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 It sought to liberate the arts from the usual, somewhat stifled historical references of the Victorian era and to elevate through intelligent design ordinary, everyday objects, and to bring these to the masses.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.
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.