The Art Nouveau movement started in the late 19th century as a rejection of mass-produced adornments and decor, which is ironic considering how much mass-produced jewelry was subsequently created in the Art Nouveau style. Victorian-Era industrialization had made jewelry widely available for the first time, as factories stamped out generic, fussy scroll designs in metal and sold them to the emerging middle class. Quickly, master artisans and craftspeople rebelled, asserting the importance of high-quality, one-of-a-kind, handcrafted furnishings, glassware, pottery, and jewelry.
Practitioners of Art Nouveau (or "The New Art" in French) adopted an asymmetrical, flowing, organic aesthetic that contrasted with the uptight, frilly, and historic styles favored by Victorians. French goldsmiths like Georges Fouquet and René Lalique, as well as American glass artist Louis Comfort Tiffany, made high-end pieces out of fine metals, enamel, glass, and precious and semi-precious gemstones, employing Art Nouveau themes like flowers, winged insects, and lovely ladies with long, sinewy hair. Lalique, in particular, came up with new techniques for using glass, enameling, and "humble" materials such as horn to make beautiful, wearable pieces of art.
World-traveling stage actress Sarah Bernhardt, known for her exotic and flamboyant head-to-toe adornments, flaunted this new style of jewelry on stage and off. Wearing Byzantine and Egyptian inspired pieces, she even put her pet chameleon on a gold chain to wear as a living brooch. In France, Maison Gripoix made cheap knockoffs of Bernhardt's jewelry out of metal, paste, and enamel, and these were snatched up at fashionable Paris boutiques. Bijoux Bardach made some of the diva's pieces—and likely, the most popular copies.
Piel Frères in Paris specialized in cheap but high-quality Art Nouveau jewelry, like its luxurious blue-green enamel peacock-feather belt buckle. This family jeweler, copying costumes seen in popular stage plays, replaced ivory with a new plastic called celluloid and used gilt copper and silver to achieve the look of gold. Companies like Rouzé and Mascaraud made stylish gilt fantasy pieces that were stamped out of metal by machine, but hand-finished.
The refreshing Art Nouveau aesthetic had a universal appeal, even to those with limited means, prompting factories to begin producing cheaper versions of the looks created by artisans. Starting around 1890, U.S. firm Gorham Corporation trademarked a line of "Martelé" jewelry that had a Gallic feel. Another American company, Unger Brothers, sold Art Nouveau-style jewelry in vermeiled silver. Other U.S. manufacturers—like Krementz and Frank M. Whiting—reproduced French Art Nouveau looks, but in low machine-made quality. Not surprisingly, by around 1910, Art Nouveau had reached its oversaturation point, and fashionable types were turning to the more modern, streamlined Art Deco style.
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