Art Nouveau Jewelry



July 2008 | The jewelry created in France, Belgium, and other parts of Europe by a select group of avant-garde artists at the close of the nineteenth century was revolutionary. It reinvigorated what had become a formulaic naturalism with new forms drawn from outside sources, including the arts and crafts movement in Great Britain and the arts of Japan. The jewelry was also remarkable in that it redefined notions of preciousness. Platinum and diamonds, the preferred materials for high-style jewelry, were abandoned in favor of gold, enamel, colored gemstones, horn, and glass. This reduction in inherent value was more than compensated for by an emphasis on artistry and superior technical skill. To achieve their goals, art nouveau jewelers experimented with a variety of materials, rediscovering and reinterpreting older techniques while inventing others. The result was a level of sophistication unsurpassed throughout the course of jewelry history.

The jewelers who emerged as proponents of the “new art” were trained in traditional apprenticeship programs. Skilled in the metal techniques of casting, plating, chasing, engraving, repoussé, and patination, they used their considerable talents to create fluid, undulating forms and audacious, emotionally charged curves—the trademark whiplash line that characterized the movement.
Many pieces of art nouveau jewelry were complex constructions made in parts that were then assembled mechanically. An example is René Lalique’s carnation brooch, made of gold, enamel, opals, and cast glass (Fig. 6). On the front, the frosted glass blossom is held in place by enameled gold sepals with tapered ends that extend artfully into the bottom folds of the flower. Below the sepals is a series of enameled gold stems, forming upward curves that frame the carnation and terminate in enameled gold buds. Two bezel-set cabochon opals are nestled between the curvilinear stems, their gold surrounds soldered onto underlying leaves. The leaves are part of a separate concave backplate (see Fig. 6a) with an elaborate floral design composed of plique-à-jour, or backless, enamel. The plate, or back panel, is attached to the front framework with five gold rivets. This sandwiching of two individually crafted segments adds dimensionality to the brooch, a feature strengthened by the sculptural nature of the blossom.

The carnation brooch also illustrates another characteristic trait of art nouveau jewelry—the underside, or back, of this and many other ornaments are often as aesthetically compelling as the front. This is readily apparent in a gold and enamel necklace made by Victor Gérard and retailed by Louchet (Fig. 7).1 The subject of the necklace—swallows in flight—derives from Japanese prints in which one or more birds are shown gliding in the open air or through flowering branches. In this case, the brightly enameled birds, one of which is attached to the frame with rivets, soar through a plique-à-jour sky, a motif echoed on the back (Fig. 7a). There the birds are highlighted by engraved decoration that lends a delicacy to the overall composition. Even the grouping of cast-gold blossoms at the bottom of the pendant is carefully detailed on the reverse.

Another example of hidden engraved decoration can be found on the back of a gold and mabe pearl seaweed brooch by Paul Lienard (Figs. 9, 9a). On the front, the pearl is flanked by two clusters of overlapping cast-gold seaweed fronds with stems that form elegant ellipses. Under the pearl is a gold disk engraved to reiterate the terminals of the plantlike organism.

In addition to creating complex adornments composed of separate parts, jewelers sometimes fabricated elaborate removable armatures. The extraordinary horn dragonfly by Louis Aucoc in Figure 1, for example, has a mount consisting of a wirework frame and an oval plate that supports a wide, hinged pin stem and C hook (Fig. 4). At the bottom of the plate is a thumbscrew that serves as the sole point of attachment and facilitates removal of the mount. This may have allowed the owner to wear the dragonfly as a hair ornament by attaching it to a second armature (now lost).Art nouveau artists relied heavily on enam–els to add soft, sensuous colors to their jewelry. The material itself is simple, consisting of powdered glass mixed with various mineral oxidants that lend a range of hues. With the addition of a small amount of water, it can be applied to a metal or glass surface and then heated until it forms a hard vitreous coating.

Enamel has been used to enhance and enliven jewelry since antiquity and, as a decorative technique, has gone in and out of style. The Hellenistic Greeks, medieval artists, and Renaissance metalsmiths used it to create colorful adornments, as did nineteenth-century arts and crafts jewelers in England who were influenced by the work produced in medieval guilds. During a two-year stay in London in the 1870s Lalique came to appreciate its possibilities.2

An early example of Lalique’s use of enamel is a swallow brooch that bears both the artist’s poinçon mark and the name Vever (Fig. 3).3 The bright blue feather pattern in this jewel is achieved through champlevé enameling, a technique wherein the enamel is placed in small cells formed by carving into the metal and leaving dividing walls between the recesses. Less popular with Lalique and his contemporaries was cloisonné enameling, in which the design is outlined by flat metal wires fused onto a metal back, forming compartments that can be filled with colored enamels.

In their efforts to create jewels that appear ephemeral, airy, and otherworldly, art nouveau artists rediscovered plique-à-jourenameling, in which the enamels have no metal backing and are open to the light.4 There are several ways of accomplishing this: the enamel can be mixed to a consistency that will hold together without falling out; the enamel can be set on a thin metal coating that is later scraped away; or the enamel can be placed on a material such as mica that can be readily removed after heating.5 An extraordinary example of this labor intensive technique is the orchid brooch designed by Charles Desrosiers for Georges Fouquet (Fig. 8).6 The enameling was probably executed by Fouquet’s master enameler, Étienne Tourette, who was known for creating shimmering effects by etching the surface of the enamel with acid and for including tiny pieces of gold leaf (or paillons).7 The orchid brooch is an excellent example of gold-flecked enamel, which is further highlighted by tiny bezel-set diamonds that lend the impression of early morning dew.

The unusual enameled jewel by Lalique in Figure 10 combines plique-à-jour and cloisonné enamel. To create this small intricate landscape depicting the French countryside, the enamel in each cell was applied in a painterly manner so that the effect is that of a painting in miniature.

Art nouveau jewelers also experimented with various metal treatments to achieve the effects they desired. An example of the use of applied metallic sulfides on silver can be seen on Lucien Gaillard’s beetle necklace (Fig. 2).8 The darkened metal legs act as a perfect foil for the gold highlights that appear in the enamel on the insect’s back and for the finely chased gold on the underside (see Fig. 5).9Similar experiments in surface treatment and patination were applied to horn, a decidedly non-precious material that exemplified art nouveau jewelers’ emphasis on beauty and artistic effect over intrinsic value. Processed primarily from the horns of domestic cattle, the material had been used for centuries to make utilitarian objects such as spoons and combs, but rarely for jewelry. Although attractive when polished, horn was valued primarily for its versatility; its thermoplastic properties meant it could be flattened and molded under heat and pressure, and it could be bleached, dyed, or stained to imitate more expensive materials such as jet and tortoiseshell.

Lalique was the first person to show a piece of jewelry incorporating horn at the Salon of the Société des Artistes Français in 1896, and the following year he presented a whole showcase of decorative combs in horn and ivory that was greatly admired.10 Other jewelers, including Gaillard, Vever, and Aucoc, quickly followed, intrigued by horn’s mellow translucence, its strength and flexibility, and the great variety of surface effects that could be produced upon it. Lalique and Gaillard were particularly praised for the delicate tints and luminous iridescent skin or “bloom,” which they used to great effect in their many decorative haircombs.11 While the exact formulas and techniques used to produce these patinas are not known, the powdery whitish films found on many objects seem to have been produced by bathing or painting the surfaces with a mild acid solution.12

Art nouveau jewelers also used horn to achieve remarkably delicate and transparent representations of natural structures, such as sycamore seeds and insect wings, in works such as Aucoc’s dragonfly brooch(Figs. 1, 4). Each of the wings is carved from a thin sheet of horn, obtained by delaminating the growth layers of the horn during processing.13 Each of the wing pieces would have undergone several rounds of soaking and shaping under heat and pressure, and perhaps been treated with tallow to enhance its transparency.14 It was then cut to shape, heated, and pressed and allowed to cool between the two halves of a mold of wood or metal. Next the surface of each wing was painstakingly carved away to a thickness of between 1 and 1.5 millimeters, leaving the veins as tiny raised ridges. Holes were cut to permit the insertion of shaped collets set with diamonds and jewels of cabochon enamel (a technique by which the enamel surface is built up to form a domed shape, similar to a cabochon gemstone). Deeper pockets were cut into the surface to accommodate the large teardrop-shaped elements set into each wing, and the bands of platinum-set diamonds riveted to the top edge of each. As a finishing touch, the horn was drilled or cut away behind each individual stone and cell of enamel to permit light to pass through more easily.

A butterfly brooch also attributed to Aucoc is similar in design, materials, and execution to the dragonfly, but the overall effect is quite different, largely because of the way the horn wings have been treated (Fig. 13). They are thicker than the dragonfly’s (approximately 2 to 3 millimeters) and fairly flat on the back. The high relief on the front is the result of carving rather than molding, with the veins carved into the surface rather than resting above it. To give the surface a pearlescent sheen and slightly striated appearance, recalling the rows of tiny scales on an actual butterfly’s wings, it was most likely washed with acid to break down the material between the horn’s natural layers and make their edges more prominent. The surface may also have been stained or treated with other chemical compounds to give it a metallic quality.15 This surface, while not as delicate and subtle as the patinas favored by Gaillard and Lalique, also acts as an effective background for the open-backed cabochon enamel elements, which seem to glow like stained-glass windows.16

Glass was another material favored by art nouveau jewelers for its aesthetic qualities rather than its intrinsic value, and Lalique was again the first of his contemporaries to feature this material in his jewelry. His experiments with glass began in the 1890s, as an extension of his work with enamel, and he found cast glass to be a particularly effective material for the representation of complex three-dimensional forms. He also learned to enhance its luminous quality by enameling it with opalescent colors and by frosting the surface with acid. For the carnation brooch in Figure 6, Lalique cast the flower in clear glass, and selectively acid-frosted the petals and polished their edges to make the flower seem white and opalescent and to enhance its lively three-dimensional quality.For Lalique’s branch brooch with cherry blossoms in Figure 12, individually cast blossoms of clear glass were lightly brushed with pink enamel (with details in dark blue enamel), then acid-etched to give them a velvety matte finish. The blossoms are attached with prongs to individually cut gold mounts, set along a naturalistic branch of gold and diamonds. This brooch exemplifies how art nouveau jewelers reversed the roles of precious and non-precious materials: the luminous, lifelike glass blossoms are featured like gemstones, while the diamonds glitter delicately in the background.

One aspect of Lalique’s career that has thus far received little attention is his use of imitation ivory and other man-made plastics, and how objects he made with these materials relate to similar objects made of natural sub–stances. Though to our knowledge no examples of Lalique’s man-made materials have yet been analyzed to determine their chemical composition, they are believed to be semisynthetic plastics such as celluloid,17 which at the time could be purchased in rod form or may have been manufactured on the premises.18 Given Lalique’s continuing interest in innovative techniques and materials, it is not surprising that he would have experimented with new materials such as celluloid, seeing them not as inexpensive substitutes, but as substances that opened new creative possibilities.

The brooch with dancing nymphs in Figure 11, for example, is one of a group of four related brooches in which Lalique seems to have used natural and man-made materials interchangeably, not as a means of producing inexpensive duplicates of a design, but rather as a means of achieving a variety of effects using the same mold. In two of the three known variations,19 the classically inspired relief of dancing nymphs has been cast as a positive image in artificial ivory, while in another the image has apparently been cast as a negative impression (or hollow relief) from the back in artificial amber.20 The example in Figure 11 was also cast as a hollow relief from the back, and the clarity and pale color of the material, along with the sharpness and precision of the relief molding, would suggest that it, too, is an artificial substance. Recent tests, however, have determined that it is probably natural horn.21 The four cast plaques, far from being treated as duplicates, have been set in individually designed and meticulously crafted frames made of precious materials. In this instance, the charming butterflies in gold and enamel and the neat rows of faceted sapphires complement the translucent relief plaque, through which the reverse-cast nymphs appear to float into view. As with many art nouveau jewels, a closer study of the materials and techniques used to create this brooch has yielded insights into the skill and creativity of its maker, and raised intriguing questions for further study.

For their assistance with this article, we would like to thank Ruth and Joseph Sataloff; Pamela Hatchfield, Susanne Gansicke, and Abigail Hykin, conservators at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Susan Kaplan; and Greg Heins.

The jewelry in this article will be included in the exhibition Imperishable Beauty: Art Nouveau Jewelry at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, on view from July 23 to November 9, and at the Cincinnati Art Museum from October 24, 2009 to January 25, 2010.

1 The French firm of Louchet was founded by Paul Louchet, a jeweler, sculptor, and bronze caster. He created much of his work together with his brother Albert and exhibited it under the name Paul-Albert Louchet. Around 1900, one or both brothers had a shop or workshop at 3, rue Auber, Paris, the address stamped in the original box for the necklace in Fig. 7.
2 René Lalique spent two formative years in England during the late 1870s and attended art classes at Sydenham College, then just south of London, where he was exposed to the writings of John Ruskin and the work of William Morris. For the influences of Ruskin, Morris, and the British arts and crafts movement on art nouveau artists, see Stephan Tschudi-Madsen, Sources of Art Nouveau (DaCapo Press, New York, 1975).
3 Early in his career Lalique designed and made jewelry for several ateliers, including those of Henri Vever and Louis Aucoc. For a list of his clients, see Henri Vever, French Jewelry of the Nineteenth Century, trans. Katherine Purcell (Thames and Hudson, London, 2001), p. 1208.
4 Plique-à-jour enameling was first used during the Renaissance and the technique was described by Benvenuto Cellini (1500–1571) in his treatises on goldsmithing and sculpture. See Erika Speel, Dictionary of Enamelling (Ashgate, Aldershot, Hampshire, 1998), p. 20.
5 Anita Mason, An Illustrated Dictionary of Jewellery (Harper and Row, New York, 1974), p. 135.
6 Charles Desrosiers was a student of the designer and graphic artist Eugène Grasset (1841–1917). Between 1898 and 1914 he worked for Georges Fouquet, designing nearly all the jewelry produced by Fouquet during that time.
7 For more on Tourette, see Dictionnaire international du bijou, ed. Marguerite de Cerval (Regard, Paris, 1998), p. 526.
8 Commonly known as liver of sulfide, this mixture of potassium polysulfide and thiosulphate is often mistakenly called an oxidizing agent rather than a surface film. For an explanation of the process, see Oppi Untracht, Jewelry Concepts and Technology (Doubleday, Garden City, New York, 1985), pp. 717–718.
9 The enamel in this case is painted with gold-tone enamel lines in imitation of cloisons.
10 Lalique’s early work in horn, and its critical reception, is described in Vever, French Jewelry of the Nineteenth Century, p. 1236.
11 Gaillard and Lalique’s experimental treatments of horn and ivory were praised in the French journal L’Art décoratif in 1903. See Vivienne Becker, Art Nouveau Jewelry (E. P. Dutton, New York, 1985), p. 72.
12 According to Becker, Art Nouveau Jewelry, p. 72, L’Art décoratif noted the “acid-derived luminous skin” that Gaillard achieved. A possible clue as to how these surface effects were produced can be found in W. Maigne and E. Robichon, Nouveau manuel complet du marqueteur du tabletier et de l’ivoirier (Paris, 1889), p. 71, which describes how one method of dyeing horn black—finishing with a bath in water and acetic acid—can produce a whitish film if the object is later exposed to humid conditions.
13 The steps involved in the processing of horn are described in detail in Adele Schaverien, Horn: Its History and Its Uses (Adele Schaverien, Wahroonga, New South Wales, 2006), pp. 43–55; and Maigne and Robichon, Nouveau manuel, pp. 64–79.
14 Maigne and Robichon, Nouveau manuel, pp. 66–67, lists several alternative methods of flattening horn to render it more transparent or uniform in texture, and to improve its strength and elasticity.
15 See ibid., pp. 78–79, for recipes for dyeing and staining horn in a wide range of colors, and also for “metallizing” it using a mixture of mercury, tin, sulphur, and sal ammoniac.
16 A different surface treatment was used for a closely related butterfly brooch also attributed to Aucoc in the Museum für Angewandte Kunst, Frankfurt am Main, on which the carved wings appear to have been left their natural color and simply polished. See Michael Koch et al., The Belle Epoque of French Jewellery, 1850–1910: Jewellery Making in Paris 1850–1910, ed. Frances Wilson and Caroline Crisford (Heneage, London, 1991), pp. 244–245.
17 Celluloid, the first commercially successful man-made plastic, was patented by the American inventor John Wesley Hyatt (1837–1920) in 1870. Its primary ingredients are cellulose nitrate, obtained by exposing cellulose (e.g., wood chips) to nitric or sulfuric acid and camphor. It was first used primarily as a substitute for the ivory used to make billiard balls, but was employed for a wide variety of items toward the end of the century. Casein, another semisynthetic plastic made from milk protein and formaldehyde, was introduced in 1897, followed by Bakelite, the first entirely synthetic plastic, in 1907.
18 Maigne and Robichon, Nouveau manuel, pp. 24–28, states that in 1889 celluloid could be obtained in rods or tubes of any diameter; describes how it could be easily molded, carved, cut, and colored to imitate other materials; and gives the basic chemical recipe for manufacturing it. The manufacture of celluloid combs, dresser sets, and other items was well established in France by the turn of the century, and information on this material would have been widely available.
19 They are published, along with this example, in The Jewels of Lalique, ed. Yvonne Brunhammer (Flammarion, Paris, 1998), pp. 142–145, Cats. 111–114.
20 Ibid., p. 145, Cat. 114.
21 This piece has previously been described as horn (see ibid.), but shows many characteristics of cast celluloid, so it was submitted for testing to the objects conservation laboratory at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Preliminary results show that chemically it is quite similar to natural horn. Further research may shed light on its exact composition, and on other chemicals used in its processing.

 YVONNE J. MARKOWITZ is the Rita J. Kaplan and Susan B. Kaplan Curator of Jewelry at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. She is the editor of Adornment, the Magazine of Jewelry and Related Arts, coauthor of a forthcoming book on Tiffany jewelry, and has published extensively in the area of ancient and contemporary jewelry.

SUSAN WARD is a curatorial research fellow in the Department of Textile and Fashion Arts at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and has contributed to numerous publications and exhibitions.