The Organic Elegance of Art Nouveau Jewelry
by Katherine Paulick
“To seek beauty is a more worthy aim than to display luxury” – René Lalique
At the end of the 19th century, Europe was experiencing a golden age of peace and prosperity known as the Belle Epoque. The Industrial Revolution had created a thriving middle class, Europe was at the center of global politics, and culture and the arts flourished. Women were casting off the heavy trappings of the Victorian Era and beginning to fight for equal rights across Europe and the West. In France, cultural shifts such as anxieties about industrialization and the changing societal roles of women, combined with the influences of the Arts and Crafts movement and Japonisme, contributed to the jewelry styles of the emerging Art Nouveau movement (1895-1910).
Known as the whiplash line, a sensuous asymmetrical curve or s-shaped ornamental line was synonymous with the Art Nouveau movement. Prominent in furniture design, painting, and architecture, in addition to jewelry, the curve was inspired by natural forms such as the orchid, lily, swan, and butterfly.
Art Nouveau jewelry was often painstakingly handcrafted as artists began to reject the mechanization of industrialization. Often choosing materials for their aesthetic value rather than their monetary worth, designers strove to prove that jewelry could be prized for its beauty alone. Horn, bone, and ivory were popular materials, and semi-precious stones like chrysoprase, pearl, opal, and moonstone were often preferred to diamonds, rubies, and emeralds. Gold and silver were still used widely, incorporating new techniques like basse-taille (low-relief engraving) and guilloche (elaborate, concentric pattern engraving).
Glass and enamel were also prevalent, with designers experimenting with new ways to enhance their beauty. The technique plique-a-jour, or backless enameling, creates a translucence akin to stained glass windows and is a hallmark of Art Nouveau jewelry. This technique was epitomized by designer René Lalique, a French glass artist who created pieces for Cartier and Boucheron before opening his own business. He was revered for pioneering new materials and his use of subdued colors, which caught natural light, subtly changing color throughout the day. Lalique saw great success as an independent artist, creating pieces for elite clients such as French actress Sarah Bernhardt and oil magnate Calouste Gulbenkian, and is praised as one of the most excellent artisans of the era.
Another characteristic new to Art Nouveau jewelry was the depiction of the female form. Previously considered too risqué, nude women began to grace pendants and brooches, often boasting fantastical butterfly or dragonfly wings or depicted as nymphs or goddesses. Combined with floral and insect motifs, flowing lines, and muted colors, these attributes gave Art Nouveau jewelry an ethereal, mystical look coveted by wealthy, bohemian women of the day.
While Art Nouveau originated in France, the style was imitated across the West, particularly in Great Britain, the United States, and Germany, where it was known as jugendstil. By 1910, however, it had largely been abandoned. With prohibitive pricing and over-the-top design, Art Nouveau jewelry was not for everyone. Because of its limited commerciality and brevity of production, Art Nouveau jewelry in good condition is rare – but seeing as rarity and impermanence are defining attributes of beauty, perhaps Art Nouveau designers would have wanted it that way.