The fragrant flowers of spring have begun to peak their way through the soil and remnants of snow, dotting the ground with colorful sprinkles of life. A favorite season of many, spring rejuvenates us all from winter’s lull with superfluous blooms and vibrant buds all around, awakening our senses with flowery scents and flora’s sumptuous bouquet of colors.
Not too surprisingly, flowers have provided endless inspiration for artists alike, especially jewelers who have made jewels in the flower’s image for centuries. Perhaps my favorite representation of the flower in jewelry is the naturalistic effect redolent of the plique-à-jour enameling technique popular during the Art Nouveau era in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Roughly translating to “braid letting in daylight,” the French term plique-à-jour uses the same techniques as cloisonné: using wires to create compartments, called ‘cloisons’, to create a pattern and to keep the different colors of glass from blending together or “bleeding”. The difference between the two techniques is that once fired the enamel and wires are remvoed from the backing they are fired on, creating a stained glass window effect in miniature. The plique-à-jour technique was first developed in the Byzantine Empire in 6th century AD and was later adopted by the Europeans in late 14th-early 15th century in France.
At the turn of the 20th century, Art Nouveau distinctively revived plique-à-jour in jewelry, with the most influential school of artists hailing from Paris. A major underlying reason for its surge in popularity stemmed from the the fact that “many of the jewellers who had embraced the new aesthetics at the end of the nineteenth century did so because they were appalled by the poor quality of much mass-produced jewellery, a result of technical progress and mechanisation. Furthermore, the greater availability of diamonds had contributed to a shift in emphasis from design to the gems themselves. As a consequence, intrinsic value began to overshadow artistic merit.” (source)
A reactionary movement, the short-lived Art Nouveau period embraced the organic forms of nature and femininity and reinterpreted them with a dream like quality. The most characteristic technique of Art Nouveau was, of course, plique-à-jour as it creates a natural translucency similar to that found in nature, making it ideal for rendering leaves, flowers, insect wings and other gossamer illusions of popular motifs during this period. Naturally, the intricate folds and sinuous curves of flowers became perfect subjects for plique-à-jour jewelry, in which the technique renders a piece of jewelry as a realistic interpretation of its natural form.
Practically synonymous with Art Nouveau, the French jewelers Lalique, Fouquet, Vever, and Gaillard pioneered plique-à-jour in jewelry during this the decade long Art Nouveau period. However, the American jeweler Marcus & Co. created stunning Art Nouveau plique-à-jour pieces on par with those of the French masters, one of which is the main subject of this article.
This stunning masterpiece, a pendant-brooch circa 1900, is designed as an articulated Morning Glory motif, with the petals and leaves applied with various colors of plique-à-jour enamel and the branches applied with translucent green enamel. The delicate, billowing blooms and hovering leaves relay perfectly the elegant curves and feminine styling inherent of Art Nouveau. Sold at Sotheby’s in April 2011 for $302,500 USD, this beautiful jewel is a real treasure and an important example of the superb skill of those jewelers able to master the plique-à-jour enameling technique.
American actress Ada Rehan who rose to popularity in the late 19th century and early years of the 20th century, originally owned this Art Nouveau-inspired brooch and necklace by Marcus & Co. Glamorous and stylish, Rehan was undoubtedly drawn to the cascading morning glories, which exemplify the tenants of Naturalism, a movement that was sweeping through Europe and America at the time. In fact, in 1897, the ‘First Exhibition of the Arts in Crafts’ took place in Rehan’s hometown of Boston, and it is possible that the actress might have attended and viewed Marcus & Co.’s 40 pieces on display.
Conceived with meticulous attention to detail, the jewel can be viewed from all sides, just as one would view a cluster of flowers in a garden. To create the naturalistic effect, the firm used plique-à-jour enamelling, a technique perfected by the famous French jeweler René Lalique, and rarely used by jewellers in the United States. The fine metalwork is filled with translucent enamel, resulting in a stained glass effect. Ada Rehan’s brooch—which has remained in the same family to which the actress bequeathed it in 1916—is one of the best known examples of these fragile, delicate masterpieces, preserved in its original fitted, signed case. For an in-depth survey on the history of this firm see “The Legacy of Herman Marcus and Marcus and Company, Part I, The early years, 1850-1892”, The Magazine Antiques (August 2007) pp. 68-77 and Part II, “The Marcus and Company years, 1892-1941”, The Magazine Antiques (September 2007) pp. 84–93.