Coinciding with “La Belle Époque” in France and the Late Victorian Period in England, Art Nouveau was a style intended to stand against the industrialization of jewelry and decorative arts. The style marked the turn of the century and the coming of the “modern age.” Although the period was short lived, the jewelry and art from that era was a radical shift from the somber mass produced style of the Victorian era. The designs were innovative and intensely creative, refusing to reference the past but instead incorporating fluid, sinuous lines and soft curves. The nude female figure or female head with long flowing hair was a popular motif, as were nature themes of butterflies, dragonflies, insects, orchids, irises, water lilies and poppies. The peaceful fluid style was often produced in pastel colors.
From the beginning, the hand crafted artistry of Art Nouveau jewelry held importance over the material used in its construction. Gems and metals used in common jewelry pieces were used in innovative ways alongside more unusual materials such as horn, amber, ivory, glass and blister pearls. New techniques of enameling were developed as well, most importantly plique a jour, a technique that produces thin layers of enamel that have the appearance of stained glass. Free flowing asymmetrical lines were a further break from the classical canon and emphasized the innovation of the designs. Art Nouveau gained its inspiration from many sources. Chief among them was Japanese art, the country had just recently begun opening itself up to trade and European society was fascinated with the exotic yet simplistic and stylized lines that formed Japanese art work and furniture. The Symbolist movement of the 1880’s also influenced Art Nouveau combining religious imagery and mysticism with eroticism.
Masters of Art Nouveau jewelry include Rene Lalique, George Fouquet, Karl Faberge, and Louis Comfort Tiffany. Emile Gallé, a leading Art Nouveau glassmaker, founded the Ecole de Nancy in France to promote the style of Art Nouveau across multiple platforms and create a union between the artists who designed the pieces and the craftsman and industrialists who produced them.
After the Paris World Fair of 1900, the Art Nouveau style gained such popularity that for a brief moment it was the height of main stream fashion. The movement got its name from Siegfried Bing’s Parisian store opened in 1896 and called La Maison de l’Art Nouveau. The start of World War I and the chaos that ensued marked the end of Art Nouveau, by the end of the war, a new style had arrived.