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Beginning in the later years of Queen Victoria’s rule, and carrying on well into the 20th century, the name of the movement ‘Art Nouveau’ comes from ‘Maison de l’Art Nouveau’, a shop in Paris that displayed art of this design. The words ‘Art Nouveau’ are French and simply mean ‘New Art’.Although the movement as a whole lasted about 35 years, the period in which jewellery was created in this style was much shorter lived; only lasting about fifteen years. However, its influence is not to be underestimated as it has gone on to inspire many styles for years after its original popularity decreased.
Art Nouveau was groundbreaking. It marked a time where designers would start looking at the world around them, taking stimuli from the natural world, rather than looking into history for inspiration. The style was a reaction to mass produced jewellery, popular towards the end of the Victorian period. The jewellery was bold, expressive, exotic and exuberant.
When the first few examples of ‘Art Nouveau’ were showcased in Paris, there was outrage. It represented a radical change, and was different to anything most people had ever seen. Viewers either loved it or despised it. The ‘rebellion’ was said to have freed a creative energy that had been suppressed for so long.
Art Nouveau incorporated highly stylised designs with flowing, elongated, curving lines. Inspiration came from a wide spectrum, often from nature: ferns, roots, buds, spiders and dragonflies. Snakes became an unlikely popular symbol of life, sexuality and eternity. Unusual designs based on flowers and plants that had not been used before in jewellery were experimented with. Peacocks, and particularly their feathers, became fashionable and were featured in all types of jewellery.
Art Nouveau also used the female form in all its glory, proudly displaying it on necklaces and earrings. The women would have long flowing hair, celebrating the natural woman and her new place in society.
One of the defining techniques of the Art Nouveau period was enamelling. It was used to create patterns or pictures on the desired object, by fusing powdered glass to the surface. The most popular type of enamelling used was known as “Plique a’jour”, which gave an effect that has been likened to stained glass. Plique a’jour gave the jewellery a distinct, almost three-dimensional effect, which was unique to the time. It was notoriously hard to do, and was a sign of the artist’s skill. Other types of enamelling were ‘basse-taille’ and ‘guilloche.’
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