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  It sought to liberate the arts from the usual, somewhat stifled historical references of the Victorian era and to elevate through intelligent design ordinary, everyday objects, and to bring these to the masses.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


One of the very first jewels Anita received from her husband, a peacock comb by Mellerio.  The style is pure Art Nouveau.

The Kapurthala Tiara in emeralds and diamonds, by Cartier.  It was commissioned by the Maharaja in the early 1930s and is a triumph of the neo Indian jewels Cartier was creating for the Indian rulers at the time.

A long forgotten story was thrust into the spotlight again last year with the Victoria and Albert’s exhibition of Indian and Moghul jewellery in the Al Thani Collection.  This was the romantic, true tale of Anita Delgado, the humble Spanish dancer raised to the rank of maharani and showered with jewels, some of which later found their way into the Al Thani Collection, most of which have been lost forever.

Anita Delgado was a beautiful flamenco dancer, born in Malaga, Spain, in 1890.  Not much is known about her early childhood, other than her talent as a dancer and rudimentary upbringing.  In 1906, at the tender age of 16 she was seen dancing in a cafe in Madrid by Sir Jagatjit Singh, Maharaja of Kapurthala, one of the great princely states of India.  He was in Spain to attend the wedding of Alfonso XIII and Victoria Eugenia of Battenberg and he fell in love with Anita on sight.  After much protracted courting during which Anita rebuffed all advances, she agreed to marry him.  Spanish society was so appalled by this social mismatch that any signs of social climbing were met with derisory cries of ‘wanting to marry a maharaja’ for decades after.

Rock crystal and emerald necklace presented by the Maharaja of Kapurthala to his wife Anita in 1925. The cracks in the marriage were irreparable at the time this jewel was gifted, as they divorced the same year.

The magnificent and beautiful emerald that Anita Delgado was given by her husband, the Maharaja of Kapurthala, as a reward for learning Urdu. 

Anita was carried off to Paris where she was given, in modern terms, a makeover.  Not only was she taught how to eat, walk and talk but she was also showered in clothes and jewellery- and what jewels they were.  It was the start of a lifelong passion, one that she shared with her husband.  The jewels all reflect the changing tastes of the 20th century, starting with the naturalism of Art Nouveau, through the magnificent Belle Epoque and later, Art Deco.  The 1920s saw a period of great collaboration between the Indian princely families and the great European jewellery houses.  The maharajas had chests filled with ancestral stones, many of which were reset in bespoke creations in Europe in a style that successfully married the grand, Indian style with the clean, monochrome lines of Art Deco. 

Anita Delgado, Prem Kaur, Maharani of Kapurhtala wearing her famous moon shaped emerald.

Anita married the Maharaja of Kapurthala in a civil ceremony in Paris and became the Maharani when she married him again in India under Sikh rites, taking the name of Prem Kaur.  She was the maharaja’s fifth wife and it says a lot about her strength of character that she insisted on, and was given unheard of freedoms for a woman in India, being allowed to live in her own quarters outside the harem.  One of the many gems she set her cap at was a magnificent, unusual emerald cut in the shape of a crescent moon which decorated a sacred elephant.  Her husband granted it to her on condition that she learnt Urdu.  She was proficient enough to have her request fulfilled six months later.

Sadly the marriage did not bring either of them happiness and the princely couple parted ways, divorcing in 1925.  She was given a generous monthly stipend, allowed to keep all the jewels she had acquired during their marriage and allowed to keep her title, all on condition that she never remarried and never returned to India.  Anita spent the rest of her life between Malaga, Biarritz, Deauville and Paris, dying in relative obscurity in 1962.  A very considerable portion of her jewels and possessions were sunk in transport by shipping tank and the current maharaja’s family are still trying to recover them.


Meduse Lune brooch from the Atlantide Collection by Van Cleef and Arpels.  Executed in opals, diamonds and natural coloured pearls.

Peacock necklace by Boodles featuring an important black opal in the eye of the feather.

Beautiful, mysterious opals... these beautiful, very unique gems are top of the scale when it comes to superstitions associated with precious stones.  They are traditionally the birthstone for October and their multi colour light refracting properties have inspired devotion and irrational fear in equal measure through the ages. 

First, the science bit... Opal is formed by minute crystals of hydrated silica.  Silica gel fills crevices in rocks; the water then evaporates and leaves behind a crystal structure of miniscule silica spheres which diffract the light into many different colours.  This is why opals are always cut en cabochon, as it is the only cut which can fully show this rainbow display of light to its full advantage.  The orange variety of opal, called fire opal, is mainly orange and does not exhibit the play of colour of other opals, except with the occasional green flash, so I am sticking to the rainbow variety for this article.  Because of the way they are formed, they can contain up to 20% water.  I once saw a fascinating stone at a gem fair containing an unchrystalised bubble of water.

Experts consider black opals to be the finest- against the dark background, the play of colour is much more prominent and therefore a more opaque stone is more highly prized.  With white opals, more transparency adds more value, as the rainbow effect through the translucence of the stone renders the gem almost dreamlike.  As with other gemstones, good quality ones should be blemish and inclusion free and show no sign of the host material.  Exceptional stones should also be symmetrically cut.  The finest stones in the world famously originate from Australia, which produces some 95% of the world’s gem quality opals.  If you are considering buying one, beware of doublets or triplets: this is where a very thin slice of the gem has been backed with something more commonplace and sometimes topped with clear varnish.  It is easy to observe just by turning the stone sideways and seeing the layers.  Opals are also quite fragile.  On the Moh’s scale, they only measure 5-6.5 hardness, the same as emerald.  This fissile quality has done little to dispel the unlucky reputation around them.

Beware of doublets when buying opals.  The backing material underneath the natural stone can clearly be seen here. 

Beware of doublets when buying opals.  The backing material underneath the natural stone can clearly be seen here. 

A very fine uncut specimen of white opal.  Note how the translucence adds beauty to the material.

 A masterful use of cut opal in an Art Nouveau jewel by Henry Vever.

This brings us to the superstition bit... the Romans prized opal above all precious stones as they contain all the colours of the rainbow.  This reverence remained through to the Middle Ages and beyond, as opals were believed to convey the properties of all the stones whose colour was represented in the opaline spectrum.  The unlucky bit came in the Victorian era and was entirely due to Walter Scott’s novel ‘Anne of Geierstein’ in which the gem plays a sinister part.  Opal sales dropped 50% in the year after its publication and remained low for some time after that.

They had a major resurgence in the 1890s with the coming of Art Nouveau.  The movement appreciated materials for their artistic rather than intrinsic value.  Artist jewellers such as Henry Vever and René Lalique were highly preoccupied with rendering nature with their pieces and opal’s translucence and play of light were ideal in the representation of gossamer like insect wings, feathers, water patterns and flower petals.  In conjunction with the opalescent qualities of enamel, moonstone and labradorite it was a winning combination and a refreshing antidote to the platinum and diamonds of the Garland Style of the Belle Epoque.

Opals fell out of favour again, but with the resurgence the new naturalistic movement in jewellery in the last 10 years, they have found favour with established maisons and artist jewellers alike.  Boodles produced a stunning peacock feather necklace recently with an important black opal set in the eye of the feather and Van Cleef and Arpels used them extensively in their Atlantide collection; Wallace Chan finds them the perfect material for some of his more dreamlike creations.  I hope that their new found popularity goes a long way in dispelling the unfair reputation of this misunderstood stone.

The gold and opal cobra bracelet made for by Fouquet for the Belle Epoque actress Sarah Bernhardt in her role as Cleopatra.