The jewelry historian Vivienne Becker considered jewelry to be “the most intense expression of the Art Nouveau movement” and observed that it was the renewed interest in the decorative arts that encouraged many artists to turn their hand to this interpretation. The Art Nouveau movement in jewelry lasted a short period of time, from about 1895 to 1910. Its main themes were femininity, fertility and nature. The main objective of Art Nouveau was to captivate rather than to portray or copy nature.
Art Nouveau’s jewelry featured flowers, insects, snakes and animals. Butterflies, dragonflies, cicadas and spiders acquired an electrifying and sensual quality. Snakes became mazelike and resplendent symbols of life, eternity and sexuality. Unusual and exotic flowers were favored such as orchids, lilies, mimosa, chrysanthemums, sunflowers, dandelions, mistletoe and poppies. Plants and flowers, seaweeds and marine creatures with their wavy shapes and lines, alluded to life and movement, and to the vital circle of birth and death. Peacocks and peacocks’ feathers, swans and swallows became constant motifs, offering their symbolism and their elegant shapes to the flowing Art Nouveau line and to the sensual glow of iridescent enamels.
Art Nouveau jewelers preferred horn, opal, enamel, tortoiseshell, ivory, celluloid, brass, copper, moonstone, moulded pâte de verre, chalcedony, chrysoprase, agate, glass stones and pearls, to diamonds and colored precious stones. The preferred medium for these jewelers was enamel, for which they revived antique techniques and introduced new ones. A favorite element of Art Nouveau costume was the belt buckle.
One of the most important jewelry designers of the Art Nouveau movement was René Lalique (1860-1945). Lalique’s work inspired jewelers in Europe and America alike. Lalique’s early work was retailed by famous jewelry houses such as Boucheron, Cartier and Vever and was done in the naturalistic style. During the 1880s and early 1890s, Lalique dedicated himself to studying enameling techniques and began creating his unique style. In 1895, Lalique participated in the 1895 Exhibition of the Societé des Artistes Français presenting a collection of jewels that made a great impact on the public. Later in 1900, he participated in the International Exhibition in Paris where he was much celebrated. Lalique’s jewelry was sought after internationally, copied and imitated.
Other renowned master jewelers of the Art Nouveau Era are Henri Vever (1854-1942), who was admired for the perfection of enamels and goldsmith work. His jewelry was innovative and fully embraced the newly rediscovered idea of introducing the female figure into jewelry.
Georges Fouquet (1862-1957) developed his father’s interest in Art Nouveau and towards the end of the century started to produce plique-ὰ-jour, enamel jewels of striking design.
The Art Nouveau movement made a lasting impact on the jewelry industry. It was a reaction to break with tradition, and to return to artistic and creative jewelry, where materials were functional to design, and where spontaneity of inspiration was more important than intrinsic value. Art Nouveau jewelry was a radical change from the somberness and adherence to strict rules which characterized both French and English jewelry in the 1860’s and 1870’s. There were few restrictions in the design of Art Nouveau jewelry.