For a moment at the turn of the 19th century, the hottest look in jewellery was a completely new style with designs inspired by nature. In her regular column Meredith Etherington-Smith explains why Art Nouveau is all the rage again
For many decades now, the cool geometric lines of Art Deco, modernism and minimalism have dominated taste. But it seems that change is in the air. Have you noticed the return of chintz: flowery wallpapers on avant-garde walls; furniture swathed in jewel-toned velvets and brocades, and rich rugs covering shiny black floorboards? All-beige interiors are looking rather old-fashioned these days as the organic aesthetic makes a comeback.
On 13 November, a group of exquisite Art Nouveau jewels by the likes of René Lalique, Georges Fouquet and Henri Vever will be offered in the Beyond Boundaries: Magnificent Jewels from a European Collection sale in Geneva. Each of these pieces is a masterful example of the completely new style of jewellery produced in an intensely creative period that began in the final years of the 19th century, and which lasted less than two decades. Art Nouveau filtered into cultural arenas ranging from architecture to painting, music to literature.
Leading Art Nouveau jewellers produced exquisite pieces based on the natural world — wasps, flowers, fruits, dragonflies — crafted in innovative materials such as horn and enamel. It was a softer aesthetic, sandwiched between the icy monochrome of Belle Époque diamonds and the hard-edged Art Deco geometry that would dominate the 1920s and 1930s.
René Lalique was the undisputed master of the genre, and his oeuvre was characterised by the use of exotic and often fragile materials such as moulded glass. These were set with semi-precious stones such as moonstone and opals, and embellished with the soft natural tones of pearls — all of which gave his jewels a subtly evanescent quality.
If nature was the predominant theme of Art Nouveau, Lalique's favourite motif was the female figure with dragonfly wings. He produced bracelets, necklaces, pendants and combs featuring dragonflies, peacocks, insects and snakes.
Lalique started his business in 1885, moving on in the 1920s to design the frosted glassware that is so redolent of the Art Deco period. He made his name as a jeweller of rare distinction, even designing Sarah Bernhardt’s costume pieces for the stage. Lalique’s jewels were easily wearable — none were rigid, and they were almost invisibly supple. His creations are soft against the skin, the backs — even when hidden from view against the body — as beautifully mastered as the front.
Where Sarah Bernhardt led, intellectual aristocrats and society women followed. They wore Lalique’s jewels with free-flowing velvets rather than the tight corsets, picture hats and hourglass silhouettes of their less avant-garde contemporaries. In 1900, the Paris Exposition would spread this new look to a wide international audience.
Art Nouveau has had more than one revival since the 1920s. The Surrealists, especially Salvador Dalí, loved Art Nouveau, and brought it back to life in the 1930s; another resurgence followed in the early 1970s. Now, it seems, we’re due for one more, as part of the newly modish natural aesthetic that looks so modern in our emerging post-minimalist world.