In the 1880s and 1890s, a new style spread across Europe and the United States—Art Nouveau. Unlike the austere Art Deco that eventually supplanted it, Art Nouveau emphasized flowing lines and organic, asymmetric forms. Many Art Nouveau designs featured stylized naturalism, with floral patterns, dragonflies, snails, and women with long, flowing hair wearing sheer gowns.
Many silversmiths produced pieces in the Art Nouveau style, but its impact was not as substantial on silver production as a whole as later styles were, since Art Nouveau’s aesthetics and methods did not lend themselves to mass production. Indeed, some of the most elaborate pieces of Art Nouveau silver took more than 90 hours to manufacture.
Silversmiths working in the Art Nouveau style generally utilized two main techniques in tandem: repoussé and chasing. With repoussé, a silversmith shapes the silver by hammering it from the back. In the chasing process, he or she uses essentially the same process but on the front side of the silver. Together, these techniques mold the silver into its final shape without removing any of the actual metal.
Two of the main U.S. companies producing silverware in the Art Nouveau style were Gorham & Co. of Providence, Rhode Island, and Tiffany & Co. of New York. Both companies were highly influenced by Asian (especially Japanese) aesthetics.
One of Gorham’s most exquisite products was its martelé line of sterling silverware, which featured fluid, floral designs. Each piece of martelé was handmade, whether it was a vase, letter opener, candlestick, mug, or bowl.
Unlike British companies, American silversmiths were not held to the sterling hallmark standards of the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths, which even today mandates with the power of British law that sterling silver be 92.5 percent pure silver and 7.5 percent copper and other trace elements.
Thus, Tiffany & Co. could produce an array of Art Nouveau-style products, like ornate vases and teapots, marked as “sterling silver and other metals.” Despite the fact that these pieces did not technically meet the British standards for sterling silver, they often exhibited fine craftsmanship and have become valuable over the years. Gorham produced many pieces with a similar marking...
English Art Nouveau practitioners included Liberty & Co. and Omar Ramsden, whose output included bowls, belt buckles, candelabra, cigarette cases, jewelry, match holders, clocks, and centerpieces. Only the finest of these were hallmarked as sterling silver; those that were not often featured colored enameling for decorative effect.
Interestingly, the Art Nouveau period also saw the development and spread of the picture frame, since the 1880s witnessed the release of cameras intended for amateur photographers. Picture frames, however, generally had a low silver content.
Art Nouveau went out of style around the start of World War I, but patterns remained popular after the period itself ended, so maker’s marks and hallmarks give the collector the most reliable clues to a piece’s origin.