The art of the enameller reached its zenith with the Art Nouveau movement. Today, famous names such as Fabergé and Lalique command record prices at auction – and inspire a new generation of jewellers and collectors. Zoe Dare Hall looks at enamel’s appeal.
When the Art Nouveau movement sprang into life at the turn of the 20th century, its influence was soon seen in architecture, painting, music and literature before disappearing as suddenly as it had arrived.
But its most profound and longest-lasting impact was on the world of jewellery, where its free-flowing forms inspired by nature, vibrant colours and intricate detail as rich a source of inspiration to designers today as to the master, René Lalique, a century ago.
Central to the creation of Art Nouveau jewellery is the enamelling process, in which compounds of glass and metal oxides are fired at high temperatures. Lalique and his contemporaries, including Eugene Feuillatre and Georges Fouquet, took enamelling to new levels of beauty and delicacy in jewellery that drew on recurring themes such as birds, flowers and the female form.
Fabergé was another leading light in enamelling, his pieces displaying more than 150 colours and the guilloché technique – the layering of translucent enamel over an engraved design – on jewelled eggs.
These original jewels from the 1900s were designed for the French intelligentsia, including actresses such as Sarah Bernhardt – “not mere mortals,” says Parisian gallerist Michel Perinet. But the style fell out of fashion after the First World War, when straight lines replaced its sinuous forms.
The art form has enjoyed a renaissance in recent decades, however, and never more so than now. Just as detailed, hand-painted wallpapers are making a comeback in high-end interior design, so too are some contemporary jewellers reviving enamelling techniques as a way to create ornate, wearable pieces of art without using expensive gemstones.
The Russian jewellery designer Ilgiz Fazulzyanov uses the ‘grand feu’ method of extra-hot enamelling and stone setting to create pieces that are inspired by Lalique masterpieces. Designer Alice Cicolini’s jewellery is influenced by the ancient enamel traditions of Persia, while Amrapali creates intricate pieces from its workshops in Jaipur.
Most prized among enamel fans and investors is jewellery by Lalique. At Christie’s Beyond Boundaries auction in Geneva in November, 45 Lalique pieces are among the collection of 110 jewels with an estimated combined value of CHF2.3m-3.3m (£1.78m-£2.55m). However, it is a serpentine bracelet and connected ring by Fouquet – whose pieces also feature in the auction – that still holds the record as the highest price ever achieved for an Art Nouveau jewel at auction. It sold in 1987 for the equivalent of more than $1m in today’s money.
The Art Nouveau period may have been brief, but its appeal to jewellery investors is timeless.
KEEP IT COVERED
“With jewellery, I can’t think of a case where a client has been over insured, but it could happen if something has truly fallen out of favour,” says Amanda Harman of Aon. “Usually, underinsurance is an issue because the component parts of the item, for example platinum and precious stones, will still be valuable even if the item as a whole is less popular than it once was.
“We recommend that revaluations are done at least every three years on a ‘desktop’ basis – being revalued by the person who performed the original valuation or sold the item in the first place – because of the nature of jewellery value.
“Clasps and setting clauses demand that any clasps and settings be checked by an accredited goldsmith (a member of the National Association of Goldsmiths) once every five years. Always keep the original receipt and any receipts for work or checks that are done on the jewellery.
“Most policies will allow a percentage increase in cover for any new items that you buy, giving you 60 days to notify your insurer of the purchase. Importantly, the calculation refers to the current value of the collection, so if the new piece is worth more than the total value of what you already own, you need to notify your insurer immediately.
“All good-quality insurances will cover the item if you are wearing it or keeping it at home.”