Posts tagged jewellery by lalique

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  It sought to liberate the arts from the usual, somewhat stifled historical references of the Victorian era and to elevate through intelligent design ordinary, everyday objects, and to bring these to the masses.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

The Art of the Gouache

In the last 20 years, jewellery has experienced an explosion of creativity and innovation not seen since the heady days of the Belle Epoque, when new diamond cutting techniques and the innovative use of platinum for setting raised the look of jewels to heights of dazzle and delicacy never seen before.

An important emerald, turquoise, sapphire and diamond necklace by Van Cleef and Arpels pictured next to its working gouache.

The three main reasons for this have been the great strides made in manufacturing technology, the enormous increase in interest in unusual coloured stones and a surge in demand for bespoke pieces.  This has allowed a new generation of designers, or artist jewellers, to proliferate.  In a world where so much is mass produced and computer generated the jewellers’ gouache is increasingly becoming viewed as an art form in itself.

The gouache is the final design the jeweller draws up in order to give their client the most faithful possible representation of the piece they are commissioning and is the document the workshop will work from in order to create the piece.  It is not supposed to be a painting or a picture; in many jewellery circles it is also known as a render, a term which embodies the sense of accuracy the design is trying to convey.

Pink sapphire and diamond earrings in rose gold by Luis Miguel Howard pictured with the working drawing.

The process of creating one is quite straightforward, but it is time consuming and requires some skill. Most are painted on vellum, tracing paper or coloured Ingres paper.  Shadows are painted in Chinese ink, metal and stones in washes of gouache of varying intensities, often leaving areas unpainted to give a sense of lightness and delicacy.  Most jewellery houses keep impeccable archives and their head offices are usually filled with albums of painstakingly rendered jewellery.  Sadly, with the advance of jewellery rendering software the art of the gouache is declining.  This seems to be the case in every field: a well known architect recently commented to me that mine would be the last generation ever to render designs this way and that the new intake of architects in his firm could not even draw, being totally reliant on computer software.  However, some jewellery houses, such as Van Cleef and Arpels and Boucheron insist on doing it the old fashioned way.  In the same way they would never machine set precious stones (and believe me, no one would ever know) they would never stop rendering their jewellery- it would represent a decline in standards.  The same ideal applies to some artist jewellers who insist in working this way.

Working drawing by Bolin for an important emerald and diamond 'devant de corsage' recently exhibited at the Sotheby's 'Jewellery Drawings' exhibition.

The presentation of a gouache to a client who is commissioning a jewel also creates a special bond with the piece they are paying the jeweller to bring to life as it is so much more personal and less mechanical than a computer model on a screen.  Certainly the resale value of a signed jewel accompanied by the original working drawing is much higher- it can up add up to 20% to the hammer price at auction.  Jewellery designs by some of the great masters, especially uncommercial artist jewellers such as Rene Lalique often change hands for as much as £1500 each.  Sotheby’s last week closed an exhibition starring the jewellery drawings in the archives of Cartier, Van Cleef and Bolin.  The gouaches in their collections have only recently started being celebrated as works in their own right- my own workshop once told me how in the late 80s they often used to see discarded drawings in the dustbins of Cartier’s London headquarters.

As technology marches onward ever more relentlessly, the charm of things imbued with uniqueness, personality, and most importantly, a little humanity, will continue to grow and claim special places in the lives of discerning buyers.