A Guide to Belle Époque Jewelry
What was the Belle Époque?
The Belle Époque (1890-1915) encompassed three jewelry design periods: Art Nouveau, the Arts and Crafts movement, and Edwardian. The “Beautiful Era” was a time of increasing wealth and flourishing arts. When cinema boomed, movie stars, instead of European royalty, became trendsetters. As a result, Hollywood (and America) emerged as the ones to watch.
Belle Époque jewelry included machine created as well as handcrafted pieces. However, the Arts and Crafts movement was a response against the use of machines. Thus, Arts and Crafts jewelry was all hand-fabricated. This design period was brief due to incredibly labor-intensive techniques, which made the jewelry too expensive.
Belle Époque Jewelry of The Art Nouveau Period (1895-1910)
Jewelry makers of the Art Nouveau period strived to capture the movement of nature in wearable works of art. The jewelry designs seemed to come straight from paintings or the natural environment.
Notable Characteristics of Art Nouveau Period Jewelry
Fluid lines and asymmetrical patterns were common motifs. Female forms and nature scenes, including flowers, insects, lizards, and snakes, often graced jewelry pieces from this period. Jewelry makers commonly used gold, silver, and platinum.
Enameling dominated Belle Époque jewelry of the Art Nouveau. Different methods were used:
- Plique-a-jour enameling (used extensively by Art Nouveau designer Rene Lalique) was similar to stained glass windows, with the enameling webbed between thin metal walls with no backing.
- Cloisonné enameling had metal walls and a backing to contain the enameling.
- Basse-taille enameling involved depressions hollowed out in the metal with the enameling filling the entire piece.
Popular Gemstones in Art Nouveau Jewelry
Belle Époque Jewelry of the Arts and Crafts Period (1890-1910)
The jewelry created in this style was an attempt to reclaim art from the machine. However, this return to the old ways was short-lived and not very popular. Arts and Crafts jewelry pieces featured very simple designs. The intricacy of the metalwork was the focal point. Semi-precious gems, non-precious metals, and enameling were commonly used.
Belle Époque Jewelry of the Edwardian Period (1901-1915)
The Edwardian period covered the reign of King Edward of Great Britain and his trendsetting queen, Alexandra. The jewelry from this period was very light and delicate. Diamonds took center stage, while colored gemstones played supporting roles. Some of the most popular included amethyst, aquamarine, emerald, garnet, moonstone, opal, pearl, peridot, ruby, and sapphire.
Platinum dominated as a jewelry metal. The strength of platinum, in particular, played an important role in Edwardian jewelry making. Thin bridges of platinum created delicate and lacy designs scattered with gemstones held tightly in place by the strong metal. In addition, jewelry makers frequently used rolled gold, multi-colored gold, and silver. The Japanese art of enameling was a prominent feature in the Belle Époque jewelry of this time.
Common motifs were bows, crescent moons with stars, flowers, horseshoes, shamrocks, sporting themes, and wishbones.
Popular Belle Époque Jewelry Items
- Dog Collars: elaborate choker-style necklaces.
- Festoon necklaces: draped necklaces.
- Pendants and lavalieres.
- Sautoir: a long, roped necklace that ended with a tassel.
- Screw back earrings.
Popular Gem Cutting Styles For Belle Époque Jewelry
- Old Mine Cut: a rounded, square shape with many facets that closely resembles today’s modern round brilliant cut.
- Cabochon: a rounded top and flat bottom.
- Old European Cut: a round, faceted shape, a precursor to today’s modern round brilliant cut.
Belle Époque Jewelry Today
The carnage of World War I halted the artistry and opulence of Belle Époque jewelry. Instead of jewelry, the world became focused on fighting a war and wishing brave young men safely home. Nevertheless, the designs of that time period continue to inspire the creations of jewelry makers to this day, and the jewelry pieces from that bygone era are highly-prized treasures.