Art Nouveau Jewelry

For Lalique’s branch brooch with cherry blossoms in Figure 12, individually cast blossoms of clear glass were lightly brushed with pink enamel (with details in dark blue enamel), then acid-etched to give them a velvety matte finish. The blossoms are attached with prongs to individually cut gold mounts, set along a naturalistic branch of gold and diamonds. This brooch exemplifies how art nouveau jewelers reversed the roles of precious and non-precious materials: the luminous, lifelike glass blossoms are featured like gemstones, while the diamonds glitter delicately in the background.

One aspect of Lalique’s career that has thus far received little attention is his use of imitation ivory and other man-made plastics, and how objects he made with these materials relate to similar objects made of natural sub--stances. Though to our knowledge no examples of Lalique’s man-made materials have yet been analyzed to determine their chemical composition, they are believed to be semisynthetic plastics such as celluloid,17 which at the time could be purchased in rod form or may have been manufactured on the premises.18 Given Lalique’s continuing interest in innovative techniques and materials, it is not surprising that he would have experimented with new materials such as celluloid, seeing them not as inexpensive substitutes, but as substances that opened new creative possibilities.

The brooch with dancing nymphs in Figure 11, for example, is one of a group of four related brooches in which Lalique seems to have used natural and man-made materials interchangeably, not as a means of producing inexpensive duplicates of a design, but rather as a means of achieving a variety of effects using the same mold. In two of the three known variations,19 the classically inspired relief of dancing nymphs has been cast as a positive image in artificial ivory, while in another the image has apparently been cast as a negative impression (or hollow relief) from the back in artificial amber.20 The example in Figure 11 was also cast as a hollow relief from the back, and the clarity and pale color of the material, along with the sharpness and precision of the relief molding, would suggest that it, too, is an artificial substance. Recent tests, however, have determined that it is probably natural horn.21 The four cast plaques, far from being treated as duplicates, have been set in individually designed and meticulously crafted frames made of precious materials. In this instance, the charming butterflies in gold and enamel and the neat rows of faceted sapphires complement the translucent relief plaque, through which the reverse-cast nymphs appear to float into view. As with many art nouveau jewels, a closer study of the materials and techniques used to create this brooch has yielded insights into the skill and creativity of its maker, and raised intriguing questions for further study.

For their assistance with this article, we would like to thank Ruth and Joseph Sataloff; Pamela Hatchfield, Susanne Gansicke, and Abigail Hykin, conservators at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Susan Kaplan; and Greg Heins.

The jewelry in this article will be included in the exhibition Imperishable Beauty: Art Nouveau Jewelry at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, on view from July 23 to November 9, and at the Cincinnati Art Museum from October 24, 2009 to January 25, 2010.

1 The French firm of Louchet was founded by Paul Louchet, a jeweler, sculptor, and bronze caster. He created much of his work together with his brother Albert and exhibited it under the name Paul-Albert Louchet. Around 1900, one or both brothers had a shop or workshop at 3, rue Auber, Paris, the address stamped in the original box for the necklace in Fig. 7.
2 René Lalique spent two formative years in England during the late 1870s and attended art classes at Sydenham College, then just south of London, where he was exposed to the writings of John Ruskin and the work of William Morris. For the influences of Ruskin, Morris, and the British arts and crafts movement on art nouveau artists, see Stephan Tschudi-Madsen, Sources of Art Nouveau (DaCapo Press, New York, 1975).
3 Early in his career Lalique designed and made jewelry for several ateliers, including those of Henri Vever and Louis Aucoc. For a list of his clients, see Henri Vever, French Jewelry of the Nineteenth Century, trans. Katherine Purcell (Thames and Hudson, London, 2001), p. 1208.
4 Plique-à-jour enameling was first used during the Renaissance and the technique was described by Benvenuto Cellini (1500–1571) in his treatises on goldsmithing and sculpture. See Erika Speel, Dictionary of Enamelling (Ashgate, Aldershot, Hampshire, 1998), p. 20.
5 Anita Mason, An Illustrated Dictionary of Jewellery (Harper and Row, New York, 1974), p. 135.
6 Charles Desrosiers was a student of the designer and graphic artist Eugène Grasset (1841–1917). Between 1898 and 1914 he worked for Georges Fouquet, designing nearly all the jewelry produced by Fouquet during that time.
7 For more on Tourette, see Dictionnaire international du bijou, ed. Marguerite de Cerval (Regard, Paris, 1998), p. 526.
8 Commonly known as liver of sulfide, this mixture of potassium polysulfide and thiosulphate is often mistakenly called an oxidizing agent rather than a surface film. For an explanation of the process, see Oppi Untracht, Jewelry Concepts and Technology (Doubleday, Garden City, New York, 1985), pp. 717–718.
9 The enamel in this case is painted with gold-tone enamel lines in imitation of cloisons.
10 Lalique’s early work in horn, and its critical reception, is described in Vever, French Jewelry of the Nineteenth Century, p. 1236.
11 Gaillard and Lalique’s experimental treatments of horn and ivory were praised in the French journal L’Art décoratif in 1903. See Vivienne Becker, Art Nouveau Jewelry (E. P. Dutton, New York, 1985), p. 72.
12 According to Becker, Art Nouveau Jewelry, p. 72, L’Art décoratif noted the “acid-derived luminous skin” that Gaillard achieved. A possible clue as to how these surface effects were produced can be found in W. Maigne and E. Robichon, Nouveau manuel complet du marqueteur du tabletier et de l’ivoirier (Paris, 1889), p. 71, which describes how one method of dyeing horn black—finishing with a bath in water and acetic acid—can produce a whitish film if the object is later exposed to humid conditions.
13 The steps involved in the processing of horn are described in detail in Adele Schaverien, Horn: Its History and Its Uses (Adele Schaverien, Wahroonga, New South Wales, 2006), pp. 43–55; and Maigne and Robichon, Nouveau manuel, pp. 64–79.
14 Maigne and Robichon, Nouveau manuel, pp. 66–67, lists several alternative methods of flattening horn to render it more transparent or uniform in texture, and to improve its strength and elasticity.
15 See ibid., pp. 78–79, for recipes for dyeing and staining horn in a wide range of colors, and also for “metallizing” it using a mixture of mercury, tin, sulphur, and sal ammoniac.
16 A different surface treatment was used for a closely related butterfly brooch also attributed to Aucoc in the Museum für Angewandte Kunst, Frankfurt am Main, on which the carved wings appear to have been left their natural color and simply polished. See Michael Koch et al., The Belle Epoque of French Jewellery, 1850–1910: Jewellery Making in Paris 1850–1910, ed. Frances Wilson and Caroline Crisford (Heneage, London, 1991), pp. 244–245.
17 Celluloid, the first commercially successful man-made plastic, was patented by the American inventor John Wesley Hyatt (1837–1920) in 1870. Its primary ingredients are cellulose nitrate, obtained by exposing cellulose (e.g., wood chips) to nitric or sulfuric acid and camphor. It was first used primarily as a substitute for the ivory used to make billiard balls, but was employed for a wide variety of items toward the end of the century. Casein, another semisynthetic plastic made from milk protein and formaldehyde, was introduced in 1897, followed by Bakelite, the first entirely synthetic plastic, in 1907.
18 Maigne and Robichon, Nouveau manuel, pp. 24–28, states that in 1889 celluloid could be obtained in rods or tubes of any diameter; describes how it could be easily molded, carved, cut, and colored to imitate other materials; and gives the basic chemical recipe for manufacturing it. The manufacture of celluloid combs, dresser sets, and other items was well established in France by the turn of the century, and information on this material would have been widely available.
19 They are published, along with this example, in The Jewels of Lalique, ed. Yvonne Brunhammer (Flammarion, Paris, 1998), pp. 142–145, Cats. 111–114.
20 Ibid., p. 145, Cat. 114.
21 This piece has previously been described as horn (see ibid.), but shows many characteristics of cast celluloid, so it was submitted for testing to the objects conservation laboratory at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Preliminary results show that chemically it is quite similar to natural horn. Further research may shed light on its exact composition, and on other chemicals used in its processing.

 YVONNE J. MARKOWITZ is the Rita J. Kaplan and Susan B. Kaplan Curator of Jewelry at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. She is the editor of Adornment, the Magazine of Jewelry and Related Arts, coauthor of a forthcoming book on Tiffany jewelry, and has published extensively in the area of ancient and contemporary jewelry.

SUSAN WARD is a curatorial research fellow in the Department of Textile and Fashion Arts at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and has contributed to numerous publications and exhibitions.

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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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