At the tail end of the 19th century, the staid Victorian era was generally producing staid and boring jewelry. Nothing new was happening until a general movement, known as Arts & Crafts become popular. Starting and centered in Great Britain, there were forms of this movement in other countries. Similar philosophies were born at the same time and existed in parallel with the Arts & Crafts movement, with many common features and flow of input and ideas from one to the other.
The Industrial Revolution was well under way and many aspects of jewelry were being stamped out by machines.
Men like William Morris, famous for his beautiful designs, preached the necessity of returning mankind to a dignified position. Everyone, rich and poor should have access to beautiful jewelry, handmade and created from concept through sketch and every technical step on the road to completion by a single person, called the artist-creator. For the first time, there were definite theories behind the new trends in jewelry manufacturing.
First and foremost, there was a strong reaction against the growing tendency towards mass-production of the 19th century. Machines replaced people, cutting costs and resulting in substandard quality.
The Arts & Crafts movement, with variations across the globe supposedly abandoned the cheap machine-made, mass-produced merchandise of traditional manufacturers.
These idealists aspired to design and create jewelry that was not dependent on expensive materials, but on the genius of the artist’s creativity instead. The ideal was an artist-craftsman who put everything from design to finish together in a perfect world, where it would then be cheaply available to the masses. They intentionally used silver as the metal of choice, sometimes 9ct gold. Less than noble gems, often showing the boulder of the natural stone or, cut en cabochon and workmanship was as close to hand-made as possible. Often, enamel replaced gems altogether. Popular stones were moonstone, pale sapphires, turquoise, amethysts and garnets. Paste was often used instead of real gems. Natural, weirdly formed Baroque pearls were very popular in this jewelry, often swinging from a small loop and adding movement to the piece.
Wirework was common, organic and quirky in design. Very few earrings were produced, possibly because the technical demands of making earrings are greater than for other jewelry forms. It is common for the jewelry made by these ‘arteests’ to be very bright and colorful. Where machines were used, a hand-hammered finish attempted to persuade otherwise.
It doesn't take an economist to work out that this labor-intensive ideal was quite unfeasible. Secondly, most individuals who participated in the movement were far from qualified in any one area of jewelry production, let alone everything from drawing-board to finished product. Unsurprisingly, a sort of compromise was eventually reached in the products of companies like Liberty & Co., who purportedly shared the ideals of hand-produced jewelry for the masses, but in fact provided them en masse, offering a bit of hand-hammering at the end of the manufacturing process to satisfy the aesthetics of the idealists. Liberty & Co. relied largely on the designs of Archibald Knox, who incorporated many Celtic patterns in his designs. In Birmingham, the retailer Murrle-Bennett sold even cheaper products largely imported from Pforzheim, Germany.
Philosophers such as William Morris & Ruskin, jewelers like Henry Wilson, Arthur and Georgina Gaskin, and Dorrie Nossiter were amongst the most influential and best known in this movement in the UK. Georg Jensen in Denmark is often included with this movement, although he came along a little later. Archibald Knox was a leading light, whose work was mostly retailed by Liberty & Co. In Germany, Theodor Fahrner led the movement in Pforzheim, but the entire town was devoted to producing jewelry of this ilk. Similarly, in the USA, the town of Newark, New Jersey produced work that could be considered a poor-man’s version of the beautiful pieces made Louis Comfort Tiffany.
Related movements were called Jugendstil (Germany) and the Vienna Secession (Austria).
The Art Nouveau movement also shared some of the ideals of the Arts & Crafts movement, but unlike the Arts & Crafts, they did not shy away from expensive materials and they had no social agenda.
Many books are to be found on each of these movements, but it is important to remember that they took place concurrently and each influenced the other. Often we find jewelry that does not distinctly belong to one single movement but shows features of more than one design and philosophical trends.
The most overwhelming fact about jewelry from the Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau period is that they are so scarce. More traditional jewelry from this period is more readily available.