Jewellery specialist Nick Davies talks you through Art Nouveau Jewellery


Coinciding with La Belle Époque in France and the late Victorian period in England, Art Nouveau was a style intended to stand against the industrialization of jewellery and Decorative Arts. The style marked the turn of the century and the coming of the modern age. Although the period was short lived, the jewellery and art from that era was a radical shift from the sombre mass produced style of the Victorian era. The designs were innovative and intensely creative, refusing to reference the past but instead incorporating fluid, sinuous lines and soft curves. The nude female figure or female head with long flowing hair was a popular motif, as were nature themes of butterflies, dragonflies, insects, orchids, irises, water lilies and poppies.

In the latter half of the nineteenth century there were many forces at work in the world of decorative arts that would propel artisans out of the hum drum and into the incredible. A key development for inspiration in the arts was the reopening of the trade routes with the Far East in 1858. The Japanese were invited to participate in the 1862 International Exhibition in London and the Japanese prints and wood cuts, with their simple yet elegant interpretation of nature, had a profound influence on those looking for a new aesthetic. Japonisme, as it came to be called, provided the antidote to the fussiness of Victorian era design that the new craft movement was searching for. Jewellers soaked up the Japanese bond between nature and design, its simplicity of form, the intense use of colour and the concept of mixed metals giving birth to an entirely new decorative style. 

In Paris, art dealer Samuel Bing rechristened his revitalized Asian art gallery “L’Art Nouveau” inadvertently giving the new style a name. In 1895 Bing created an international exhibition to celebrate the re-opening of his gallery. He brought together many of the artists that would form the core of the rising Art Nouveau movement. The opening of L’Art Nouveau showcased all types and styles of decorative objects including glass by Tiffany and Gallé and a wide variety of objects from the great Rene Lalique.


In the field of jewellery the Art Nouveau style flourished with countless themes being adopted for the creation of spectacular jewels. Insects, especially dragonflies and butterflies were interpreted in a myriad of ways. Translucent Plique-au-jour enamel was particularly suited to provide colour, light and life to the delicately created gold wings. Beetles, grasshoppers, and other insects also inspired the jewellers working in the Art Nouveau aesthetic. The serpent was reinterpreted with sensual movement, detail and colour often seen grasping a giant precious stone within its fangs!

Peacocks, with their magnificent plumage were adapted into a dazzling array of clips, pins and brooches enamelled with bright hues to reflect the light. Swans, swallows, and cockerels swooped and swirled playfully and sensually throughout Art Nouveau jewellery. On a darker side, bats, owls and mythological creatures added a fresh and chilling choice for personal adornment. For the less adventurous there were miniature landscapes with snow covered pine trees or willows by a river exquisitely interpreted in jewellery.

Art Nouveau jewellers now revelled in the idea that the female form could be combined with elements from the natural world such as butterfly wings, and the result was a fantasy creature with colour and sensuality. These feminine fantasies appeared on diadems, brooches, bracelets and rings to be worn by some of the leading lights of the day. Great actresses like Sarah Bernhardt not only provided jewellers with inspiration but, by wearing these fresh new flamboyant jewels helped to propel Art Nouveau into the new century.

Art Nouveau jewellers were revolutionary in their choice of new materials as well as in their uses for the old ones. Gold and silver together with gems such as opal and moonstone were perfect for the new romantic style. More dramatic however was the fashion for lesser materials such as horn, bone and ivory which could be textured and sculpted into flowing natural forms.

 A rebirth and reinvention of enamel was critical in adding colour and dimension to the work. Plique-à-jour enamelling was rediscovered and used to create translucent natural interpretations of plants and insect wings, transmitting light and mixing in background colours, bringing the jewels alive. 

One of the most influential designers working in the Art Nouveau style was Rene Lalique. Although trained as a jeweller, Lalique working in many different areas of the Decorative Arts movement. Early in his career he sold his designs to the leading jewellery houses of Paris such as Cartier and Boucheron however as his confidence grew he realised that his skills and passion for jewellery. On establishing his own workshop Lalique quickly rose to become the grand master of the movement with international clients beating a path to his door to commission his most exotic jewels.

The Art Nouveau style as it developed in France renewed jewellery creation as an art form which was to be imitated ruthlessly around the world. What began as a revolution in the interpretation of design, drawing artisans from every discipline, ended up as a mass produced product in an over saturated market, attempting to meet the desires of consumers at all levels of society. After the Paris World Fair of 1900, the Art Nouveau style gained such popularity that for a brief moment it was the height of main stream fashion. The start of World War I and the chaos that ensued marked the end of Art Nouveau, by the end of the war, a new style had arrived.






Posted on 13 August 2020 in: Auction life

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Nick Davies
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