Contemporaneous with the “Belle Époque,” or “beautiful era” in France at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, the Art Nouveau movement was one of the first departures from classical art and design, towards a new modernism. Influenced by the work of English illustrator Aubrey Beardsley and the architectural work of Antoni Gaudí among others, Art Nouveau designers believed that all the arts should work in harmony to create a “total work of art,” or Gesamtkunstwerk: buildings, furniture, textiles, clothes, and jewellery all went together to make up the Art Nouveau style.
Exotic floral motifs with animals, birds, butterflies, peacock feathers, insects, and plants were incorporated with feminine imagery or fairies, mermaids and nymphs, complete with long flowing sinuous hair. Some of the floral motifs that were used in the Art Nouveau style were influenced by the English artist William Morris’ ‘Arts and Crafts Movement’ of the late Victorian era.
Jewellery of the Art Nouveau period with nature and feminine fluidity as their principal source of inspiration, revitalised the ‘art’ of jewellery, they were complemented by new levels of technical accomplishment in techniques such as enamelling, and the introduction of new materials, such as opals and semi-precious stones, wonderfully demonstrated in the work of René Lalique who was synonymous with the Art Nouveau aesthetic.
Although a short period of no more than 20 years, Art Nouveau is considered by many to be one of the most important styles. For the previous two centuries the emphasis in fine jewellery had been on gemstones, particularly diamonds, and the jeweller or goldsmith’s main aim was to provide settings to best show them off. In the jewellery of the Art Nouveau period, imagination, design, art and beauty were at the forefront, resulting in original distinctive work which invokes the era, even now.
Employing what was to become known as the “garland” style, jewellers who chose not to embrace Art Nouveau borrowed the fluidity of their lines and incorporated them into more traditional motifs thereby creating Edwardian jewellery.
WW1 hearelded the end of the Art Nouveau movement – the world was a different place. The elegance and sensuality of the Art Nouveau style was replaced by more rational minimalist styles such as Art Deco.