines of the pre-war pieces gave way to a much harsher reality of industrial order, strict geometry, and straight lines. These unfashionable remnants of the past quickly fell out of favor and were forgotten just as quickly. In fact, the Art Nouveau style completely disappeared until around 1964, when L'Objet, a book by Maurice Rheims, helped to revive interest and intrigue.

At this same time, the jewels available for sale in the Art Nouveau style grew. Today, the Art Nouveau has experienced a slight revitalization. Modern buyers appreciate the skill and sensitivity required to make beautiful jewelry from natural themes like wasps, thorny plants, and dew cobwebs. Essentially, these pieces are wearable miniature works of art that are set with the most refined and most beautiful gemstones in very delicate enamel backgrounds. This jewelry shows off all the secrets of nature and the true symbols of romanticism and love. After all, this is what a quality and beautiful piece of jewelry should be about.

How Much is this Jewelry Worth Today? 

Since much of this jewelry style was made out of enamel, it doesn't last long. Enamel is a material that breaks very easily. Since it was considered a very short-lived period in jewelry design, finding Art Nouveau designs and jewelry pieces in good condition isn't something that happens very often.

Even though the Art Nouveau pieces that are still around today have not reached the million-dollar range, the pieces that are in good condition, attractive, and damage-free will be worth a few hundred thousand dollars.

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