Arlecchino Antique JewelryArt Nouveau Jewelry (1890-1915)


Exuberant and Exotic Art

Exuberant, exotic, emotive, expressive, are terms used to describe Art Nouveau jewelry. What is it about Art Nouveau jewelry that touches the hearts of sophisticates, critical collectors, or just the average consumer? It is the beauty that is felt when one views the great works of someone like Renoir, Servat, or Gauguin. Many pieces of Art Nouveau jewelry are truly works of art, not merely items of adornment. Some of the ingredients that make Art Nouveau jewelry so emotionally beautiful are the use of subtle color and shading, suggestion of form, delicate turning and mystical imagery. Appreciation of Art Nouveau takes time. The more one views them, the more apparent their intrinsic beauty becomes. They are imaginative pieces, daring and different from other styles and forms.

The Art Nouveau movement, although short lived (approximately 1890 through 1910) made a lasting impact on the jewelry industry which is still felt today. It was a reaction to the mass produced jewelry that had become so popular late in the Victorian period. The style of Art Nouveau jewelry was a radical change from the somberness and adherence to strict rules which characterized both French and English jewellery in the 1860's and 1870's. There were few restrictions in the design of Nouveau jewelry. The most common motifs incorporated life forms, orchids, lilies, irises, ferns, snakes, dragonflies, animal and human forms. Life-like to dream-like simplicity of metal alone to the complexity of enamel and precious gems. The rebellion against the strict customs of the Victorian and Edwardian periods released an incredible out-pouring of creative energy that not only produced pieces of subtle beauty but also touched the sublime and the mystical. No longer would a piece of jewelry be a mere adornment, now it became a part of one's soul.


Extensive Use of Enameling

Along with the creative energy came a mastery of technique in casting and carving of gold as well as the extensive use of enameling as never seen before. Probably the single most important technique used by Art Nouveau designers was enameling. The type of enameling used most often was known as Plique a'jour. Plique a'jour is defined as enameling that is transparent with no backing. The effect most often achieved by Plique a'jour enameling is likened to that of stained glass. The technique of applying this type of enameling was extremely difficult and very popular because it exemplified the jeweler's skill and artistry. This effect gave Art Nouveau jewelry a distinctive appearance much like a three dimensional painting. Other types of enameling that were also popular were basse-taille and guilloche enameling, techniques that required engraving the metal or raising a design, then fusing a thin layer of transparent enamel over the work. These and the techniques of Cloisonné' Chamieve' were made popular by Faberge in Russia around the turn of the century. Many times a craftsman would combine the use of different methods of enameling on the same piece.


Authentic Piece or Reproduction?

Unfortunately, when something comes along that generates excitement and interest, so do people who want to take advantage of the public's lack of knowledge. So how does one differentiate between an authentic piece of Nouveau jewelry or a reproduction? Quality is the first thing to consider in determining the authenticity of a piece of Nouveau jewelry. Quality should be evident in every part of the piece, from the smallest detail to the overall design. Enameling is also extremely important in determining the originality of a piece. The enameling on a reproduction will generally be uniform and sharp with little or no shading. The edges of the piece will appear sharp, showing little or no wear, and in the case of a pin, the pin and clasp will be in "mint" condition. Files and polishing marks which are often an indication of handiwork will not be evident. The hallmark, indicative of many old pieces, will appear new and the various settings will appear identical since they are usually mass produced. Reproductions will also exhibit pits in the gold due to poor or frequently repeated castings, detail work will often be neglected, and much of the design of the piece will not be artistic, a quality that is intrinsically Art Nouveau.

Determining the value and overall quality of a piece of Art Nouveau jewelry is not an easy thing to do. To become skillful at recognizing an authentic piece of period jewelry requires a serious effort. Jewelers and collectors alike must take the time to visit museums and auction houses, places where this type of jewelry can be seen. There is no substitute for the experience gained in the hands-on examination of these pieces.



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