Art Nouveau Jewelry

Art nouveau artists relied heavily on enam--els to add soft, sensuous colors to their jewelry. The material itself is simple, consisting of powdered glass mixed with various mineral oxidants that lend a range of hues. With the addition of a small amount of water, it can be applied to a metal or glass surface and then heated until it forms a hard vitreous coating.

Enamel has been used to enhance and enliven jewelry since antiquity and, as a decorative technique, has gone in and out of style. The Hellenistic Greeks, medieval artists, and Renaissance metalsmiths used it to create colorful adornments, as did nineteenth-century arts and crafts jewelers in England who were influenced by the work produced in medieval guilds. During a two-year stay in London in the 1870s Lalique came to appreciate its possibilities.2

An early example of Lalique’s use of enamel is a swallow brooch that bears both the artist’s poinçon mark and the name Vever (Fig. 3).3 The bright blue feather pattern in this jewel is achieved through champlevé enameling, a technique wherein the enamel is placed in small cells formed by carving into the metal and leaving dividing walls between the recesses. Less popular with Lalique and his contemporaries was cloisonné enameling, in which the design is outlined by flat metal wires fused onto a metal back, forming compartments that can be filled with colored enamels.

In their efforts to create jewels that appear ephemeral, airy, and otherworldly, art nouveau artists rediscovered plique-à-jourenameling, in which the enamels have no metal backing and are open to the light.4 There are several ways of accomplishing this: the enamel can be mixed to a consistency that will hold together without falling out; the enamel can be set on a thin metal coating that is later scraped away; or the enamel can be placed on a material such as mica that can be readily removed after heating.5 An extraordinary example of this labor intensive technique is the orchid brooch designed by Charles Desrosiers for Georges Fouquet (Fig. 8).6 The enameling was probably executed by Fouquet’s master enameler, Étienne Tourette, who was known for creating shimmering effects by etching the surface of the enamel with acid and for including tiny pieces of gold leaf (or paillons).7 The orchid brooch is an excellent example of gold-flecked enamel, which is further highlighted by tiny bezel-set diamonds that lend the impression of early morning dew.

The unusual enameled jewel by Lalique in Figure 10 combines plique-à-jour and cloisonné enamel. To create this small intricate landscape depicting the French countryside, the enamel in each cell was applied in a painterly manner so that the effect is that of a painting in miniature.

Art nouveau jewelers also experimented with various metal treatments to achieve the effects they desired. An example of the use of applied metallic sulfides on silver can be seen on Lucien Gaillard’s beetle necklace (Fig. 2).8 The darkened metal legs act as a perfect foil for the gold highlights that appear in the enamel on the insect’s back and for the finely chased gold on the underside (see Fig. 5).9

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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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