THE ARTISTRY OF ART NOUVEAU JEWELLERY

Chrysanthemum carved opal, enamel, diamond and baroque pearl brooch by Rene Lalique.  The highly stylised plant motif is typical of the period.

Fairy pendant by Henri Vever.  Note the slight asymmetry of the jewel so beloved by Art Nouveau designers.

Art Nouveau jewellery, like its stylistically opposed counterpart, Art Deco, refuses to go out of fashion and remains popular with collectors.  Last month, Christie’s held a sale dedicated exclusively to jewels from this decorative period which more than met expectations.  What is the enduring appeal of this short lived movement?

Art Nouveau arose around 1900 and sought to put all the arts on an equal footing with what were regarded as the higher arts: sculpture and painting.  It sought to liberate the arts from the usual, somewhat stifled historical references of the Victorian era and to elevate through intelligent design ordinary, everyday objects, and to bring these to the masses. This is the reason Art Nouveau is also known as a total art style, as it applies to everything.  This is also why it is more difficult to categorise the artists of the period as they were apt to put their hand to anything (although with varying degrees of success.  One of the greatest jewellers of the time, Rene Lalique, also became equally well known because of his glassware.

One of the greatest examples of this total art style is the Hotel Tassel in Brussels by the architect Victor Horta.  Everything in it, down to the last door handle has been designed to harmonise with the interior and exterior architecture.  It also uses an abundance of asymmetric, highly stylised plant motifs, a theme designers sought to make their own as they strove to break away from the constraints of the 19th century.

This preoccupation with the intrinsic whole is the main theme of Art Nouveau jewellery.  Designers were preoccupied with the harmonisation of the entire piece, how stones and techniques would fit in with each other to create a beautiful whole.  This is why the newly discovered Japanese arts were such a major influence, rendered effortlessly elegant by the sum of their materials and not the component parts.  Diamonds were used as decorative highlights, not as grand centrepieces.  Favoured stones included the full range of coloured semi precious gems such as amethysts, opals, citrines and freshwater pearls.  These were rendered even more vivid by the use of enamel- again a humble material elevated into an art form.

Abalone pearl and enamel fish brooch by Georges Fouquet.  Imperfectly shaped stones and humble materials such as enamel have been raised to masterpiece level.

A highly naturalistic iris brooch in purple sapphires, demantoid garnets and diamonds by Louis Comfort Tiffany.

In accordance with the principles of good design, the best Art Nouveau pieces were hand made by craftsmen with the deepest knowledge of the craft.  These craftsmen were highly preoccupied with how the pieces would sit on the wearer and their robustness combined with their suppleness is incredible.  However, this attention to detail made the jewels expensive and is one of the reasons for the downfall of the movement- it found itself unable to fulfil its commitment to democratisation.  Also, as it became more florid it was losing the essence of not using superfluous decoration.

Notable artist jewellers of the time include Henri Vever, who first exhibited in the new style at the Paris salon of 1900; Lucien Gaillard was a real innovator, recruiting Japanese craftsmen to come and work in his Paris atelier; Georges Fouquet, who worked closely with the modernist artist Alphonse Mucha over several decades; and the aforementioned Rene Lalique.

If you are thinking of investing in an Art Noveau piece, an absolute requirement for the piece is its condition: it must be perfect.  In spite of the cleverness involved in making them, many of the stones and materials used (such as opal and enamel) are fragile.  This must be checked.  A signature is also always preferable, and any supporting documents such as original sales invoices or working drawings are always a bonus.

The big jewellery houses also produced some fine examples of Art Noveau jewellery, the finest examples by far being by Tiffany.  The big Place Vendome names, in my view, fall slightly short of the great Art Nouveau designers.

JEWELLERY ARABIA 2017: AN INSIGHT

A typical display case at Jewellery Arabia, which this year was held in Bahrain on the 21st-26th November.

The 26th edition of Jewellery Arabia was held in the International Conference Centre of Bahrain from the 21st-26th November 2017.  This is the biggest jewellery show in the region, attracting over 50000 visitors from around the globe and is one of the very few that sells to the public as well as the trade.  Over 500 exhibitors took part, showcasing everything from loose gems to fantastic pieces of high jewellery.

There were prices for everyone too- with diamond set jewellery starting from as little as $100 to breathtaking unique pieces valued at several million.  The European jewellery contingent was well represented by big names such as Boucheron, Faberge and Boghossian.  The strongest representation of course was from the Middle East, with family owned Mattar Jewellers and Al Zain Jewellers nestling alongside independent Bahraini designers such as Azza Al Hujairi.  It was my first time exhibiting in the Middle East at the invitation of Azza.  The entire experience was a pleasure- the Barhainis simply could not have been kinder or more charming and there is a real sense of fellowship amongst the jewellery community there.  This is in marked contrast to London, where designers tend to be more reserved.

The economic climate was, however, challenging.  There were fewer big spenders from Saudi Arabi and those that showed spent cautiously.  This is no doubt a consequence of the anti corruption crackdown currently being conducted by the Saudi Crown Prince.  The sanctions against Qatar meant that they could not attend and there is general economic uncertainty created by the ongoing troubles in the Yemen.

None of this, however, deterred the exhibitors from putting on a magnificent display of colour and craftsmanship.  There were three designers in particular that caught my eye and my mentioning them is purely subjective- I just thought they had really lovely things. 

1.     Nikos Koulis

This was the Greek designer’s second showing at Jewellery Arabia.  His style struck me as very much neo Art Deco: beautiful, richly coloured stones with strong colour contrasts and clean lines. 

Emerald, diamond and black enamel earrings by Nikps Koulis.

Ruby, diamond and black enamel ring by Nikos Koulis.

2.     VAK Diamonds

This brand is the brainchild of Vishal Kathari, who is descended from a long line of jewellers.  I met Vishal at Baselworld earlier this year and was very much taken by the limpid, clear quality of his rose cut diamonds in their inventive light-as-a-feather settings.

Opal, diamond and pink sapphire ring by VAK diamonds.

Diamond jewellery by VAK in its signature light-as-a-feather setting.

3.     Mattar Jewelers

The pearl knowledge of this family is several generations old.  Of the current generation, four out of the five siblings are involved in the family business.  The eldest brother, Talal Mattar told me that he was encouraged to go and play with pearls in the family workshop from the age of 6- you cannot beat knowledge like this.  The sumptuousness and creaminess of their pearls is astonishing and cannot be captured in photographs.

Pearl and diamond tassel earrings by Mattar Jewelers.

Pearl necklace by Mattar Jewelers.  The quality of their pearls is impossible to convey photographically.

THE CASCADE OF DREAMS

The Cascade of Dreams jewel, debuted by Al Zain jewellers at Jewellery Arabia 2017 in Bahrain last month.

At a jewellery show like Jewellery Arabia, held annually at Bahrain’s International Exhibition Centre, it is always going to be tough to stand out amongst 500 plus exhibitors.  However, this feat was pulled off elegantly and effortlessly by Al Zain jewellers and their show stopping piece the ‘Cascade of Dreams’.

The top part of the jewel is detachable to be worn alone as a choker.

The piece- and it is far too elaborate to call it something so mundane as a necklace- encompasses the whole body, in front and behind.  The more elaborate festoons can be detached, allowing the neckpiece to be worn separately as a choker.  The ‘Cascade’ is a magnificent example of more is more, set with 1970 Bahraini pearls, 12826 diamonds and eight perfectly matched, large important Columbian emeralds.  It took a cool 2700 man hours to make.  I did not bother asking the price. 

Theo Swart, CEO of Al Zain, explained that the company wanted to create a piece that was unashamedly Middle Eastern, a celebration of all that Al Zain is well known for.  In spite of its size, the ‘Cascade’ is a beautifully balanced jewel of Islamic inspiration.  The use of pearls celebrates the gem for which the Kingdom is renown and the craftsmanship is the epitome of skill acquired by a house which has been operating for over 80 years.

Al Zain Jewellers was founded in 1930s by the late Hassan Al Zain, already a figure within the Kingdom’s pearl diving industry.  His son, Abdulla Al Zain joined the business not long after in one of those rather perfect family combinations of business savvy with jewellery expertise.  Their flagship store opened in the 1950s in Khobar and their expansion in the region continued in the coming decades.  The company continues to be very much a family affair, with each generation honing their particular skills and using them to continue the growth of the company.  Al Zain continues to celebrate pearls, the gem that allowed them to flourish, whilst embracing new techniques and innovative design.

A necklace from Al Zain's ArabDeco collection.

A pearl, emerald and diamond ring from Al Zain's pearl collection.

PRETTY RARE: CONCH PEARLS

A selection of conch pearls of various sizes, shapes and hues.

The shell of a queen mollusc, from which the conch pearl origanates.

As we have seen in previous posts, the market for natural gems is rising like never before.  Untreated precious stones are reaching record prices at auction and collectors are rediscovering the charm and marvel of gemstones previously considered a little obscure.  Riding high on the crest of this wave (pun intended) is the elusive conch pearl (pronounced conk).  Thanks to the creation of a cultured pearl market in the first half of the 20th century, pearl prices suffered a slump until the beginning of this one.  The destruction of pearls’ natural habitats, consumer uncertainty at not knowing where to safely deposit money and the rise of the millionaire class in the East have all contributed to the multiple price increase of natural pearls.

Conch pearl, rose gold and diamond bee ring by Cindy Chao.

Conch pearls are in a class of their own.  They are not ‘true’ pearls as generally thought of by the general public because they are not made of layers of nacreous material like ‘real’ pearls.  They do not come from oysters, but from the queen conch mollusc, which is a large, edible sea snail.  But they are formed in the same way as pearls: a foreign body lodges itself inside a mollusc, which then secretes a hard substance around it on order to reduce the irritation.  So technically they are pearls.  With conch pearls, however, the secretion around the irritant is non-nacreous, nacre being the substance that gives traditional pearls their characteristic lustre.  However, both are composed of calcium carbonate.  Hence conchs are included in the list of organic gems.

Why are they so highly prized? Only one answer: rarity.  And they are far rarer than natural pearls.  One single pearl is found in every 12000 shells; of these, only 10% are gem quality.  Conchs cannot be harvested- they can be found in almost any part of the queen conch snail, so it is not entirely understood how they are formed.  In contrast, cultured pearls have been refined to a fine art and the irritant is always inserted into the oyster in the same place in order to produce the pearl.  Pearls are also the only gem that nature produces that requires no further human treatment- no heat enhancement, cutting or polishing.