In attempt to capture the soul of movement, Art Nouveau jewelry embodies the ‘veiled essence’ of nature, not the copy of its forms. The muse of the era as well as a celebrity art patroness, famous American actress Sarah Bernhardt, had a tremendous influence over popularization and shaping of society’s perception of Art Nouveau designs. Her famous collaborations with Rene Lalique and Alphonse Mucha have literally defined the taste for decorative arts at the turn of the century.
Heavily influenced by Japanese fine and decorative art, Art Nouveau designs evoke romance with its soft curves, sensuality and emphasis on motion. Free-floating natural forms - plants, insects, birds, and whimsical nymphs - were one of the most popular motifs. As part of the Belle Époque, a period of wealth and a flourishing art scene, Art Nouveau (1890-1914) jewelers seized the opportunity to experiment with new techniques and materials.
Exquisite craftsmanship was a distinct characteristic of this jewelry. Breaking with tradition, the pioneer jewelers put an emphasis on stone settings, rather than the gemstone itself. Jewelers focused on skillful surface decoration, casting and carving gold as well as employing beautiful enameling techniques.
Plique-à-jour, the most frequently used enameling technique of that time, allows light to come through the back of the enamel, which creates a three-dimensional, translucent quality. An extremely time-consuming and difficult task, only highly skilled jewelers could master it. Because such meticulous attention to detail was given to these pieces, the backs and other unseen parts were just as beautiful as the front.
Nowadays Art Nouveau jewelry collectors are seek after the pieces of such famous Art Nouveau enamelists as George Fouquet, a famous French jeweler, who is well-known for his mesmerizing enamel pieces and collaborations with Alphonse Mucha, and Lluis Masriera, a jeweler from Barcelona, Spain, who created plique-à-jour enamel pieces influenced by Gothic aesthetics and referring back to the medieval times.
As a result of this new focus on craftsmanship, unusual materials such as glass, ivory, and tortoise shell were used alongside gems like amethyst, amber, peridot, opal, and pearls. Diamonds were more commonly used as accent stones, rather than the focal point.
Art Nouveau jewelry is treasured for its originality and beautiful design, more so than the value of the raw materials they contained. Handcrafted artistry defined this period above all else, which challenged the collective notions of what determines value. The amount of care and attention poured into these designs only enhances their sense of romance.