Art Nouveau Jewelry: An Artistic Awakening

Art Nouveau brooch signed Lalique, enamel, rose cut diamonds and gold, circa 1890, photo courtesy Christie’s.

Naturalistic, Exotic, Flowing Lines, Curves, Fanciful Women, Sinewy, Sensual, Sexual, Scandalous, Colored Gemstones, Enamel, Asymmetry all defined the Art Nouveau movement.

WHEN: Jewelry historians have slightly different dates for the Art Nouveau jewelry movement. It is widely accepted that it began in France and Belgium during the late 1800’s around 1895, although some historians put that date a bit earlier at 1890. The movement ended with the start of World War I in 1915, or even slightly earlier according to some historians. While the movement was decidedly French, it did have a following in Avant Garde circles elsewhere in Europe and America.

FAMOUS MAKERS: George Fouquet, Rene Foy, Gabriel Falguieres, Lucien Galliard, Lucien Gautrait, Rene Lalique, Georges Le Tureq, Louis Comfort Tiffany, Henri Verver

MOTIFS: The Female Form, Nymphs, Mermaids, Fairies, Long Flowing Hair, Vines, Leaves, Exotic Flowers, Dragonflies, Butterflies, Insects, Japanese Art, Subdued Colors

THE LOOK: Large scale, enamel and colored gemstone pieces depicting naturalistic scenes and/or fanciful women, insects and stylized flowers

MATERIALS: Colored Gemstones with Opal, Moonstones, Peridot, Amber and Amethyst favored; Diamonds, Enamel, Silver, Gold, Bone, Horn, Glass

The Art Nouveau movement started in France beginning around 1890 to 1895 and it encompassed the decorative arts as well as jewelry. Generally when we talk about a style of jewelry it is associated with a time frame often involving reigning monarchs or a particular decade. Art Nouveau jewelry was a bit different. It was an artistic movement that started as a backlash to the machinated world of the Industrial Age. The artists involved in the movement made their pieces by hand with rapt attention to details portrayed in the imagery, believing that design was more important than materials used. The designs were influenced by the Arts & Crafts Movement in England, Japanese art and the Symbolist Movement that started in France but spread through Europe.

Most of the jewelry during the late 1800’s and early 1900’s was very formal and gem intensive. It was a time of great wealth and people wanted to show it through the jewelry they wore, so the value of the pieces was in the gems. But the Art Nouveau movement was the opposite, since it was about design over materials, to some degree it redefined precious by incorporating materials such as bone, horn or even glass into the designs. It was a rebellion against the practice of jewelry only being valued for the gems. That being said, diamonds and other gemstones were used to define elements of a design, but they were generally not the central focus.

Enamel was one of the most important materials used in fabricating Art Nouveau jewelry and there were different types of enameling techniques used. Some pieces even combined different types of enameling.  The two main enameling techniques used were Plique-à-Jour and Guilloche.

Plique-à-Jour, French for letting in daylight, is a transparent enamel that requires a high level of skill to create. The enamel is placed into the openings of filigree metalwork, but there is no metal behind the enamel. The finished effect is often compared to stained glass due to the enamel’s transparency. Guilloche enamel work is created very differently, but also has tremendous artistic merit. Guilloche is a type of metal work that engraves an intricate, repetitive pattern into a metal which is then “painted” with a thin layer of enamel so that the pattern remains visible. Both enameling techniques allowed for large areas of pastel color on a piece. Enamel is rather fragile and consequently many pieces of Art Nouveau jewelry have not survived because they broke or were damaged.

From a design perspective Art Nouveau focused heavily on the feminine form. The curves of the female body were emphasized as was long flowing wavy hair. Women were often depicted as being almost holy, or as a sensual seductress, perhaps even slightly sinister or dangerous – these two archetypes were a reflection of the changing role of women in society at that time. Women were actively seeking the right to vote and they were looking for opportunities outside the home, both of which threatened to upend the status quo. Nymphs, fairies and mermaids, either nude, or partially covered by their hair, frolic on Art Nouveau jewels, scandalizing, the prim and proper aristocratic, wealthy society mavens who found this style of jewelry too risqué to wear.   Instead it was worn by those who were free thinkers,  artists themselves or bohemians, which in that era meant supporters of the arts. Actress Sarah Bernhardt, for example, was known to favor Art Nouveau jewelry.

Nature, in the form of vines, exotic florals and leaves were another very important theme in Art Nouveau jewelry. Dragonflies, butterflies and other insects often with splendid plique-à-Jour wings were also prevalent. These naturalistic themes were again a backlash to the industrial age as people moved from rural areas to cities to find work. The jewelry was a reminder of nature’s beauty and a message to stay connected to its nurturing presence.

The Art Nouveau movement was short-lived, but impactful. It brought attention to jewelry design as an art form, but like everything else in that time period, it abruptly ended with the start of World War I.  

Authored by Amber Michelle

Tiffany & Co: An Iconic American Jeweler

Morganite brooch wrapped in diamonds and platinum, signed Tiffany & Co. France. Photo Courtesy: Spectra

Beyoncé croons Moon River to a rapt Jay-Z in the recently released “About Love” video from Tiffany & Co. that features the chanteuse wearing the famed Tiffany Diamond. The video showcases an iconic singer, wearing an iconic diamond from an iconic jeweler. So, how did Tiffany & Co. gain its status as one of the foremost American Jewelry Houses?

The story began in 1837 when Charles Lewis Tiffany and his business partner, John P. Young, opened a stationery store in lower Manhattan specializing in luxury goods including some jewelry. Originally named Tiffany & Young, the store was renamed Tiffany & Co. in 1853 when Charles Lewis Tiffany took over the business.

The retailer introduced American consumers to luxury when the firm sent out its first direct mail catalog in 1845 featuring a selection of upscale products. That catalog was the predecessor of the firm’s Blue Book, which to this day showcases extravagant gift ideas each holiday season.

However, what really put Tiffany & Co. on the map was diamonds, but not just any diamonds. In 1848, Tiffany & Young traveled to Europe. While on the Continent, they purchased a very large quantity of diamonds from the aristocracy and brought them back to New York. So many of the sparkling gems were purchased that the store had enough diamonds to supply the industrial barons and other wealthy Americans with a steady source of stones. It was the first time that Americans could easily purchase diamonds in the U.S. and the store became known as a diamond buying destination.

The Tiffany Diamond

Another big diamond milestone for the jeweler came when Tiffany & Co. bought a 287.42-carat rough yellow diamond that came from the famed Kimberley Mine in South Africa. Discovered in 1877, Tiffany purchased the rock in Paris the following year. The company’s chief gemologist George Frederick Kunz was in charge of cutting the diamond. The gem was transformed into a 128.54-carat cushion-cut diamond with 82 facets and is known for its spectacular sparkle and depth of color.

The Tiffany Diamond is currently on permanent display at the New York City Flagship store. For most of its life, the Tiffany Diamond has been in a showcase to be seen, but not worn. In fact, it has only been worn by four people: The socialite Mary Whitehouse who wore the jewel to a Tiffany Ball in 1957. It was next worn in 1961 by Audrey Hepburn as part of the press tour for her role in the film “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”. The gem went back into a showcase, until Lady Gaga donned the bauble 58 years later for the 2019 Academy Awards. Now in 2021, Beyoncé is adorned with the sparkler in the “About Love” video.

Tiffany Setting

As the diamond experts of the era, the company wanted to showcase the sparkling stones to maximum advantage and the Tiffany Setting was born. Introduced by Charles Lewis Tiffany in 1886, the Tiffany Setting is one of the most renowned designs from the firm. At the time that it was introduced the Tiffany setting was very innovative. The diamond is set high and is held in place by six prongs allowing maximum light to flow through the stone to amplify its sparkle. To this day, the Tiffany Setting remains one of the most popular settings for a diamond engagement ring.

Soon after the introduction of the Tiffany Setting, the firm once again made headlines when Charles Lewis Tiffany bought the French Crown Jewels and made them into Tiffany pieces.

The headlines didn’t stop there, Tiffany & Co. won the grand prize for jewelry at the Paris Exposition in 1900, the first American company to be given that honor.

In 1902, Charles Lewis Tiffany passed away. His son, Louis Comfort Tiffany took over the firm. An artist in his heart and soul, Louis Comfort Tiffany became the company’s first design director, where he remained until his death in 1933. Inspired by nature with a particular passion for dragonflies, he was an influential designer and leader in the Art Nouveau movement. His jewelry, lamps and glass windows are showcased in museums and can occasionally be found for purchase.

In 1979, John Loring was hired as design director and he shaped the design direction of the firm for the next 40 years. During those years several jewelry designers brought their talents to the company including Jean Schlumberger, Donald Claflin, Angela Cummings, Elsa Peretti, Paloma Picasso and architect, Frank Gearhy.

Introducing Colored Gemstones

In addition to its diamond expertise, Tiffany & Co. has been responsible for the introduction of a few colored gemstones. In 1903, the lovely pink stone kunzite was brought to market by Tiffany & Co. It was named after George Frederick Kunz, Tiffany & Co.’s staff gemologist. Several years later, the company introduced morganite, a peachy colored stone that is part of the beryl family. Kunz named the gem after the financier J.P. Morgan for his contributions to art and science and his donations to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City and the Museum of Natural History in Paris.

In 1968, Tiffany & Co. launched Tanzanite, a blue-violet gemstone from Tanzania, found in the foothills of Mt. Kilamanjaro. Soon after, the retailer debuted tsavorite, a type of green garnet. The gem was named in honor of the Tsavo National Park on the border of Kenya and Tanzania where the stone was found. Thanks to Tiffany & Co. these gems can be found in a wide array of jewelry from various firms.

The Next Chapter

Throughout its history, Tiffany & Co. has been a leader in design and innovation. And with its storied history and global name recognition, Tiffany & Co. remains one of the most successful and prestigious American jewelry houses today. On January 7, 2021, luxury product group LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton, completed its acquisition of Tiffany & Co. marking the beginning of a new chapter in the story of the venerable retailer.

Authored by Amber Michelle