Art Nouveau Jewelry

July 2008 | The jewelry created in France, Belgium, and other parts of Europe by a select group of avant-garde artists at the close of the nineteenth century was revolutionary. It reinvigorated what had become a formulaic naturalism with new forms drawn from outside sources, including the arts and crafts movement in Great Britain and the arts of Japan. The jewelry was also remarkable in that it redefined notions of preciousness. Platinum and diamonds, the preferred materials for high-style jewelry, were abandoned in favor of gold, enamel, colored gemstones, horn, and glass. This reduction in inherent value was more than compensated for by an emphasis on artistry and superior technical skill. To achieve their goals, art nouveau jewelers experimented with a variety of materials, rediscovering and reinterpreting older techniques while inventing others. The result was a level of sophistication unsurpassed throughout the course of jewelry history.

The jewelers who emerged as proponents of the “new art” were trained in traditional apprenticeship programs. Skilled in the metal techniques of casting, plating, chasing, engraving, repoussé, and patination, they used their considerable talents to create fluid, undulating forms and audacious, emotionally charged curves—the trademark whiplash line that characterized the movement.
Many pieces of art nouveau jewelry were complex constructions made in parts that were then assembled mechanically. An example is René Lalique’s carnation brooch, made of gold, enamel, opals, and cast glass (Fig. 6). On the front, the frosted glass blossom is held in place by enameled gold sepals with tapered ends that extend artfully into the bottom folds of the flower. Below the sepals is a series of enameled gold stems, forming upward curves that frame the carnation and terminate in enameled gold buds. Two bezel-set cabochon opals are nestled between the curvilinear stems, their gold surrounds soldered onto underlying leaves. The leaves are part of a separate concave backplate (see Fig. 6a) with an elaborate floral design composed of plique-à-jour, or backless, enamel. The plate, or back panel, is attached to the front framework with five gold rivets. This sandwiching of two individually crafted segments adds dimensionality to the brooch, a feature strengthened by the sculptural nature of the blossom.

The carnation brooch also illustrates another characteristic trait of art nouveau jewelry—the underside, or back, of this and many other ornaments are often as aesthetically compelling as the front. This is readily apparent in a gold and enamel necklace made by Victor Gérard and retailed by Louchet (Fig. 7).1 The subject of the necklace—swallows in flight—derives from Japanese prints in which one or more birds are shown gliding in the open air or through flowering branches. In this case, the brightly enameled birds, one of which is attached to the frame with rivets, soar through a plique-à-jour sky, a motif echoed on the back (Fig. 7a). There the birds are highlighted by engraved decoration that lends a delicacy to the overall composition. Even the grouping of cast-gold blossoms at the bottom of the pendant is carefully detailed on the reverse.

Another example of hidden engraved decoration can be found on the back of a gold and mabe pearl seaweed brooch by Paul Lienard (Figs. 9, 9a). On the front, the pearl is flanked by two clusters of overlapping cast-gold seaweed fronds with stems that form elegant ellipses. Under the pearl is a gold disk engraved to reiterate the terminals of the plantlike organism.

In addition to creating complex adornments composed of separate parts, jewelers sometimes fabricated elaborate removable armatures. The extraordinary horn dragonfly by Louis Aucoc in Figure 1, for example, has a mount consisting of a wirework frame and an oval plate that supports a wide, hinged pin stem and C hook (Fig. 4). At the bottom of the plate is a thumbscrew that serves as the sole point of attachment and facilitates removal of the mount. This may have allowed the owner to wear the dragonfly as a hair ornament by attaching it to a second armature (now lost).

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[Compiled by Bill Stern, Executive Director at the Museum of California Design, Los Angeles. Originally published in "Curator's Eye" in Modern Magazi

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