A Short History of Twentieth Century Jewellery

During the Twentieth Century, there has been a fundamental change in attitude towards in terms both of its design and its function. This century has become a period of revolution in jewellery design, and the history of how jewellery has changed reflects much of the social history of our times.

Art Nouveau 1875-1919
Art Nouveau literally means new art, a complex and innovative European artistic and design style of the last two decades of the 1800s and the first decade of the 1900s. It found expression in a wide range of art forms— architecture, interior design, furniture, posters, glass, pottery, textiles, and book illustration—and was characterized by its devotion to curving and undulating lines, often referred to as whiplash lines. Art Nouveau formed the bridge between the 19 and the 20th century. The term Art Nouveau is derived from La Maison de l'Art Nouveau, a shop opened by the dealer Siegfried Bing in Paris in 1896.

One of the major influences on Art Nouveau was the Symbolist Movement, which began in the 1880s. Imagery adopted by this group combined religious mysticism with eroticism. Art Nouveau combined inspiration from this source with some of the elements of Arts and Crafts philosophy; it is also highly varied and asymmetrical which reflected the political unease of the period. Art Nouveau, traces of which are discernible in the art of the Pre-Raphaelites and even in that of the 18th-century visionary poet William Blake. Art Nouveau concentrated on the treatment of surface decoration. It is also characterised by long curving lines based on sinuous plant forms, and an element of fantasy. It was primarily a decorative style and as such was used particularly effectively in metalwork, jewellery, and glassware, and in book illustration, where the influence of Japanese prints is often evident. Another ubiquitous presence is the femme fatale – the seductive nymph of Pre-Raphaelite paintings.

Two of the leading exponents of Art Nouveau were Louis Comfort Tiffany, whose shimmering Favrile-glass vases and stained-glass lampshades were fantasies of iridescence, and René Lalique (1860-1945) who was a French jeweller and glassmaker. He became a designer of jewellery for firms such as Boucheron, Vever, and Cartier, Breaking free from historical styles; he based his designs on plant, bird, and insect forms. Emphasizing design rather than the costliness of material, he used enamel, ivory, glass, and horn as often as semiprecious stones and gems. His work had a profound effect throughout Europe.

Art Nouveau in Britain
Jewellery in Britain at the turn of the century differed from the French because it was more backward looking and still owed much to the Arts and Crafts movement. The British decorative motifs featured primeval figures and floral tributes combined with interlace patterns of Celtic origin. These pieces were made in finely crafted silver enriched with polished stones and enamels. They took the form of belt or waste buckles, clasps, hatpins and pendants, reminiscent of the trappings of civic functions. Designers included Archibald Knox, Oliver Baker, Jessie King, Kate Fischer and John Paul Copper. Liberty employed many of these, a shop established in 1875 specialising in Oriental goods from the East Indies and Japan.

Other British jewellery designers of the time included Sybil Dunlop, Arthur and Georgina Gaskin, Henry Wilson, Harold Stabler and Omar Ramsden. Their work drew inspiration from the religious iconography of the Renaissance, from Medievelism and Scandinavian folk art.

Probably the most significant contribution to British Art Nouveau was the work produced by the Glasgow School of Art, led by the Architect and designer, Charles Rennie Mackintosh. He incorporated the essence of Art Nouveau’s curvilinear forms with traditional Celtic motifs.

America and Tiffany
Until the first decade of the twentieth century, most American jewellery was imported from European collections. The first large-scale production began at the turn of the century when corporations such as Gorham, Rhode Island, and Krementz, New Jersey began to manufacture Gallic imitations. The most outstanding and prestigious jewellery establishment at that time was Tiffany and Co. This company was founded in 1834 under the directorship of Louis Comfort Tiffany, a painter who studied in Paris. The company became involved in all branches of the decorative arts, including wrought iron and stained glass. In 1902, Tiffany opened an art jewellery department, which concentrated on the sort of Byzantine and Oriental pieces being promoted by its English counterpart, Liberty and Co. This was unusual at that time in America, where most jewellery designs were based on Gallic Art Nouveau. Tiffany began to experiment with new combinations of colours and materials and was the first to make jewellery out of lava glass. Other important names in the field included George Fourquet who commissioned Alphonse Mucha, a Czech painter and graphic artist, to design more jewellery for Bernhardt. Lucien Gaillard, Eugène Feuillârte, Henri, and Paul Vever of Le Maison Vever were other major figures of the time, as was Edward Colonna.

Art Nouveau was a pivotal development in the history of art, particularly in architecture. By rejecting conventional style and redefining the relationship of art to industry, its practitioners helped prepare the way for the advent of modern art and architecture.

"Jugendstijl" in Germany
In Germany the equivalent of Art Nouveau was known as Jugendstijl, this became a major influence on the decorative arts by 1900. In 1907, the Deutscher Warbund was formed to promote an alliance between art and industry. It was a teaching institution started by van der Velde and Hermann Muthesius, partly inspired by British design developments. Its influence is particularly evident in the mass produced jewellery designs of the company of Theodor Farhnar in Pforzhiem, which was the centre of the German jewellery industry between 1900 and 1930.
Austria and the Werner Werkstätte

Josef Hoffman and key members of the group led the search for a new style at the beginning of the century. The Werner Werkstätte was established 1897. The main objective of this group of Viennese artists and designers was to improve the status of the decorative arts. They sought to move away from the dogma of mass production extolled by German theorists and American industrialists. These principles were closely allied to the British Arts and Crafts, and their designs had their stylistic roots in German Jugendstijl and French Art Nouveau.

Folk art in Scandinavia
The Nordic countries of Sweden, Denmark, Finland and Norway drew on the idealised democratic principles of craft production, searching for an aesthetic formula that was in keeping with their cultural traditions. Nevertheless, they recognised the need to invite industrial sponsorship, not only to maintain links with the market place, but also to provide financial support for the designers. Some of the best examples of this period include the work of the Danish silversmith, Georg Jensen.

The Tiffany Studios, New York: The American Arts and Crafts Movement
Tiffany & Co. produced a prolific amount of jewellery from the latter half of the 19th century, first inspired both by British Arts and Crafts and later by Continental Art Nouveau in the first decade of the Twentieth Century. He manufactured luxurious Byzantine inspired wares, utilising materials such as opals and amethysts reminiscent the jewellery at Liberty and Co. in England.

During this period, the Craftsman Magazine extolled the virtues of simplicity and practicality. These beliefs were to influence the work of another artist jeweller, Madeline Yale Wynn, who explored the artistic nature of different non-precious metals such as copper, pebbles and rock crystals, rather than the more usual preoccupations with the precious and semi precious metals and stones. This proved to be a much more enduring influence on future design that the Tiffany Studios. Other American craftsmen who practised within the Arts and Crafts arena included the silversmiths, Clemens Friedell, Janet Payne Bowles and Mildred Watkins, and the jewellers, Brainerd Bliss Thresher, Josephine Hartwell and Florence D. Koehler.

Charles Ashbee and the Guild of Handicraft
Charles Ashbee established the Guild of Handicraft in 1888 in order to develop techniques and aesthetics in jewellery, as well as in furniture and metalwork. Ashbee was one of the first designers in the Arts and Crafts Movement to experiment with jewellery. He produced a range of items at the Guild of Handicrafts, including brooches and belt buckles. Fine craftsmanship and ideologies of the medieval period inspired their work. It was essentially a reaction to the shoddy machine made goods that had been created by industrialisation in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Art Deco: 1920 - 1930
The economic and social pressures that immediately followed the First World War brought with them a new mood for a clean and rigorous clean cut look.

It was an innovative design style popular in the 1920s and 1930s. Its sleek, streamlined forms conveyed elegance and sophistication. It was the age of the Flapper, the Jazz and the Machine Age. Materials used ranged from rubies, gold, pearls to plastic, chrome and steel. Platinum was the new luxury metal used with opaque stones like coral, jade, onyx and lapis lazuli. Costume jewellery became even more popular and outrageous. Trend setting couturiers were Coco Chanel and Elsa Schiapelli. Influences were Pharaonic Egypt, the Orient, tribal Africa, Cubism, Futurism, machines and graphic design. However, jewellery of the 1920’s and 30’s was in thrall to geometry, circles, arcs, squares, rectangles and triangles and so on. René Lalique, who created glass jewellery in the 1920’s and 30’s, moulded some of his pendants with romantic women; stylised African head formed by Chanel and others.


  • 24-4-2008

Comments (1)

Said this on 8-2-2009 At 04:20 am
Strange that the Austrian jewellers have names almost exactly the same as Australian jewellers. Perhaps we should claim Gustav Klimt as a great Australian painter.

New comments are currently disabled.

Was it of interest?  Why not share it with others!