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Poetic Jewels
by Bob Brooke


The Art Nouveau style is perhaps best expressed in the delicate, imaginative, colorful, and poetic jewelry of the period. While Art Nouveau embraced all manner of decoration, it’s jewels best express its style. Their fragility and their infinite variations of size, color and shape made them ideal example of the new style.

Designers created Art Nouveau jewelry in France between 1895 and 1910. Though jewelry makers of the time didn’t produce it in quantity, it was of the finest quality. They were inventive in their designs and expertly crafted each piece. The two leading jewelry makers of the time, Vever and Henri Bouuilet, both represented old family firms.

While jewelry makers in other countries produced pieces similar ones to Art Nouveau, authentic jewelry in the new style came from France. It was a short-lived period in jewelry design, lasting only about 15 years, because of the onset of World War I and because the pieces were so over-the-top and expensive that people quickly lost interest in them.

Art Nouveau jewelry was a reaction to a number of things going on in French society at that time, including women’s fight to secure more rights for themselves outside of the home by getting an education and a job.

The pieces were large and ostentatious, and a lot of them depicted naked women, a shocking motif at the time. Because Art Nouveau jewelry was costly, only wealthy, artistic women wore it. Demimonde, unmarried women who were supported by wealthy lovers and considered to be on the fringes of acceptable society, wore Art Nouveau jewelry as did a number of well-known entertainers. The most recognizable was actress Sarah Bernhardt, who helped to make jewelry designer René Lalique famous.

While most old jewelry ends up getting melted down, Art Nouveau pieces wouldn’t have been worth while as they usually had very little value. They may have been so disliked when fashion changed that people simply destroyed or mislaid them.

Materials Used
With Art Nouveau jewelry, the materials weren’t as important as the design. The pieces were less about gemstones and more about enamel, including plique-à-jour enamel. French for “letting in daylight,” plique-à-jour enamel was translucent, much like a stained-glass window.

Jewelry makers heated and bent horn, usually from domestic animals such as cows, into different shapes for Art Nouveau pieces. They also used a lot of carved ivory. They added diamonds as accent stones.

Most French artists defied the French hallmark laws and omitted to have their jewels marked, frightened perhaps of the risk of damage in the scraping and punching process. Some artists didn’t sign their names. In most cases a pair of initials seemed adequate.

Leading Art Nouveau Jewelers
In all there were probably three or four dozen artist-jewelers working in the Art Nouveau style in France. Rene Lalique operated one of the largest workshops, employing 30 craftsmen at the turn of the 20th century.

Lalique was indeed the genius of the Movement. He worked as a freelance designer and craftsman for quite a few jewelry houses, including Jacta, Aucoc, Cartier, Boucheron, Renn, Gariod, Hamelin and, most important, Destape, whose business he finally inherited in 1886.

Along the way, actress Sarah Bernhardt noticed his work and commissioned two groups of jewels for Iseyl et Gismonda. In 1895, Lalique won third prize on his first appearance at the Salon, the same year as his first recorded use of the female nude in jewelry. In 1896 he first used horn—an important innovation. In 1897 he became a Chevalier of the Legion d'Honneur.

Lalique was a technical, as well as a stylistic, innovator. He used machinery to reduce his large prototypes to actual working size, and he employed Eugene Feuillatre to investigate enameling techniques on silver. He also used platinum, not because of its value, but because he liked the color. He also made frequent use of glass, horn and occasionally aluminum. His pieces, more than any other jeweler's, show the artist's impatience with the mystique of the precious stone.

While Lalique’s style tended to be soft and feminine, that of Georges Fouquet, the other inspired French Art Nouveau jeweler, was somewhat harsh, preferring thistles and nightmare insects. He won prizes at the Exhibitions of 1900 and 1901 and built a new shop at 6, Rue Royale.

Henri Vever was another jeweler of standing; and with his brother, Paul, inherited his father’s firm in 1874. He attended evening classes at the Ecole des Arts Decoratifs and worked by day with various jewelers — Loguet, Hallet and Dufong. In 1889 the brothers won two prizes at their first exhibition and in 1891 the Croix de la Legion d'Honneur at the French Exhibition in Moscow.

The Art Nouveau movement was played out by 1910, and many of the jeweler/ craftsmen and patrons died during World War I. Today, these jewels live on as art and inspiration.

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