Collecting Art Nouveau Jewelry: a buyer’s and investment guide

Art Nouveau Jewelry: Style and influences

Art Nouveau 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.

One of the major influences on Art Nouveau was the Symbolist Movement, which began in the 1880s. Imagery adopted by this group combined religious mysticism with eroticism. Art Nouveau combined inspiration from this source with some of the elements of Arts and Crafts philosophy; it is also highly varied and asymmetrical which reflected the political unease of the period. Art Nouveau, traces of which are discernible in the art of the Pre-Raphaelites and even in that of the 18th-century visionary poet William Blake.

Art Nouveau concentrated on the treatment of surface decoration. It is also characterised by long curving lines based on sinuous plant forms, and an element of fantasy. It was primarily a decorative style and as such was used particularly effectively in metalwork, jewellery, and glassware, and in book illustration, where the influence of Japanese prints is often evident. Another ubiquitous presence is the femme fatale – the seductive nymph of Pre-Raphaelite paintings.

Fouquet: Les Trois Grabes
Fouquet: Les Trois Grabes
Rene Lalique: Dragonfly
Rene Lalique: Dragonfly

Art Nouveau Jewelry: Leading Designers

Two of the leading exponents of Art Nouveau were Louis Comfort Tiffany, whose shimmering Favrile-glass vases and stained-glass lampshades were fantasies of iridescence, and René Lalique (1860-1945) who was a French jeweller and glassmaker. He became a designer of jewellery for firms such as Boucheron, Vever, and Cartier, Breaking free from historical styles; he based his designs on plant, bird, and insect forms. Emphasizing design rather than the costliness of material, he used enamel, ivory, glass, and horn as often as semiprecious stones and gems. His work had a profound effect throughout Europe.

Art Nouveau Jewelry Pendant
Lalique: art nouveau pendant
Art Nouveau Jewelry Brooch
George Fouquet: art nouveau brooch, 1930

Art Nouveau Jewelry: Techniques

Extensive Use of Enameling

Along with the creative energy came a mastery of technique in casting and carving of gold as well as the extensive use of enameling as never seen before. Probably the single most important technique used by Art Nouveau designers was enameling. The type of enameling used most often was known as Plique a’jour. Plique a’jour is defined as enameling that is transparent with no backing. The effect most often achieved by Plique a’jour enameling is likened to that of stained glass. The technique of applying this type of enameling was extremely difficult and very popular because it exemplified the jeweler’s skill and artistry.

This effect gave Art Nouveau jewelry a distinctive appearance much like a three dimensional painting. Other types of enameling that were also popular were basse-taille and guilloche enameling, techniques that required engraving the metal or raising a design, then fusing a thin layer of transparent enamel over the work. These and the techniques of Cloisonné’ Chamieve’ were made popular by Faberge in Russia around the turn of the century. Many times a craftsman would combine the use of different methods of enameling on the same piece.