As the Victorian era drew to a close, the legacy of its designers, industrialists, and builders continued apace. The dying years of the century brought lifelike designs of dying leaves and withering plants. In England, the increasing industrialization and the dehumanizing effect of mass-production was railed against by avant-garde thinkers and designers such as John Ruskin and William Morris. Once again, Celtic and medieval themes influenced modern life, and a movement towards simpler, more natural lifestyles was called for. Guilds of craftspeople produced handmade, labour-intensive jewels in naturalistic forms. It is commonly held that it was this Arts and Crafts Movement in the latter part of the 19th century in England that kick-started the intense yet short-lived equivalent in France: the Art Nouveau period.
Two main forces were at work in jewelry design at the turn of this century. On the one hand was the magnificence of Edwardian splendour', greater freedom for women, and a strong need to adorn oneself in the latest fashionable jewels; on the other were the ideas of the more discrete, adventurous, free-thinkers of the Art Nouveau movement, most especially in France.
If gaudy and colourful jewels were the kings of Victorian fashion, then the light, white shades of silver, platinum, and pearl ruled in the Edwardian years. Fashion icons and stars of the theatre copiously and obsessively festooned themselves with their wealth of gems. The less well-to-do were catered for by the increasing availability of faux gemstones and pearls. These were not simply copies of diamond jewelry but art forms in themselves, and many of the finest precious jewelry retailers also sold paste jewels alongside the precious versions. The increasing use of platinum much stronger than silver allowed finer and more openwork stone settings giving a lacy airy feel to jewelry. The costume equivalent had heavier settings using silver, although the quality of paste used was very high."French" paste (the name is confusing because it probably never came from France) had the best sparkle and was used in the highest-quality pieces, but the demand for fake diamonds was such that a new industry sprang up, that of the machine mass-production of rhinestones. A method was pioneered by Daniel Swarovski in southern Austria whereby glass stones could be cut en masse by machine. Such was the success that a family dynasty was set up and even the glass used in the stones was manufactured under the family name. Although paste was produced in France, England, and Germany, it was generally recognized that the best-quality paste stones came from Austria.
In the Edwardian era pearls became an absolute necessity. The coronation of Queen Alexandra saw her wear swathes of 75-cm (30-inch) long strands of large pearls, creating such popularity for them that prices soared. Prices remained elevated until the introduction of cultured pearls from Japan in the 1920s, but this did not preclude the production of faux pearls in Europe. Imitation pearls were usually made from glass or plastic beads (or sometimes balls of clay), painted with essence of pearl (made from crushed fish scales, giving a pearl-like luster). Sometimes the beads were hollow and filled with this nacreous paint.
The mass-production of paste and faux pearls lent itself to the taste for conservative colourless and neutral stones, albeit in extravagant settings with row upon row of pearls with diamonds and opulent paste drop earrings. This was in sharp contrast, however, with the other great fashion of the day, Art Nouveau. Here, the themes of femininity and fertility were combined with those of nature and Earth, and the use of humble materials was central to this. Horn, pate de verre, tortoiseshell, ivory, enamels, celluloid, brass, copper, and glass stones were the favourite materials used by manufacturers of costume jewelry in France, in many respects taking inspiration from Japan. Carved horn pendants by designers such as Elisabeth Bonte, George Pierre, and Auguste Bonaz hung on silk strands, as did moulded glass pendants by Rene Lalique. A favourite element of Art Nouveau costume was the belt buckle. The fluid graceful forms of Alphonse Mucha were created using the repousse technique, wonderful glass cabochons, enamels, and cast metals to produce inexpensive yet very fashionable items. It is worth mentioning that one of the early and also successful copyists of precious jewels in Paris was Jacques Hobe, founder of the Hobe Jewelry Company, which later seeded a popular American jewelry company; but we will see much more of the Americans later.
The English Arts and Crafts Movement had admirers abroad, and was a strong influence on groups such as the Austrian Wiener Werkstatte. In Germany, through the family ties of Queen Victoria, whose daughter Alice was married to Grand Duke Ernst of Hesse, English ways were introduced to the Darmstadt Court. The idealistic and socialistic driving force of Arts and Crafts was translated into the industrial, economic, and standardizing forces behind the German Mathildenhohe artist colony. The artists of this commune strongly influenced jewelry designers such as Kleeman and Boeres. Theodor Fahrner took advantage of a close relationship with the artists and designers of the colony, later producing industrial-looking jewelry that blended artistic requirements with industrial economics.
Writer – Steven Miners