The Belle Epoch (Original French: “La Belle Époque”; English: “The Beautiful Era” or “The Beautiful Age”) was a historical period that stretched from the end of the Franco-Prussian war to the early days of World War I (circa 1871-1914 C.E.), although the two decades which spanned from 1890 to 1910 are often regarded as being the most artistically significant. This era was considered to be a cultural and intellectual golden age in Europe framed by the hardships of war that preceded and succeeded it. During this time, great advances were made in the realms of politics, technology and literature due to the economic and social stability that coloured the period; artists of the Belle Epoch flourished and breathed a new creative light into their respective disciplines, with fashion and jewellery being no exception.
The creative prosperity of the Belle Epoch set the stage for the rise of jewellery houses which are still well known to this day, including Van Cleef & Arpels, Boucheron, and Cartier. The new interpretations of jewellery’s aesthetic that these designers produced were also exhibited for the public much differently than they had been in previous time periods, as cinema had made European film stars and individuals among the Hollywood elite into social trendsetters somewhat akin to members of Europe’s royal families, influencing the spread of new designs with both increased speed and broader reach. The pieces worn by these neo-aristocrats displayed new stylistic innovations which reflected the major artistic movements that were initiated during the Belle Epoch; beginning with the Arts and Crafts movement, the Belle Epoch saw the rise of the Art Nouveau movement, which gradually outshined the works of Arts and Crafts designers before then overlapping with Edwardian Era artistry and culminating during the first days of the Art Deco movement.
Beginning in the mid 19th century, the Arts and Crafts movement originated in Great Britain and persisted until the early years of the Belle Epoch. Born as a counter movement to the mechanised production methods that were made possible by the industrial revolution, the Arts and Crafts movement sought to reestablish the value of handmade artworks. Jewellery crafted in this style often lacked fine intricacies, and featured more affordable materials such as base metals and enamel almost as frequently as precious materials. Gemstones were sometimes used in these designs but in many cases they acted as components of a larger pattern rather than as focal points. Instead, focus was directed at the beauty of the jewellery’s metalwork, often featuring open filigree and layered motifs. The popularity of this style eventually waned, and near the end of the 19th century jewellery designs began gradually shifting towards the timeless elegance of Art Nouveau.
A necklace from the late Arts and Crafts movement featuring layered, open filigree and purple glass; Image: Bonhams
A mixed metal ring featuring a multi-stone design composed of amethyst, moonstone, and pearl; Image: Lang Antiques
Often regarded as being synonymous with the Belle Epoch, the Art Nouveau period showed a prominence of nature inspired motifs and flowing curved shapes. Jewellery designs from this time were typically crafted with precious metals and utilised a mixture of earth-mined gemstones, organic gemstones, and synthetics The design choices of this period showed great variability and included numerous materials: gemstones like tourmaline, moonstone, malachite, demantoid garnet, and opal; organics like horn, amber, and shell; gem glass; and enamelling techniques such as plique-a-jour and cloisonné. Pearls in particular were a highly popular organic gemstone of this period, and they became even more common in fine jewellery due to the emergence of cultured pearls, which were first introduced in 1893 during the early days of Art Nouveau making the material readily available. Later on in the Art Nouveau period, synthetic corundum gems also became available and entered the world of fine jewellery after a new production method had been developed by Auguste Verneuil in 1902, increasing the supply of high clarity rubies and sapphires.
An necklace from the Art Nouveau period featuring gold scrolling motifs and turquoise gemstones; Image: Lang Antiques
An Art Nouveau necklace featuring demantoid garnets and synthetic rubies; Image: Lang Antiques
In the second half of the Art Nouveau period another artistic style was born in Great Britain during the reign of King Edward and soon became popular across Europe. Jewellery designs in this Edwardian style featured intricate geometries and various motifs representative of objects such as bows, horseshoes, shamrocks, and crescents. Platinum was a particularly popular choice of metal for executing these designs, as the hard metal allowed jewellers to craft fine openworks and complex filigrees that required strong structural support. Diamonds were also a common feature of Edwardian jewellery due to large supplies from Brazil and the newly opened South African mines that flooded Europe. While diamonds were perhaps the most frequently utilised gemstone in Edwardian jewellery, timeless stones such as amethyst, aquamarine, emerald, ruby, sapphire, opal, garnet, moonstone, peridot, and aquamarine occasionally appeared in these designs as well.
A platinum and diamond ring from the Edwardian period; Image: Lang Antiques
In the final years of the Belle Epoch, the Art Deco movement took its first steps. Art Deco jewellery featured bold geometric designs often composed of straight lines, hard curves, and sharp angles. These pieces brought with them a return of richly coloured centre stones and mixed metal choices. Ruby rings and sapphire rings were particularly popular during this period due to both the contrast these stones gave to bespoke jewellery designs and decreasing prices for synthetic Verneuil corundum. Unfortunately, development in the Art Deco movement was largely put on hold due to the onset of World War I and this style did not gain the recognition historically associated with it until after the end of the War and the conclusion of the Belle Epoch.
A sapphire and diamond ring crafted in platinum from the Art Deco period; Image: Lang Antiques
Each style of jewellery seen during the Belle Epoch carried its own distinct flair. Bespoke jewellery crafted in these styles made an impact on the world of jewellery design and such designs may even be echoed in contemporary jewellery creations. Truly a wonderful era in the history of human art, the Bell Epoch helped set the foundation for much of the gemstone jewellery which came in the years that followed.
© Yaĝé Enigmus a.k.a. Kevin Back