Recalling Art Nouveau: ‘It’s About Design’

Recalling Art Nouveau: ‘It’s About Design’

Beautiful women with long, flowing tresses; thickets of thistle and winding wisteria; elegant birds poised to take wing — they all sound so poetic. But form them into brooches, pendants and rings, and you have the beginnings of an iconic style.

Or so it was at the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris, when René Lalique displayed tiaras adorned with nudes and necklaces twined with serpents, all enhanced by colorful, iridescent enamels and small gems.

“It didn’t look like anything that came before it, or for that matter anything that came after it,” Elyse Zorn Karlin, co-director of the Association for the Study of Jewelry & Related Arts, wrote in an email. “It was sensual, exotic and arresting.”

A century later, Lalique is acclaimed by many as the forefather of modern jewelry because of the French designer’s daring break from the traditional reliance on large gemstones. And the work of some contemporaries, including Georges Fouquet and Philippe Wolfers, also continues to be celebrated.

In November at a Christie’s auction in Geneva, an enamel, diamond and pearl necklace by Lalique sold for $978,400, seven times its estimated price, a record for Art Nouveau jewelry and Lalique creations.

“We may value something at 120,000 euros, but when you look at the material it’s made of, it’s literally melted glass and a bit of gold with a value of about €20,000,” said Marie-Cécile Cisamolo, a Christie’s jewelry specialist. “It’s not like you say, ‘This is a diamond, I get it.’ It’s about design.”

But that, according to Patricia De Wit, co-owner of Epoque Fine Jewels in Brussels, is exactly the point.

“It’s all about aesthetics, no?” she said. “You feel you would love to wear it. It’s so feminine, and strengthens the beauty of a woman, when you wear something like this. It’s universal. They like it in Japan, they like in China, they like it in New York — it’s everywhere. It’s a pleasure for the eye.”

René Lalique

Image
René Lalique, a 1906 portrait.CreditHeritage Images/Getty Images

René Lalique and his contemporaries approached each piece as if it were a small artwork. Complex, sculptural settings with enamel details were more impressive and important than the stones — usually semiprecious opal, amethyst or tourmaline — that they used.

Created between 1899 and 1901, the Lalique necklace, above, depicts four gold-and-enamel wasps with diamond wings on a hawthorn branch of enamel and opalescent glass. There are leaves of plique-à-jour enamel, including two on the 20-inch chain, and a baroque pearl at the bottom. (The plique-à-jour technique, French for “letting in daylight,” uses no backing on elements so light can shine through.)

Philippe Wolfers

The plique-à-jour technique was used for the green leaves of the Glycine collar by Philippe Wolfers, perhaps the most important piece by the Belgian jeweler. It has wisteria blossoms of opal and watermelon tourmalines and curved branches set with tiny rubies.

Georges Fouquet and Alphonse Mucha

This gold, enamel and mother-of-pearl pendant is an example of the jewelry designed by the Czech painter Alphonse Mucha and made by the French jeweler Georges Fouquet during their partnership, from 1899 to 1901. It is part of the jewelry collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Mucha, whose work regularly featured feminine figures in lush settings, like the image above, often partnered with Fouquet on designs.

Art Nouveau Today

Celebrities often select Art Nouveau-style pieces, like this 19th-century laurel leaf headband in diamonds that Salma Hayek wore to the 2017 Oscars.

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