The Edwardian period was one of great development in jewellery, and the arts in general; a period of stability, peace and luxury in which the British Empire was in its final glory days and the first decade of the new century seemed to stretch out before Europe like a long summer.
During this time jewellery design branched out in multiple directions, each with its own distinct aesthetic and ethos. Edward VII’s court was much more relaxed than that of his mother Queen Victoria, indeed Edward had a reputation as somewhat of an extravagant playboy during his long tenure as Prince of Wales. This, along with the motifs of optimism, hedonism and luxury which the Belle Epoque brought to Europe caused artists and craftsmen to react and engage with it in distinctly different ways.
In terms of ‘high jewellery’ - catering to the Royal families, aristocrats and the new, but equally, powerful strata of society the nouveau riche - diamonds and pearls were still considered the king and queen of jewels. The industrial revolution in the previous century brought with it many advantages in terms of the ability to mass produce jewellery for the middle classes. It was, however, the invention of the oxyacetylene torch in 1903 that brought about the major development in terms of jewellery production and design in the Edwardian period.
It meant that it was now possible to create temperatures high enough to work with platinum, a much more durable and stronger metal than gold or silver. Suddenly it was possible to create much more intricate, pierced designs which hitherto had not been possible. Pieces became much more open and less heavily encrusted in stones, more like the fine lace and silks worn by the ladies of the time. The garland motif became popular, as did bows, ribbons and tassels. As the necklines of dresses became lower, necklaces became far more prominent - negligee pendants suspending two drops of unequal length are characteristic of the period, as are delicate knife-bar links and discreet millegrain settings.
This combination of diamonds, platinum and pearls gave rise to the fashion for ‘white’ jewellery now associated with the period. However, that is not to say pieces were not made in yellow gold, or using other stones. Reputedly Edward VII’s favourite gemstone was peridot, commonly seen in jewellery from the period, as are amethysts and seed pearls, always in the new delicate designs of open scrolling forms.
Great swathes of pearls were also very sought after. Natural pearls commanded very high prices at the turn of the century, as due to over-fishing, sources had all but ran out (a problem still apparent today). Pearls were first cultured successfully in the late 1890s, and by the 1930s there were hundreds of cultured pearl farms in Japan producing thousands of cultured pearls each year, this would cause the bottom to drop out of the natural pearl market, but in the Edwardian years prices were still going strong. So much so that in 1917, Pierre Cartier famously bought the company’s flagship Fifth Avenue store in New York from Morton Plant, the railroad millionaire, in exchange for a pearl necklace that Plant’s wife, Maisie, coveted; it was then reputedly worth $1 million.
Alongside the more conservative ‘white jewellery’ Art Nouveau jewellers developed a different approach, placing emphasis on the design and craftsmanship of the piece, rather than on the intrinsic value of its component parts. Moving away from the mass production of pieces, and back to an emphasis on the hand-made, they used flowing lines to invoke the wild, untamed side of nature, often using sensuous and sometimes macabre overtones. They were distinctive for their use of enamel, and particularly the beautiful technique of plique-a-jour, depicting insects and flowers.
The aesthetic is also known for its hammered finish to metalwork, and use of distinctive blue and green enamels. When they did incorporate gemstones, they often used semi-precious stones, rather than diamonds, emeralds, rubies or sapphires. Names such as Rene Lalique, George Fouquet and Maison Vever are synonymous with the movement, each recognisable as Art Nouveau but distinctive in their own style
The Arts & Crafts movement moved even further from the notion of mass production, promoting the value not only of hand-made individual pieces, but also on the dignity of the craftsman. Various groups were set up to protect and promote endangered crafts and skills, such as the Art Workers Guild, the Arts & Crafts Exhibition Society, and the Guild of Handicrafts. Like the Art Nouveau movement, they favoured less valuable materials, such as silver, horn and cabochon stones, rarely gold. Prominent craftsmen included C. R. Ashbee, Phoebe Anna Traquair and Archibald Knox.