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Art Nouveau versus Arts & Crafts Jewelry

Art Nouveau versus Arts & Crafts Jewelry – The Journal of Antiques and Collectibles – October 2004

by Elyse Zorn Karlin

We usually hear about the Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau movements in the decorative arts as two distinctly separate design movements, which occurred at approximately the same time. (The Arts and Crafts movement began somewhat earlier than Art Nouveau in areas such as furniture and textiles, but about the same time in jewelry, approximately 1890.)

In fact, there were new art movements at the turn-of-the-century in many countries around the world that were related to both of these movements. In my opinion Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau are simply different expressions of an international new “art” movement. Most of the artisans in other countries involved in the new art movement either worked in a style influenced by Arts and Crafts or Art Nouveau, or combined elements of both with their own national design references added into the mix. These movements, expressed in jewelry, took place in many countries including England, France, Belgium, Ireland, Scotland, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Germany, Austria, Italy, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and the United States. There were also art jewelry movements in Russia, Latvia, Finland, Switzerland, Australia, Israel, South America and the Caribbean. For purposes of this article, I will focus on the countries from which the jewelry is best known – the Arts and Crafts movement in the United States and England, and that of the Art Nouveau movement in France and Belgium. The more research I do on Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau jewelry, the harder I find it is to keep them separate. I often come across a piece of jewelry that I feel is mislabeled, or a piece which I would be hard pressed to put into either category, yet I know is “of the period.” It is important to know that art jewelry from the turn of the century does not always fall neatly into the category of Art Nouveau or Arts and Crafts. (Keep in mind that the more mainstream styles of Late Victorian and Edwardian jewelry were in fashion at the same time as well.)

There are a number of reasons that make choosing a category in which to place a piece of jewelry difficult:

First, because movements overlapped. For example, German jewelers were strongly influenced by both English Arts and Crafts and French and Belgian Art Nouveau. But the confusion is not just between these two movements. You can also find pieces of jewelry that have a hint of Art Nouveau, but are Edwardian in nature, or those that are rooted in this early craft movement style, yet hint at the coming of Art Deco.

Second, because people traveled – for example, we have records that tell us that important English Arts and Crafts designers visited the U.S., France and Germany and vice-versa; we know that France’s René Lalique had an exhibit in London and that Danish jeweler Georg Jensen studied in Paris. In addition, there were several important art magazines, most notable The Studio, that disseminated design ideas. These magazines were read in many countries including the United States.

Third, because identification is further complicated by the broad range of styles of individual designers within each movement. Within both the Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau movements you will find examples of jewels that range from relatively conservative to completely “over the top,” those that are simple and those of complicated fabrication.

You will also find examples of jewelry made by individual jewelers, established jewelry firms and those that were mass-produced. You will have to distinguish between jewelry made by artist/jewelers and that made by amateurs. You will find signed and unsigned pieces. In addition, in the U.S. because it is such a large country, there were regional differences as well.

Fourth, complicating this identification process is the fact that Arts and Crafts was more of a philosophy than a design style – whereas the overall look of Art Nouveau jewelry was based on a fairly recognizable set of subjects and methods of execution, and is therefore, easier to identify than Arts and Crafts pieces.

In order to place the elements of the Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau movements in context for comparison and contrast, I am going to discuss a number of key points, which affected both movements. There are additional underlying influences beyond the scope of this brief article you may wish to consider through further reading and research.


Nationalism was the driving force behind every art jewelry movement which took place at the turn of the century. However, this meant different things in different countries.

In Belgium, Art Nouveau took hold in jewelry, architecture and the other decorative arts, because there was a need for a design style that should help unify the country. The Belgian Kingdom was first formed in 1831, at the end of the Napoleonic era. But the country, under the regent Leopold of Saxe-Coburg, was still made up of two distinct regions. Although politically allied under a new constitution, those living in the former provinces of Wallonia were of French background and spoke French, while those living in the region of Flanders spoke Flemish. At the same time there was a political climate which would lead to reform. From the 1840s the Belgian political scene was first dominated by the liberals and then by Catholic conservatives. The embers of political discontent were always lying close beneath the surface and were fanned by the extreme restrictions on voting. In 1886, uprisings took place in Liege and several other cities which led to universal male suffrage in 1893. Up until that time out of a population of 6,500,000 people only about 137,000 had been allowed to vote. (Women did not get the vote in Belgium until 1948).

In France there were several issues that come into play which would contribute to the creation of the Art Nouveau style. France was just coming to grips with its decreasing status as a world power. It had lost the Franco-Prussian War. There were two scandals that rocked the country – one to do with the Panama Canal, which revealed widespread corruption in the government, and the other, the Dreyfus affair which divided the country and created a feeling of anti-Semitism. There had also been a long struggle with the domination of the Catholic Church in France, which was finally resolved in 1905, when the Church and state were separated.

Because of all these negative events, there was a longing for the past when France was in her most glorious period – the 18th century. As part of that longing for the past, the government undertook an important series of 18th century building reconstruction projects after 1880. This included renovations at Versailles, and the reconstruction of the original Rococo core of the National Library. Eighteenth century furniture and decorative items were given their own section in the Louvre for the first time.

When we look at the curved and sinuous lines of the 18th century movement in architecture and objects for the interior known as Rococo, we begin to see the relationship of the Art Nouveau style in jewelry and the other decorative arts to it. Art Nouveau, is in a way, a revival of the Rococo taken to greater extremes.

Author Stephen Escritt says, “Art Nouveau shared with the Rococo style of the 18th century a fascination for nature, fantasy, and the exotic East, and decorative vocabulary that included stylized organic forms. Like Art Nouveau, its hallmarks in the decorative arts were asymmetry and fantasy, and in the mid-18th century, when Paris was the undisputed fount of fashionability in the arts, it stood for the cultural supremacy of France.”

In addition, there was a prolific amount of literature being produced in the 1890s about the 18th century. One book we should take note of is, Les Femmes de Versailles which glorified the 18th-century women who had lived in that palace (and adorned themselves with beautiful jewelry). The author, Pierre de Nolhac writes, “The women of Versailles – therein lies the soul of France during the times of our true sovereignty over the world. Over this society ruled, not the Christian kings, but women … They are all beauty and grace.”

Perhaps the most significant fact is that when the industrial revolution began in the mid 19th century. France was the second largest force among manufacturing countries. Toward the close of the century it had fallen to fourth position behind the U.S., England and the leader Germany. This made the French government rather nervous because, not only was Germany an economic force to be reckoned with, but the German birth rate had been climbing while the French birth rate was in decline making Germany a bigger threat by virtue of its population size and ability to wage war. In reaction to the economic threat, the French government made a conscious decision to try to elevate the country’s status in the world by supporting its craft artisans. If France could not dominate in the manufacturing arena, the government reasoned that it could at least regain France’s reputation as being the producer of premiere luxury goods, including jewelry, which were uniquely French. This is important to understand, because it is the reason that Art Nouveau in France was a movement designed for a wealthy, elite clientele, while the Arts and Crafts movement which was started by socialist William Morris in England, and later appearing in the United States, was aimed at the common people – an important difference between the two movements. In Belgium, the new art movement looked like French Art Nouveau, but was promoted with the Arts and Crafts ideal – to bring good design to all of the people. In Belgium, as in England, the melding of beauty and utility was seen as an indictment of the capitalist system and as a means to promote social reform.

The French government supported the crafts in a number of ways in the 1890s. It provided patronage for innovative artists including the jeweler Louis Falize; it opened the renovated museum, the Musée de Luxembourg, designed specifically to house works of art in all media for the first time; it participated in the Congress of the Decorative Arts held in Paris in 1894; and issued newly designed coins in 1895 designed by prominent craftsmen. The government cooperated with the Japanese government to promote Japanese applied crafts in France and commissioned official advisors, such as Siegfried Bing, an important dealer in Japanese art, to study non-French attempts at craft revival.

In addition, government officials worked closely with the Central Union of Decorative Arts, an organization of manufacturers and artists which had been formed in the 1860s.
In England design reform was more about national pride than economics. At the Crystal Palace Exhibition of 1851, critics noted how poorly designed English goods had become since the introduction of mass-production. John Ruskin, a noted art critic, and designer William Morris led the movement to return design and craftsmanship to a time when an artist was a master of his own fate, not merely someone standing on an assembly line.

Morris’ goal was to bring good design to everyday things for ordinary people and to elevate the decorative arts to the status of fine arts. He and John Ruskin also looked back to England’s Medieval roots, prompted by the designs of architect A.W.N. Pugin which had caused a mid-century Gothic Revival in England. While the French approach to change emphasized luxury, elegance, refinement and private patronage, the Arts and Crafts movement, in keeping with the concept of Gothic Revival, advocated using materials that were appropriate to their function, honesty of construction and the organization of craft workers’ guilds together with the democratic idea of “art for all.” Arts and Crafts jewelry reflected all of these concepts.

As previously mentioned, the United States had moved into the role of being a major manufacturing force after the American Civil War. The Arts and Crafts movement in America, which included many important jewelers, was partly a reaction against mass production as in England, but it was also a desire on the part of craftsmen to find an American style which had not yet been clearly defined in the young country.

With the coming of the end of the 19th century, there was a feeling of nostalgia for the past in all countries. In France artists looked back to the 18th century which resulted in the Rococo style evolving into the curled and sinuous lines found in Art Nouveau jewelry. In England, Arts and Crafts artisans emulated the work of the Renaissance by having one worker execute all aspects of a piece of jewelry and by styling jewelry after the Pre-Raphaelites, and in the United States many arts and crafts designers looked to their colonial past by creating simple hand-made pieces of jewelry.

The Symbolist Movement

The Symbolist movement is historically cited as one of the most important influences on the Art Nouveau style. Symbolism was a movement that began with literature and expanded to include fine art and to a certain extent music. It had adherents, not only in France and Belgium, but in many countries in Europe and Scandinavia and to a limited extent in the U.S., although Paris was its center. The movement has been described by art historian Edward Lucie-Smith as follows:

“Symbolists used deliberate ambiguity; hermeticism (the occult), the feeling for the symbol as a catalyst (something which, while itself remaining unchanged, generates a reaction to the psyche); the notion that art exists alongside the real world rather than in the midst of it, and the preference for synthesis as opposed to analysis.”

This sounds rather complicated, and in fact reading a symbolist work or looking at a symbolist painting and discerning its true meaning is difficult. Simply defined, it means that ideas are represented by symbols. What the symbolist writers and artists had in common was the fact that, by means of words, forms and colors, they were attempting to deliver their own personal message about spiritual, moral, religious and political matters.
It would be tempting to suggest that the iconography found in Art Nouveau jewelry is wholly symbolist in nature and veiled with heavy meaning and mystery depicted in an obscure manner much like symbolist paintings (often the meaning was apparent only to the painter and those closest to him). However, according to author Klaus Jergen-Sembach, author of the book Art Nouveau, the link between painting and Art Nouveau has always been controversial.

He says that, “To ascribe, entirely, or in part, the work of Henri Toulouse Lautrec, Jan de Toorop, Edvard Munch, Gustav Klimt (all Symbolist painters) and others to Art Nouveau, involves narrowing a concept which is too complex to be reduced to a simple handling of line. There were often symbolist features in the subject matter of a painting which happened to be expressed in a form similar to Art Nouveau … motivation is bound to be different when applied to an ornament, a chair or a house (or jewelry), when relating to pictorial composition.”

Therefore, we should be careful how we view the influence of symbolism on Art Nouveau jewelry. I don’t believe that when Art Nouveau jewelers depicted subjects in the strange and beautiful way that they did, that their creative intent was to represent subjects that only the jeweler, himself, would understand. It was the “spirit” of symbolism – the use of a symbol to represent an idea that Art Nouveau period jewelers took from the Symbolists. Those jewelers who worked in this style used a group of specific icons which we see over and over again in Art Nouveau jewelry, thereby making their meaning recognizable – various aspects of nature, women with flowing hair wearing gossamer garments, and the process of metamorphosis or change appear most frequently. I think it is as likely that the creations of Art Nouveau movement jewelers were also based on several themes which I will discuss in this article that had origins in something other than the Symbolist Movement.

However, the influence the Symbolist painters did have on the decorative arts in France was not unique. There is a correlation in the Arts and Crafts movement. The paintings of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood are inextricably linked with the roots of the Arts and Crafts movement. William Morris, who is considered the “father” of the Arts and Crafts movement, was a part of the social circle of the painters of the Brotherhood. He had special relationships with Edward Burne-Jones and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, with whom he shared a common interest in Medieval times. The paintings of the Brotherhood are today considered by most art historians to fall within the symbolist genre. There are many pieces of Arts and Crafts jewelry to be found which feature Limoges-style enamel portraits in this Pre-Raphaelite style.

Japanese Art

Japanese art was an important influence on both the Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau movements although in each it was expressed somewhat differently in jewelry. Japan had been closed to trade with the West for several hundred years when Admiral Peary of the U.S. visited there in 1854, and opened trade once again. “All things Oriental” became the “rage” during the Aesthetic Period of the 1860s and 1870s, pre-dating the Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau movements, but continuing during them. Jewelry with Japanese themes and worked in Japanese metal techniques made in the mid Victorian period is today quite popular with collectors and was made in France, England, the United States, and other countries. Aesthetes like English writer Oscar Wilde turned to Japanese art for inspiration and their homes were decorated with Oriental art. In Paris, the firm Maison Bing was established to import and sell Oriental goods. In London, Liberty & Co. did the same. In the United States, Tiffany & Co. also began to offer Oriental products. This tremendous interest continued through the end of the century and was a factor in the new art jewelry movements, as well. Maison Bing in 1895, became the Gallery L’Art Nouveau and sold jewelry in the Art Nouveau style and Liberty & Co. developed its own line of Arts and Crafts style jewelry. Louis Comfort Tiffany took over the jewelry department at Tiffany & Co.

In France, the interest of the Central Union of Decorative Arts in Japanese organic arts became part of the French Rococo revival promoted in the Union’s Journal and its shows. In the early 1880s, Union members believed that the forms of nature in Japanese art should be emulated and could be liberating if they were reinterpreted and adapted by French artists in their own national style. In its Exhibition of Japanese Engraving in 1890, which was held at the Ecole Nationale des Beaux – Arts in Paris, this idea was reinforced and received official government support.

To see how the Japanese theme manifested itself differently in the Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau movements, we can look at an enamel pendant portraying an iris in a simple, stylistic depiction by well-known English jewelers husband and wife team Nelson and Edith Dawson. Although the enamel work is beautiful, there is great simplicity in the design and the setting is a simple silver bezel. The iris is a Japanese motif, but it was also a Medieval symbol of the Virgin Mary and a favorite motif of the Pre-Raphelite painters, so that it may have been significant to English Arts and Crafts jewelers for both reasons.

We can compare the Dawson iris pendant with the beautiful carved orchid and diamond brooch by an unknown maker. The opulence of the fluidity of the Art Nouveau piece evokes totally different emotions than the Dawson piece which is appealing but far more static.

Watch for Part II of this article where we will explore the social and political roles of women in relation to the Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau jewelry movements in a future issue of The Journal of Antiques and Collectibles.

Elyse Zorn Karlin is author of [amazon_link id=”0764318985″ target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]Jewelry and Metalwork in the Arts & Crafts Tradition[/amazon_link] and past president of the American society of Jewelry Historians.
This article originally appeared in Adornment, The Newsletter of Jewelry and Related Arts. For further information about Adornment, please email at

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