The Art Nouveau movement was a short lived yet dramatically recognizable period. It produced some of the most sought-after collectibles in the world today. Examples include not only jewelry but painting, sculpture, architecture, glass, ceramics, furniture, silver, graphics and countless other objects d’art.
It began in the latter years of Queen Victoria’s reign as an artistic and creative revolt against many of the themes and methods of manufacture that had become commonplace during the end of the 19th century. Victorian jewelry had become imitative and industrial. Although the quality of craftsmanship was often exemplary, it lacked artistic imagination and creativity. The Arts and Crafts movement in London fueled much of this artistic “rage against the machine” that spawned the Art Nouveau Movement.
Art Nouveau Jewelry was also vastly inspired by the Japanese Art that was imported into Europe in the mid 1800's and featured in the International Exhibition of 1862. The asymmetrical and fluid interpretation of natural subjects like flowers, insects and birds was achieved without copying the subject matter. The Japanese watercolors, woodblocks and enamels created a mood and alluded to an atmosphere of simple beauty. Art Nouveau interpretations of landscapes and woodlands by season and even times of day showcased the Japanese influences.
Curving, whiplashing and sinuous lines were characteristic of Art Nouveau Jewelry. Lines could be delicate or aggressive. They were flowing, curving, undulating, rippling and dynamic. The style in which the “line” was used has proved to be diagnostic in identifying the country that produced the Art Nouveau jewel. For example, the French used the line in a figurative way, depicting vines or locks of hair. In England, the emphasis was on the line itself, inspired by a Celtic Revival. In Scotland, Rennie Mackintosh used a controlled, severe and dynamic line which is very distinctive.
Several motifs and themes are common to Art Nouveau Jewelry. Natural motifs such as butterflies, dragonflies, poppies, orchids, birds, reptiles, orchids and irises were very popular. Snakes symbolized life, eternity and sexuality. Remarkable Art Nouveau bracelets, rings and pendants depicting writhing serpents were created by Rene Lalique and Georges Fouquet. Beautifully rendered bats, owls and vultures lure us into some eerily haunting Art Nouveau pendants. Peacocks were perfect for showcasing both the elaborate enamel techniques utilized during the period and the narcissism that often defined Art Nouveau jewelry. The dream-like quality of swans was also a favored subject for Art Nouveau brooches and pendants. There was a sense of mystery and fantasy which took on a surreal and mythical form. Grotesques and winged hybrids had a nightmarish quality that was counterbalanced by their overwhelming beauty.
The female form was one of the most popular themes for Art Nouveau jewelry. The femme-fleur could represent either virginal beauty as depicted in the renderings of Alphonse Mucha or an emaciated, dark eyed temptress common to the graphics of Aubrey Beardsley or Gustave Klimt.
Non traditional materials such as horn were often used in Art Nouveau jewelry. It is thought that Rene Lalique was the first to incorporate horn into his work. Its translucency created a mood that appealed to the designers of the time. It was used along with ivory to create Art Nouveau pendants, brooches, hair ornaments and general accessories like letter openers. Glass was commonly used in jewelry of the period. Popular gemstones were opals, amber, garnet and agate. Diamonds were used sparingly, usually as a subtle accent or to bring emphasis to a linear element. Cultured pearls made their first appearance as long necklaces during the period.
The most important material used during the Art Nouveau period was enamel. Techniques for plique à jour were perfected during this time. This technique produces an effect like stained glass windows. It is similar to cloisonné, except it is done with transparent or translucent enamels without a backing. Plique à jour was known to Byzantine craftsman as early as the 6th Century AD but it had become a lost art. Extensive experiments were carried on in France in the second half of the 19th Century to recreate this technique. Champlevé and basse- taille engraving techniques were also commonly incorporated into designs.
Art Nouveau left a great legacy to jewelry design. It was responsible for creating jewels that were works of art reflecting the revolutionary cultural and social changes going on at the turn of the last century. Unfortunately after 1900, the Art Nouveau style became so fashionable that the motifs and themes were often poorly and cheaply copied. The commercialization of the original style eventually caused its downfall.