If you had to boil the Art Nouveau style down to three words, they would be "artistic, feminine, botanical". Yet, as accurate as they are, those three words don't quite capture the emotion and mystique that Art Nouveau jewelry can often evoke. Artisanal practices, a reverence for aesthetics, and a rejection of industrialization all informed this style. The Art Nouveau period was relatively brief, yet its influence on jewelry and the decorative arts can still be seen to this day.
Although it officially spanned the years 1895 to 1905, the Art Nouveau style was born from the Arts and Crafts movement which began around 1880. The Arts and Crafts movement was influenced by, among others, the famed print designer William Morris, who, years earlier, had harshly criticized the decline in artistry within the decorative arts that was a consequence of growing industrialization. The Arts and Crafts artisans believed in the individual hand of the artist and high standards of quality. This teamed perfectly with the intricate and elaborate designs that would come to define the Art Nouveau style.
The distinct artistry of Art Nouveau design can be explained by the origins of the designers themselves, many of whom started out as painters or fine artists before switching to design, as is the case with Louis Comfort Tiffany of Tiffany & Co. The artist’s hand can be seen in many Art Nouveau pieces as a flourish of movement, as a carefully crafted composition, or in the work itself as finely painted enamel. This artistry is also evident in the emotion or mood that is often evoked with some of the finer Art Nouveau jewelry. A look on a face, a pose of a figure, even the light touch of a butterfly on a leaf are all evocative in their own way.
In subject, Art Nouveau designers took their inspiration from nature. Animals, such as snakes, bats, butterflies, and dragonflies, can often be found in Art Nouveau jewelry, as well as plants, such as lilies, irises, and ivy. Another important subject for Art Nouveau artists was the female form. Usually nude, she would have an elongated figure and sometimes butterfly or dragonfly wings. The goddess archetype was often evoked, but this motif was closer in style to the romanticism of the Pre-Raphaelites, rather than the rigid antiquity of Neoclassicism. Very common was the “whiplash line”, which was that undulating flourish that is universally associated with Art Nouveau and can be seen in many different jewelry examples.
Materials were chosen for their aesthetic properties, rather than their monetary value. Artists and designers wanted to prove that objects could be valuable for their physical beauty alone, regardless of the cost of their parts. Semi-precious stones cut en cabochon, such as lapis, malachite, azurite, chrysoprase, and moonstone, were used frequently. Glass and sterling silver were also used. However, many French jewelers had no qualms about celebrating gold and precious stones and continue to work with these essential materials in the nouveau style.
Close up, you can see the soft, painterly gradient of the green enamel in this Art Nouveau lavalier pendant.
Enamel was very popular. The French artist René Lalique was known for his plique-à-jour enamel jewelry, a technique that involves removing the enamel backing after firing, creating a stained glass effect. Enamel was a way of adding bright colors to metal without the use of gemstones, and it brought the same painterly qualities to jewelry that were usually reserved for fine art.
Related Article: The History of Enamel Jewelry
Successful jewelry trends must always work in tandem with the popular fashion of the era, and so it was that the wide, deep necklines of this time suited the elaborate pendants and brooches that jewelers were producing. Low waisted corsets meant that necklaces could be long and dramatic. Long hair was upswept into voluminous chignons adorned with bejeweled hair combs. Accessories, from compacts to parasol handles, were ornately designed, and thus were treated as jewelry.
There were differences in how Art Nouveau was interpreted across different countries; from left to right: Lalique of France, Tiffany & Co. of USA, and Archibald Knox of England.
Though the term “Art Nouveau” is used as a broad umbrella classification for the western art and design being produced at the time, the approach to these techniques and motifs did vary between countries. In Great Britain, nature inspired motifs were combined with intricate Celtic patterns, folk art influences, and Renaissance iconography. In America, Tiffany was the trailblazer, with Japanese and Byzantine inspired design and their iconic stained glass. In Scandinavia, jewelers went back to their roots with nature motifs inspired by folk art, and clean lines pioneered by designer Georg Jensen. In France, led by Lalique, jewelry was exuberant and intricate, heavily influenced by Symbolism, Japanese design, and religious imagery.
As the confluence of different forces began to usher in the appetite for the Art Deco movement, the Art Nouveau style was declared dated and old fashioned. True connoisseurs, such as the Surrealists of the 1930's, never let it die, however, and eventually it found its way back to popularity with the birth of 1960's psychedelia. Poster artists especially drew inspiration from the erotic figures, botanical motifs, and elongated forms. Today, we can appreciate the true artistry of Art Nouveau jewelry and celebrate its many contributions to this industry.
Related Article: The Big Guide to Art Deco Jewelry