It is said that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but when historians agree to call an entire period of Western culture “the Beautiful Era”, there must be some immutable truths to the allure of that moment in time. Case in point: The Belle Epoque jewellery continues to draw the attention of aesthetes and collectors alike.
The Belle Epoque Defined
After France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War in 1871, the country found its footing with the formation of the French Third Republic. This political stability (relative to the tumultuous times before it anyway) started an era of economic prosperity, scientific innovation, cultural transformation, and imperial dominance. This wave rippled throughout Europe and across the Atlantic, with the United States of America also experiencing its own Gilded Age.
The Belle Epoque covered three major artistic movements: Art Nouveau (1890-1910), Arts and Crafts (1880-1920), and the Edwardian Era (1901-1910). Jewellery designs evolved to match the influential heights of each movement. In doing so, jewellery also reinforced the optimism and the belief in beauty that permeated the period.
The good times lasted until the outbreak of World War I in 1915, marking the end of the Belle Epoque.
Art Nouveau and Belle Epoque Jewellery
Gold and Silver necklace with Diamonds, Sapphires, and plique-à-jour and basse taille enamelling (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
The natural world was the primary inspiration for the Art Nouveau movement. Artists of this aesthetic used curvilinear designs in their work to capture the free-flowing feel of nature. Plants, animals, and insects served as motifs. With the prevailing philosophy of the times tying womanhood to nature, the female form was front and centre in many Art Nouveau works.
Such Art Nouveau elements can be found in the jewellery of this period. Popular pieces had soft, round shapes with asymmetrical patterns. Rings, pins, brooches, and bangles were fashioned into the shape of birds, beetles, butterflies, dragonflies, and lizards. Faces and silhouettes of women adorned earrings, pendants, and bracelets.
Because Art Nouveau leaned into the things of nature, the materials used for jewellery were not just the typical cold, hard gemstones. Organic materials such as amber, horn, ivory. and tortoise shell became more widespread in the crafting of jewellery. Crystal glass, celluloid, chrysoberyl, moonstone, jadeite, and malachite were also some of the unconventional materials commonly used in Art Nouveau jewellery.
Of course, precious metals such as Gold and Silver were still the predominant bases for jewellery. Platinum did, however, start getting traction as a base for setting gemstones like Diamonds and Pearls. This became a trend later on in the Belle Epoque.
Jewellery designers employed enamelling often to create complex, colourful patterns. French jeweller Rene Lalique was the most well-known designer of the time, earning fame for his plique-a-jour enamelling technique that emulated stained glass.
Arts & Crafts and Belle Epoque Jewellery
Gold enamelled pin with Sapphire, Pearls, and Emeralds (Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art)
The Industrial Revolution had already transformed the way people lived at this point in history, but its influence was not always met with open arms. The Arts and Crafts movement was specifically in opposition to the assembly line approach to creation.
Adherents believed in the singular vision that was unique to the artisanal process in making art. Only one person was responsible in all aspects of production instead of having multiple specialists working on the different stages of development.
Much like Art Nouveau, Arts and Crafts called for a return to nature. Flowers and foliage were the go-to motifs, featuring patterns that organised the organic in pleasing arrangements.
The growing relationship between East and West contributed to the Arts and Crafts movement as well, with Japanese decorative elements, in particular, drawing the attention of European artists.
Silver, copper, and aluminium were the most commonly used metals in making jewellery. Semi-precious gemstones like Opal, Amethyst, and Ga rnet featured heavily on necklaces, buckles, and clasps. Baroque pearls, mother-of-pearl, and freshwater pearls also gained popularity.
Another similarity Arts & Crafts jewellery shared with Art Nouveau jewellery is the prominence of enamelling. This was taken as a sign of the individual craftsmanship put into each piece, as it was believed that the intricate metalwork and the hand-painted look of an item would identify the jeweller who made it.
Despite one of its goals was to make art more palatable to the masses, the cost of creating Arts & Crafts artwork made it only accessible to the elite. The public did not take to it, cutting short its time in the spotlight.
Edwardian Era Belle Epoque Jewellery
King Edward VII’s time on the throne of Great Britain was a peaceful one and fondly remembered by the ruling class for their rulers’ elegant fashion sense. Edward and his wife Alexandra were both style icons across the Western world, known for the air of sophistication in what they wore and how they wore it.
As the British Empire was at the height of its power, the aristocrats were proud to show off their wealth in the form of the finest jewellery. Their sensibilities echoed the fancy majesty of Louis XIV and his landmark 72-year reign over France during the late 17th to early 18th century. The extravagance of the Baroque period was tempered with modern taste, resulting in the signature classy luxury of Edwardian era aesthetics.
Edwardian jewellery was ornate yet light. The dominant motifs of lace, bows, and ribbons hearkened to the pageantry of the court of Louis the Great. Repeating the natural themes of the previous two movements, Edwardian jewellery also had its fair share of floral patterns.
Technological progress made Platinum the choice metal. Its durability allowed for delicate designs and the setting of stones without fear of the piece falling apart. Its bright, silvery-white lustre was combined with the brilliant glimmer of Diamonds and Pearls for unmatched opulence. Fancy Diamonds and other coloured gemstones like Rubies, Sapphires, and Emeralds were sometimes used to offset the white-on-white look.
Negligee necklaces, dog collars, convertible pendant earrings, and brooches were some of the trendiest pieces of the era.
Collecting Belle Epoque Jewellery
Authentic Belle Epoque pieces are rare finds and highly valued. Jewellery of this period cost around £16,000 to £4,000,000, depending on a number of factors such as the material used, the jeweller who made it, and its general state of wearability. Auction houses and antique jewellery stores are the only reliable places to purchase genuine Belle Epoque jewellery.