The Art Nouveau style arrived by storm and left just as abruptly, with a clearly defined time period between 1890 and the start of World War I in 1914. Art Nouveau as an art form influenced almost every creative media of the time – from painting to architecture, music, literature and, of course, jewellery.
Art Nouveau didn’t spring from nowhere, but a reaction to the series of different revivalist styles seen coming into fashion over the preceding decades, where trends harked back to design styles from previous eras, including the Victorian obsession with medieval Gothic-ism and the various re-incarnations of Egyptian and Far Eastern influenced design.
Art Nouveau was something totally different, characterised by intricate linear designs and flowing curves based on natural forms. This focus on the natural world – flowers, birds, insects and beasts – naturally led to the creation of some of the most beautiful jewellery ever made.
What does Art Nouveau jewellery look like?
Curving lines and flowing shapes curves define the Art Nouveau style, with women and nature as its most commonly used subjects. Along with nymph-like maidens, flora and fauna are seen in the designs of the top jewellery houses of the era.
As well as a visual design style, the Art Nouveau period also saw a mix of creative techniques used in pieces, such as glass, enamel, chinoiserie and the use of many and varied coloured gemstones in new and exciting ways.
However, although incredibly intricate and often made using fragile materials and techniques – such as thin opal slices or window enamel – the jewels were made to worn. Built using the the highest standards of craftsmanship, each piece created by the finest jewellery houses was unique. Even the reverse of each piece was beautifully finished, and goldsmiths used devices such as articulation to ensure that the larger creations sat well on the body and worked to maximum effect.
The most important Art Nouveau jewellers were all French: René Lalique, Georges Fouquet and Henri Vever, Gaillard, Vican and Gautrait. Art historians cite jewellery as one of the greatest triumphs of the Art Nouveau era, and the jewellers of the period experimented with materials and techniques and considered their jewels as much an art form as painting.
If this jewellery was so fabulous, why did Art Nouveau drop out of fashion?
In 1914, with the first shots of World War I, Art Nouveau fell swiftly into oblivion, with the sweeping lines and romantic themes of the form being replaced by the harsh new reality of straight lines, strict geometry and order. At the end of the War, people were determined to look forward, away from the horrors of the preceding years and into a new age of peace and joy.
So, soon forgotten as an unfashionable remnant of the past, the Art Nouveau style disappeared for decades, until in 1964 a book, L’Objet by Maurice Rheims, revived interest.
The sale of a collection of Art Nouveau jewels Christie’s Geneva in November 2017 has brought the Art Nouveau style once again to the consciousness of all those who love beautiful things, and do not discriminate according to fashion.
Once again Art Nouveau is in vogue as we appreciate the sheer talent and skill required to design and make such breathtakingly beautiful jewellery in the form of dazzling bees, intricately rendered wasps, Sylph-like female forms and the most delicate of blooms.