Arts and Crafts period

The Arts and Crafts period is best represented by the rejection of mass produced and machine made designs and a return to the personal, hand crafted touch of jewelry and art. The central idea behind the Arts and Crafts movement was that hand crafting pieces from start to finish added a layer of integrity and workmanship to the art, whether it be furniture, silverware, architecture or jewelry. Based on the timing, it often gets overlooked or grouped in with other periods, mainly Art Nouveau.

Frederick e bauer
The work of Frederick E Bauer student jewelry class in Brooklyn, NY

Industrial Revolution Leads to Mass Production in Jewelry and Art

The Victorian era was a time of great change, particularly when it came to industrialization. The benefits of industrialization were not at all lost on jewelry. New techniques made stamping jewelry out of thin sheets of metal possible, and for the first time, jewelry was mass produced in a way that made it affordable to the average person.

These stamped metal designs typically existed in the form of lockets and other simple pieces. While they were all the rage in the beginning, after some time, society began to shift back towards the artistry that comes with handmade pieces.

peacock brooch
Guild of handicraft peacock brooch

Artistic over intrinsic value

Just like with Art Nouveau and the later Art Deco period, Arts and Crafts designers preferred using artistically appealing stones over the more intrinsically valuable stones that had been so popular with the traditional Victorian designers. Opals, turquoise, moonstone, misshapen pearls, glass, shell, enamel and base metals allowed designers to create unique, fashion statement pieces that would not be out of the financial reach of adventurous members of the middle class.

Rejection of Mass Production

The rejection of mass production started small. It began when a select few affluent, artistic individuals wanted jewelry that represented their own cutting edge style, rather than the same traditional designs which had become so popular during the Victorian period.

Early Arts and Crafts jewelry designers believed that everything should be handmade, and that jewelry should be conceived and built by the same person from start to finish. Specialization and anything resembling an assembly line process was shunned in favor of personalization by the artist. While it seems like this would be more expensive, based on how production is handled today, this process (combined with the use of base metals and artistic, less inherently valuable stones) was designed to keep jewelry more affordable for the middle class. The result was that a lot of people who were minimally trained in certain aspects created new designs, which had a pronounced handmade look.

The Revival of Guilds

A guild is an association of artists or merchants, who typically have common goals in mind. This method of artistry was very popular in Medieval Europe and was resurrected as a contrast to the over mechanization within the jewelry industry.

silver cloak clasp
Silver cloack clasp designed by Charles Robert Ashbee

The first of these schools, the Guild of St George, was founded in Wales in 1871 by John Ruskin, a strong advocate for artistic integrity. A few years later, Charles Robert Ashbee founded the Guild and School of Handicraft in London in 1888, where he trained guild members to produce his designs using classical techniques. The school would close a few years later (1895), and he continued his influence by opening the School of Arts and Crafts in 1907 (also in London). These schools focused on all decorative art designs, most notably in the form of silver hollowware, jewelry and furniture. Many other guilds across England, Europe and the USA sprung up around this time, embracing the same passion for hand craftsmanship that had inspired Ruskin and Ashbee.

While many guilds were short lived, some continued to thrive in changing societal conditions and artistic tastes. Most notably, the Guild of St George has become a global organization still thriving and respecting the principles on which it was founded.

Mass Produced Arts and Crafts Designs

As the Arts and Crafts movement matured, many designers heavily embraced the designs without adopting the philosophies. Though the entire purpose of the movement was to abolish mass production, the handmade start to finish model proved to be inefficient at providing quality products at an affordable price. The public as a whole didn’t care much about the time going into the piece as they did about the finished product, and a handful of companies who successfully machine produced Arts and Crafts designs ended up having far more financial success.

silver cloak clasp
Arts and crafts 15k yellow gold jade lavalier style necklace

Arts and Crafts in the US

The Arts and Crafts movement in the US was directly connected to the work of designers in Great Britain. Charles Robert Ashbee toured the US, showcasing the new artistic style and encouraging the development of guild-like artistic societies. These societies would spring up all around the US, the first starting in Boston in June 1897, and others in Chicago, New York, Minneapolis and Deerfield, Massachusetts would soon follow.

Arts and Crafts vs Art Nouveau

Because the periods overlap and share so many common characteristics, Arts and Crafts pieces are commonly confused with Art Nouveau. However, there are several attributes that separate each of these periods into its own category.

Arts and Crafts typically used less expensive materials – Art Nouveau took glamour to a new artistic level, often incorporating semi-precious, artistic hard stones, but the pieces were still typically made with precious metals. Arts and Crafts designers would be much more likely to use less expensive metals, like aluminum, silver and copper, using gold mainly just as an accent, if at all.

Arts and Crafts pieces tend to be more practical than Art Nouveau – Art Nouveau designers created elaborate designs, but many pieces were intended to be a decorative ornament, not necessarily focusing on what types of jewelry served a practical purpose. Arts and Crafts designers would be more likely to create more useful items, such as belt buckles, hair ornaments and brooches, which tend to serve more practical fashion uses.

Arts and Crafts designs are simpler than Art Nouveau – Art Nouveau designers embraced lavishness and sought to create over the top, colorful designs. Arts and Crafts designers created unique, artistic visions, but the end result would typically be slightly less elaborate than their Art Nouveau counterparts.

Less curves – Art Nouveau is commonly known for elaborate swirls and overly curvy designs. Arts and Crafts jewelry does tend to have curves, but they are not as overly accentuated as they would be in Art Nouveau designs.

Bezel set vs prong set – Arts and Crafts jewelry, once again focusing on practicality, tends to feature more pieces with bezel set stones. Art Nouveau jewelers, would be much more likely to have stones set with prongs, allowing more light to get underneath and focusing more on the artisticness of each individual stone.

Falling out of love with arts and crafts

The changing tides of the 1920s saw the end of the Arts and Crafts movement. While many individual jewelers would continue the tradition of handcrafting pieces, their designs would change in accordance to public demand. The classical Arts and Crafts inspiration was overshadowed by the edgy, innovative Art Deco styles. Art Deco would solidify itself as the new global trend for the next two decades.

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