Around the beginning of the 20th century, jewellers started making ornaments that depicted insects and blossoms. Metal moulded into snake bracelets coiled around a woman’s arm. Jewelled insects paraded on her lapels. At the same time, these artists experimented with new techniques to bring to life traditional subjects as the sinuous line of a bare branch, a woman’s flowing hair, and the female form.
The graceful pins and adornments crafted by talented artisans made all things beautiful. A pendant by Berlin painter and goldsmith Wilhelm von Cranach shows two ugly fish, face-to-face, holding a large opal octopus between their profiles. A brooch by French jeweller René Lalique called Winged Sylph is a delicate, pastel-coloured, fairy-like figure who stands on the back of a gold animal that resembles a snarling wolf at one end and a raging eagle’s head at the other.
These are among the more than 250 unique jewelled objects — bracelets, brooches, rings, cloak closings, necklaces and tiaras — being featured in the Maker and Muse: Women and Twentieth Century Art Jewelry exhibition, on view through January 5, 2016 at the Richard H. Driehaus Museum, Chicago. The international collection comprises jewellery from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Most of the pieces are so interesting and timeless that a stylish woman may wear them a century later and still feel confident that she’s very much in fashion.
Maker and Muse also pays tribute to several women jewellery artists. Society was in flux at the turn of the century, and the social changes affected women’s roles. A woman had more options. She might pursue a less traditional path. It was even possible for some to establish their own studios.
The jewellery in the exhibition is in the style the French showed at the 1900 Paris International Exposition and famously christened Art Nouveau, the new art. Based on simple lines and organic shapes, and fashioned by an artist’s hand, Art Nouveau contrasted markedly with the currently popular Victorian styles, which were heavier and more opulent. The new art quickly won universal favour. It was adapted to the full range of material culture, including architecture, graphic arts, textiles, and ceramics.
In Belgium, as in France, the style was called Art Nouveau; in Germany and in Austria, it was called Jugendstil. In England, where it had developed in the late 19th century, it was called the British Arts and Crafts Movement. By whatever name, it was a repudiation of the shoddy products produced by the Industrial Revolution, especially arts and domestic crafts produced by factories and mechanisation.
But the British Arts and Crafts Movement went further. It was a social movement that protested against the dehumanising effects of factory work. The British aimed to abolish the specialisation and repetitive workshop practices that relegated one person to such mind-numbing labour as only casting gold, another to enamelling, yet a third to setting gems.
The British championed the art of simplified forms and organic shapes, but also the purity and virtue in handwork. They celebrated the designer as maker. In the United States, several Art Nouveau artists, notably Louise L. Tiffany in New York City, followed the British lead. Artists organised the first American Arts and Crafts societies in Boston and Chicago.
The turn of the century called for a new style, and Art Nouveau satisfied the desire of an era in transition. It presented a new way of looking at and seeing nature. For their part, artists found inspiration in all of nature, the traditionally beautiful as well as what they had previously overlooked. Jewellery artists adapted the new ideas to their creations. And people appreciated the unique handwork and talented artists who produced such attractive jewellery. Art Nouveau fostered new possibilities and optimism for a new century, which women eagerly embraced as maker and muse.