Collecting guide: Art Nouveau jewellery

Our panel of experts appraises the movement, its influences and some of its greatest designers, from Lalique to Fouquet  — illustrated with superb pieces from the largest collection of Art Nouveau jewellery ever to come to auction


An Art Nouveau enamel, diamond and pearl pendant necklace, by René Lalique, 1899-1901. This lot was offered in Beyond Boundaries: Magnificent Jewels from a European Collection on 13 November 2017 at Christie’s in Geneva and sold for CHF 972,500 .hero-container .image-preview-container .image-preview:before { background: none!important; }

Art Nouveau was a brief moment (c. 1890-1910), which had a lasting impact on jewellery design and many other arts. It was a completely new style based on original ideas, innovative materials and entirely different design principles. In reaction to increasingly machine-made, mass-produced jewellery, free-floating forms from the natural world were explored as never before.

Great artist-jewellers such as Georges Fouquet and Henri Vever chose semi- and even non-precious materials for their creations, and standout pieces from the period are treasured for their originality and design excellence rather than the intrinsic value of their materials.

The undisputed master of this genre, however, was René Lalique (1860-1945), whose oeuvre embodied the very essence of French Art Nouveau. His use of exotic and often fragile materials, particularly moulded glass and enamel, was revolutionary, as was his choice of iconography.

Here, a panel of leading experts dissect the movement, its influences and some of its greatest designers, including Lalique, Georges Fouquet, Henri Vever, Eugène Feuillâtre, Léopold Gautrait, and Lucien Gaillard.

When was Art Nouveau at its height?

Michel Perinet, legendary Parisian gallerist who was the first to offer rare and important pieces of Art Nouveau and Art Deco jewellery: ‘The movement was rather short-lived, lasting 15 years, from 1898 to the start of World War I. The most beautiful, most creative and most original Art Nouveau objects were only produced over an even briefer period of time: from approximately 1898 to 1906. While René Lalique continued to put out great works after that time, his creations were less innovative and more decorative. Between 1908 and 1910, the taste for cleaner, simpler lines and a proclivity for platinum and engraved crystal gained the upper hand.’

Was Art Nouveau a complete break with the decorative arts of the late 19th century?

Sigrid Barten, author of an acclaimed book on René Lalique: ‘Art Nouveau is an art total — it wholly invaded every art form: jewellery, architecture, painting, music, literature, etc. And it disappeared as suddenly as it arrived. But the years between 1890 and 1910 were artistically very intense, the proof being that we are still talking about it today.

‘In Art Nouveau — as in Japanese art, for instance — there is no difference between the arts majeurs  and the decorative arts. The decorative arts are just as important, if not more so!’

Evelyne Possémé, Head of the Ancient and Modern Jewellery department at Musée des Arts Décoratifs: ‘Art Nouveau is indeed an art total, but one of the greatest triumphs from that era is jewellery, particularly thanks to those such as René Lalique, Henri Vever and Georges Fouquet.’

Sigrid Barten: ‘Lalique’s work is a synthesis of all the arts. The shapes, contours and relief remind me of sculpture, and I find that his use of colour closely resembles that of painting. He pushed the boundaries of his art in his jewellery designs. He introduced new materials, hard or semi-precious stones, ivory, glass — not to mention all kinds of enamel. His palette was much more diverse than that of a painter or sculptor.’

Evelyne Possémé: ‘As Jean Cassou [first director of the National Museum of Modern Art, Paris] said, Art Nouveau is the source of the 20th century. Throughout the 19th century, artisans and designers seemed incapable of going further. They were crushed by a glorious tradition; they dared not innovate; they did not see how they could do better than their predecessors. These artists therefore took a very long time to break free of these shackles.

‘That breaking free really begins with Art Nouveau, in the late 19th century, which emphasised, for instance, the use of the female figure in the decorative arts, inspired by the Renaissance. In the 19th century, creators rediscovered enamel techniques that would prove so important for Art Nouveau jewellery. The influence of nature was rediscovered as well, inspired by ceramicist Bernard Palissy and goldsmith Benvenuto Cellini.’

What else influenced Art Nouveau jewellery design?

Sigrid Barten: ‘Literature was very important for all artists at that time. Charles Baudelaire’s The Flowers of Evil, for instance, played a key role — those poems reflect the sensitivity of the Art Nouveau era. Music was also very important to Lalique: he loved Richard Wagner.’

And who were the pieces designed for?

Michel Perinet: ‘Art Nouveau was not intended for mere mortals, especially when it came to the jewellery. Originally, the women who ordered and wore these pieces were actresses like Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923), grandes cocottes  like La Belle Otero (1868-1965) and some worldly socialites like Countess Grefulhe (1860-1952). The general public eschewed it.’

Sigrid Barten: ‘At first, Lalique did not work under his own name and designed mostly for the major Parisian jewellery houses. He then designed Sarah Bernhardt’s stage jewellery for the theatre. It must be remembered that, at that time, Art Nouveau was an innovative artistic movement reserved for the Parisian intelligentsia.’

Were these very intricate, delicate-looking pieces designed to be worn?

Sigrid Barten: ‘Whether Lalique was producing magnificent creations for private collectors, designed for showcase display, or smaller jewellery pieces, all these items could be worn! None were rigid, and they were almost invisibly supple. He thought first and foremost of the person who was to wear the piece — the creation is always soft against the skin, with the reverse as beautiful as the front.

‘As well as pieces for Sarah Bernhardt, Lalique also produced jewellery for Julia Bartet (1854-1941), an actress with the Comédie Française. He designed these pieces using very lightweight materials, such as aluminium, so that they could be worn on stage for hours at a time.’

Michel Perinet: ‘Jewellery from the great Art Nouveau creators, like Lalique, Fouquet and Vever, is very robust and solidly built. Yes, Fouquet made daintier jewellery by using less metal, but that was a strategic choice to make those designs easier to wear.’

Lalique was greatly influenced by the symbolism of plants…

Sigrid Barten: ‘Yes. Ivy, for example, is an ancient symbol of fidelity and longevity. It grows everywhere and stays green, summer and winter. Thistles, while being very beautiful plants, are also covered with thorns. In my view, when Lalique uses them, it may convey other messages, such as “Keep your distance”. This also applies to hawthorns, roses or brambles.

‘This symbolism is not found in all the jewellery designs or with all the plants depicted, but the symbolic tendency is conspicuous. Lalique’s jewels were not merely decorative — they had meaning, even if that meaning can be difficult to interpret.

‘The pendant above represents all that I love about the creations of René Lalique. The raspberry branch is very realistic — it looks just like a small sculpture, it is three-dimensional. His choice of colours and the various shades of enamel are an enchantment.’

What were the other recurring themes in Lalique’s Art Nouveau designs?

Marie-Cécile Cisamolo, Christie’s jewellery specialist: ‘Lalique was first and foremost a designer. Once inspired by a subject — whether flora, fauna, wasps or peacocks, he created variations on it using different models and materials. “The Kiss” is a recurrent theme in his work, starting with “The Kiss” brooch, which was donated to the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris in 1960.

‘As a young man, he moved to London in 1878 to study art and broaden his knowledge further. While in London, Lalique met a young woman and fell in love. After two years, he returned home to his family in Paris. Before leaving, however, he created ‘Le Baiser’ brooch for his English love. The front is carved as a cameo with the portrait of a man, the reverse is carved as an intaglio with the portrait of a woman, only their lips touching.’

Which other Art Nouveau designers produced pieces that are now are highly prized by collectors?

Marie-Cécile Cisamolo: ‘As previously stated, the Art Nouveau movement took over Europe completely. It influenced all artists for those precious 15 to 20 years. However a few of them stand out, after the master, René Lalique.

Georges Fouquet (1862-1957) immediately comes to mind. He worked with his father until his retirement, then took over the business in 1895. Fouquet was very forward-thinking — in 1900, for example, he asked Alphonse Mucha, a then unknown Czech painter, to completely redecorate his boutique. They subsequently collaborated closely on many important commissions, including a bangle and ring for Sarah Bernhardt which was sold at Christie’s in 1987. It was, and remains, the most expensive Art Nouveau jewel ever sold at auction — equivalent to more than $1,000,000 in today’s money.

‘I also have to mention Henri Vever. The House of Vever was founded in 1821 and had been producing jewels in the Renaissance style since 1871. Henri Vever first exhibited at the Salon in Paris in 1900; the enamel and pearl pendant/brooch shown towards the top of this article, modelled on maple samaras in green window enamel, is a magnificent example of his work from the beginning of the 20th century. His book, La Bijouterie Française au XIXe Siècle, is the  reference for 19th-century jewellery.

‘I love Lucien Gaillard’s (1861-1942) Art Nouveau jewellery. He was particularly influenced by Japanese art, and the firm was well known for its mastery of metalwork in the Japanese style — even recruiting employees from Japan to work in its Paris atelier, which was quite amazing in the year 1900.

‘Other designers to interest collectors include Eugène Feuillâtre (1870-1916), who was head of René Lalique’s enamelling workshop from 1890 until 1897, and Léopold Gautrait (1865-1937), who worked with numerous jewellers of the Art Nouveau period, including Henri Vever.’ 


Why did Art Nouveau fall out of fashion?

Michel Perinet: ‘The general public became more open to modern developments after World War I. Straight lines found their place in clothing, architecture and, of course, painting. It was at this time that the first ladies’ suits appeared and accessorising them required stricter, more streamlined jewellery. Art Nouveau creations quickly became completely outdated.’

And what prompted its renaissance?

Michel Perinet: ‘The publication in 1964 of L’Objet 1900  by Maurice Rheims was the impetus for the official renaissance of Art Nouveau. The work confirmed interest among various collectors and antique dealers in an artistic movement that had been completely abandoned; an interest that, though well-established, had been rather scattered and unfocused.’

You can read the full interviews with Michel Perinet, Sigrid Barten and Evelyne Possémé in the sale catalogue

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