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The Jeweler’s Art: European and American Jewelry, 1840-1910

Start Date 01 July 1978
End Date 22 October 1978
Venue Philadelphia Museum of Art
Location Philadelphia, USA
Curator Betty Elzea and  Suzanne Wells 

In France, where the jeweler’s art has been established for centuries, two types of jewelwork are distinguished, bijouterie and joaillerieBijouterie, the subject of this exhibition, is a sculptural art of great intricacy practiced on a miniature scale. Attracted by the artistic potential rather than the intrinsic value of their materials, such as the emphasis on precious gems in joaillerie, the jewelers whose work is exhibited here made inventive use of enameling, a craft revived in the nineteenth century as a result of renewed interest in Renaissance design. 

Jewelers of the mid-nineteenth century frequently drew their inspiration from the styles of earlier periods. This tendency can be seen in the pieces by the Parisian makers Wièse, Rudolphi, and the Fannière brothers, who revived both the designs and technical processes of the medieval, Renaissance, and Rococo periods. Enameling became increasingly sophisticated during this time, especially in the work of Alexis Falize and his son Lucien. Another popular style of the 1860s was based on Egyptian designs, which were brought to public attention by archaeological discoveries and the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. 

Toward the end of the century, however, historicist styles declined in importance and many French jewelers began to draw upon natural forms: flowers, foliage, insects, the human body–even landscapes served as inspiration. This new style was first manifested in floral designs, which were highly acclaimed at the Paris international exhibition of 1889, and later developed into other figurative themes, curvilinear shapes, and rich but delicate natural colors. This style, which was so well-suited to the production of jewelry, came to be known as Art Nouveau. 

That the turn of the century was one of the great periods in jewelry design was due, in large part, to the inventive genius of René Lalique. The nineteen pieces by Lalique exhibited here are examples of his ability to combine gold, silver, and precious stones with less valuable materials, such as horn, ivory, and glass. His talent for composition and expression elevated his craft to a fine art equal in importance to that of sculpture and of painting, and exercised a liberating influence on his contemporaries. From 1891 to 1894 Lalique designed a series of theatrical jewelry for Sarah Bernhardt, and his work received enthusiastic praise at the Salon of the Société des Artistes Français in 1894 and again in 1895, when a separate decorative arts section was included for the first time. Lalique’s fame reached international proportions by 1900, when he again exhibited with great success at the Paris Exposition Universelle. Amongst the contemporaries of Lalique who were particularly inspired by his work were the Paris jewelers Georges Fouquet and the Vever brothers, whose firms commissioned designs for their more ambitious jewels from the distinguished designers Alphonse Mucha and Eugène Grasset, respectively. 

Innovations were not confined to French jewelry. It was the spectacular show of orchid jewels by the New York firm of Tiffany & Co., amongst other floral jewelry at the Paris exhibition of 1889, which aroused the greatest interest in the commentators of the time. The firm prospered on the rise of America’s wealth and was the leader in bringing American jewelry manufacture to a height of excellence that rivaled the French. 


Betty Elzea
Suzanne Wells