the beginning of art nouveau

Following the death of her husband in 1861, Queen Victoria went into seclusion for the rest of her life, completely isolating herself from the public. Her isolation eventually led to the British people disconnecting with the monarchy and rejecting the concepts of Victorian design. By the 1870s, many women across Europe, and in Great Britain especially, were wearing very little jewelry, and sometimes none at all. The free flowing, delicate lines, a focus on the feminine curves of a woman and heavenly, natural themes of the Art Nouveau period revived peoples love for jewelry all across Europe.

how the french became fixated on japanese art

In 1854, Japan reluctantly signed the Japan-US Treaty of Peace and Amity, which ended the island chain’s seclusion that had been in place for more than 200 years. The Americans, Russians, and British governments were all eager to capitalize on the new resources available, but it was France, under the leadership of Napoleon III who built shipyards in Japan in exchange for the right to import Japanese goods.

The introduction of both modern and antique Japanese artistic designs created a fascination with dragons, lotus flowers and other natural themes that significantly influenced the motifs of the Art Nouveau period.

artistic over intrinsic value

Art Nouveau artists were more interested in creating spectacles of the imagination than jewels of great value. Horn, opal, enamel, moonstone, chalcedony, chrysoprase, agate and pearl were strongly preferred to rubies, emeralds, sapphires and diamonds.

art nouveau begins in france

The newfound availability of Japanese design combined with a nostalgic revival of the French Rococo period of the 1700s to form what is known as the Art Nouveau style. This transformation affected all forms of Artistic design ranging from architecture and furniture to art, fashion and jewelry.

the artistic inspiration of rene lalique

Considered by many to be the most influential artist jeweler of the time, René Lalique set the stage for the Art Nouveau period. His early work, which was retailed by famous design houses such as Boucheron, Cartier and Vever, was very naturalistic and conventional. In the 1880’s, he began to open up more with his creativity and introduced fantasy and imagination into his works, and by the early 1890’s, he had dedicated himself to studying different enameling techniques and establishing his own unique style.

Lalique’s efforts and innovations reached international attention at the 1895 Société des Artistes Français (Society of French Artists). His butterflies, insects and free-flowing female figures created a strong reaction from the public, and he became known as the rescuer of French jewelry design during one of its lowest points. His participation at the 1900 International Exhibition in Paris was a huge follow up success, leading to his jewels being sought after and imitated around the world.

By the early 1900’s, the well-established French jewelry houses, such as Fouquet, Gaillard, Gautrait and Vever were mimicking Lalique’s design, which led to less desirable imitations. The major design houses could not keep up with the creativity required for the Art Nouveau style, which they abandoned quickly in favor of the more formal, moderate stylings of the Garland/Edwardian Period.

a new take on nature

Nature has been a consistent influence on jewelry for thousands of years, but the artistic innovations of the Art Nouveau jewelry designers embraced creativity and imagination when depicting natural motifs.

A strong focus on feminine characteristics inspired creative takes on nature with sensual undertones. Butterflies, dragonflies, cicadas and spiders were worn in a shockingly seductive manner, and snakes became synonymous with life, eternity and sexuality.

Elegant birds such as the swan, peacock and swallow were common motifs due to their own symbolism and curved body shape, which is very much in line with the free-flowing, whiplash lines Art Nouveau jewelry is known for.

art nouveau brooch
An Art Nouveau brooch/pendant featuring a gold portrait of a young girl with whiplash style swirls in her hair surrounded by enameled chrysanthemum flowers with diamond seedlings. Designed by Plisson & Hartz in 1900.

Exotic flowers, such as chrysanthemums, dandelions, lilies, mimosa, orchids, poppies and sunflowers, were the most commonly featured Art Nouveau designs. Symbolic designs of budding and decaying flowers were just as popular as those in full bloom, representing all of the stages of life.

jewels with depicitions of women

One of the major turning points of the Art Nouveau period was the introduction of jewelry with depictions of the female form. For centuries, women had detested the thought of adorning themselves with jewels with the form of another woman, but Art Nouveau made the feminine profile and nude female form popular emblems of the time period.

all diamonds are not created equal

Long seen as precious gemstones for their unique physical characteristics, by the 1890’s, diamonds reached the peak of their 19th century popularity. Due to the abundance and affordability, it was during this time that these precious gemstones began to attract different values based on traits such as color and clarity. The colorless diamond was seen as the par excellence in terms of quality, and the most fashionable women of the time began to prefer a single, high-quality, large stone to several mediocre quality or smaller ones.

This newfound love for the quality of the diamond, consequentially created the trend of showing off the stone in the setting. Where diamonds were previously covered up on the bottom by metal, they began to be seen more in prong-set mountings that would elegantly display the stone’s natural qualities. Another consequence of this fashion change saw thin chains replaced heavy ones in necklaces to place a much stronger emphasis on the quality of the stones in the piece.


For many jewelers, different styles of enameling was more common than the use of precious or semi-precious gems. Antique enameling methods made a strong come back during the Art Nouveau period, and new methods were expanded upon to produce jewelry with the extravagant combination of color and detail that is associated with the Art Nouveau style.

  • Basse-Taille - This method of enameling was first introduced in the 13th century; it is essentially an evolved form of champlevé enameling, capable of decorating gold and silver. In this form of enameling, a picture or design is engraved in the metal and the lines are filled with a transparent enamel, which hardens and brings out the intensified color of the precious metal. The artist is then able to paint another layer, using translucent colors, over the outline.
  • Champlevé - Another ancient enameling method, Champlevé (also known as “engraved enameling”), derives it’s name from the French words “champ levé”, meaning, “raised field”. This method was commonly used to add enameling to bronze or copper, and is first cited in the history books by Philostratus of Lemnus in 290 BC.
  • Cloisonné - This is the oldest known form of enameling, cloisonné derives it’s name from the French word “cloison”, meaning “partition” or “fence”. In this method of enameling, a piece of metal wire is used to sketch out an image, and then the enamel paint is set in the cells created by the wire. The piece is then fired, allowing the different colors to melt, avoiding cracks or detachments in the enamel.
  • Guilloché - This method of enameling involves taking a piece of metal with a repeated, machine-made pattern, and overlaying it with translucent enamel. This form of enameling was made famous by Russian artist, Carl Fabergé.
  • Grisaille - This form of enameling gets its name from the French word “gris”, meaning “grey”. In this process, a piece is covered with black enamel, and coated with an uncooked white enamel, which is then scraped off using very precise tools to leave enough white to create designs with different shades of grey.
  • Miniature on Enamel - This form of enameling involves painting enamel freely on a miniature ornament, which has a white base coat. This method was commonly used to make jewelry, snuff boxes, binoculars and other decorative items for affluent buyers.
  • Painted Enamel - With this form of enameling, the enamel is applied as though it is normal paint on a metal sheet, as if it is a piece of canvas. A single coating layer is fired to prevent wear on the piece over time, and each coat of enamel is bound to the metal by firing.
  • Plique-à-jour - This method of enameling is very similar to cloisonné, except in this case, the wires separating the enamel are not attached to the piece on which the enamel is being applied. This process, invented in either France or Italy during the 14th century, is commonly used to give the effect seen in stained glass windows. This style of enameling is most commonly associated with French artist, René Lalique.
  • Ronde Bosse - This method of enameling is used to describe the applying of enamel to objects with rounded shapes. It was commonly used to decorate small sculptures during the Renaissance.
  • Sgraffito - In this method of enameling, the enamel is scratched with a fine instrument, before firing, so that the outline of the base metal is present after the piece has been fired.

art nouveau reaches the rest of the world

Fashion trends move to new countries slowly today, and this process obviously moved much more slowly before inventions such as the radio, television and internet. While the Art Nouveau movement started in France, it expanded to different European countries at their own pace.

German jewelers were some of the first to mimic the new French inspired designs, starting in the 1890s. The new style, known in German as “Jugendstil”, eventually adapted to a more geometrical, abstract style between 1900-1905 that foreshadowed the popular Art Deco designs of the 1920s. Austrian artists broke away from the well-established Vienna Academy to form the “Wiener Sezession” (Vienna Secession), and began working with Lalique inspired motifs in 1897. The Belgian artist, Henry van de Velde, Scandinavian artist, George Jenson, Scottish artchitect/designer, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, and Spanish designer Luis Masiera, were among those who drew a heavy influence from René Lalique.

The Arts and Crafts period was in full swing in England during the 1890’s, and it’s influence merged with the Art Nouveau style to inspire English designers such as Robert Ashbee, Arthur and Georgie Gaskin and Henry Wilson. The Art Nouveau style had reached “across the pond” to the United States of America by the late 1880’s, inspiring magnificent designs that would make “Tiffany and Company” a household name.

tiffany & company: america's first luxury jewelry house

At the Exposition Universelle de 1889 (1889 Universal Expo), in Paris, France, Tiffany and Co. exhibited 25 orchid brooches, all made in America from local materials. The Tiffany display was awarded a gold medal and established the company for the first time internationally.

the brilliant works of carl FABERGÉ

Famous Russian artist, Carl Fabergé, was inspired by the French Rococo movement in his own right, creating his famous designs with the creative use of stones and enamel. In 1885, Tsar Alexander III recognized his brilliance and gave the House of Fabergé the title; ‘Goldsmith by special appointment to the Imperial Crown’. The first of his famous Easter Egg designs came in the same year, when the Tzar commissioned one for his wife, and the tradition continued as Tzar Alexander III gave one annually to his mother and wife, until the royal family lost power during the Great October Socialist Revolution of 1917.

the mechanical revolution introduces jewelry for the masses

Technological innovations of the late 1800’s introduced new ways of mass producing jewelry that could be affordable for the masses. These pieces were poorly made, and the low-karat gold lockets and pendants quickly went out of style, but the idea of mass producing jewelry designs forever changed the way design houses looked at building their jewels.

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