French Rococo – Revitalizing Elegance

The French Rococo theme began to take hold in the late 1600s and expanded into the beginning of the Georgian period (early 1700s). The word “Rococo” comes from the French word “rocaille”, which is a reference to the elaborate seashells that commonly decorated fountains and grottos at the time. This is the perfect symbol to represent the Rococo movement: naturalistic designs, curvy lines, asymmetry, elaborate details and pastel colors.

The Rococo style is typically credited as starting in France, after King Louis XIV expressed desire a for more colorful, light hearted art to replace the formal, religious designs which had been prominent at the time. By the 1730s, this new artistic concept had spread across Europe to Germany, Austria and Italy.

During this time period, there wasn’t really much of middle class, and wearing jewelry was traditionally seen as a representation of wealth. Popular jewelry items included buttons, brooches, hair ornaments, sword hilts, pocket watches, earrings, necklaces and of course, rings.

Most often combined with low cut necklines, elaborate necklaces were generally viewed as the most important jeweled decoration. Elegant floral or ribbon/bow motif designs decorated the bust, most often coming to a larger focus point of a similar design in the center. Gemstone or pearl drop style pendants were also common, most often matched with chandelier style dangle earrings.

Marie Antoinette
Marie Antoninette wearing pearls
by Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun

Popular Gemstones

While traditionally valuable gemstones, such as diamond, ruby, emerald and sapphire were considered to be the most highly desired, the demand for large gemstones created a shortage and people began to turn to semi-precious stones.

The most popular gemstones used in French Rococo and Georgian jewelry were very much in line with the colors most commonly used in art and architecture. Pastel gemstones such as yellow chrysoberyl and orange topaz were very much in style, as were traditionally valuable precious stones ruby, emerald and sapphire.

early citrine
An early 18th century large central cushion shaped citrine within a topaz openwork floral surrounded with foil backs

A nostalgia for the Middle Ages and Italian/French Renaissance brought back a renewed interest in the symbolic powers of gemstones. Rings were commonly made in acronym form to make the words “Regard” or “Dearest” by using the first letter of the stone and setting them in the correct order. Diamonds, rubies, emeralds, sapphires, amethysts and garnets were the most commonly used stones for these jewels.

By the 1840s, diamond set floral bouquets were worn as brooches on in the hair with diamond drops (representing either seeds or rain drops) falling from the flower heads. These pieces are the predecessor for the 3-dimensional designs Cartier made popular more than 100 years later.

The Popularity of Paste

Paste is a term used to describe transparent (sometimes colored) glass which has commonly been used as an inexpensive imitation to gemstones in jewelry. These stones would often be “foil backed”, which means a colorful piece of foil, adhered to the back of the stone, would intensify the color of a relatively clear stone.

group of 18th century paste jewelry
A colection of paste jewels

In the early to mid-1700s, diamonds were the epitome of fashion, for those who could afford them. Many clear gemstone imitations such as white topaz, rock crystal and clear paste became prized almost as highly as diamonds due to their ability to so accurately imitate the precious stone.

The popularity of white paste jewels quickly spread into colored stones. Vivid imitations of colored stones were set in silver or gold against a foiled back to enhance the artificial color. These paste designs, combined with technical advancements of the industrial revolution, would be the building blocks that would eventually lead to reasonably priced jewelry becoming available for a new group of society called the “Middle Class”.

Paste became so common that it was regularly adorned by the aristocracy and royals, including the infamous jewelry connoisseur, Marie Antoinette.

England Rejects Rococo

While the French Rococo movement caught on widely throughout Europe, England was one prominent place where the excessive designs had trouble gaining popularity.

The English nobility were traditionally far less lavish than their French counterparts, and preferred more traditional, sentimental jewelry adornments. Mourning pieces, religious items, love inscriptions and simple naturalistic designs were among the most popular pieces in England, with a diamond riviere necklace decorated with a cross or gemstone drop, being viewed at the epitome of luxury in jewelry.

During the second half of the 1700s, the elegant Rococo designs began to die down all across Europe in favor of more traditional creations. This would last for about 100 years until many of the same style ideas were resurrected during the Art Nouveau movement.

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