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Image courtesy: The French Jewel Box
Image courtesy: The French Jewel Box

Art nouveau jewellery: exploring the legacy

Art Nouveau dominated jewellery design for only two or three decades up to World War 1 yet left a memorable legacy not only in the pieces that remain but also in the design and manufacture techniques it inspired. KATHRYN WYATT reports.

Art Nouveau was the first new art design in centuries and manufacturing techniques were developed and old ones reinvented or adapted to satisfy fans of the style.

Different and unusual materials were used to emulate the colours and tones of nature. Popular motifs were those lending themselves to beautiful interpretations, such as butterflies, dragonflies with their translucent wings, peacocks with their fabulous feathers, sinuous serpents in gold and other metals and composite scenes with plants and birds in miniature landscapes or even a human form surrounded by roots or branches.

Materials in Art Nouveau jewellery were chosen to suggest softness with rounded, organic shapes complementing the elegant, flowing lines of the style. The monetary value of traditional hard metals and gemstones gave way to the emotional value and artistry acquired by using horn, tortoiseshell or ivory with pearls, opals, agates and moonstone cut en cabochon – their shifting colours and translucency helped to convey a liquidity of nature.

Enamel was used extensively to provide a full palette of colours and numerous effects, depending on the technique used to apply it. Enamelling as a specialist field reached its height in French jewellery – so many techniques retain their French names. The process requires the melting of crushed, coloured glass, usually constrained by metal wire adhering to a backing plate. The cloisonné – ‘cell’ – enamelling technique retains the metal wire separating the cells of colour. In the more difficult plique à jour – ‘open to daylight’ – technique, the backing plate is removed and the translucent glass provides a wonderful effect for insect wings and leaves. Plique a jour is an earlier technique revived and perfected by craftsmen like René Lalique that results in a comparatively fragile structure very difficult to repair. More robust is the champlevé – ‘raised field’ – technique where enamel is fired in pits carved into the metal surface. This method is effective on large areas and depth and subtle colour changes can be achieved by layering colours.

Gold and silver were the dominant metals in Art Nouveau jewellery because they were soft and could be carved and cast. Sometimes the ‘line’ was accentuated by the addition of valuable gemstones like diamonds and less expensive amethyst, citrine and peridot also featured, often as a single gemstone dropping from a pendant. Choice of material was dictated by the demands of the design rather than value.

Few real pieces of Art Nouveau jewellery found their way into Australia during the pre-war period. Makers’ marks are important in valuations but know that replica designs made overseas are filtering in via auctions and may have fake markings. Furthermore, softer materials and delicate designs are easily damaged and pieces vary in value according to wear.

Art Nouveau was a pervasive and distinctive style and despite being relatively short-lived, it left a beautiful legacy. Restoration of pieces can be painstaking but worth the effort.

Kathryn Wyatt

Contributor • 

Kathryn Wyatt BSc FGAA Dip DT, is a qualified gemmologist, diamond technologist, registered jewellery valuer, educator and member of the Australian Antique & Art Dealers Association. For more information on antique and vintage jewellery courses, visit:

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Wednesday, 24 July, 2019 10:41am
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