ARTS & CRAFTS JEWELLERY
Concentrating on craftsmanship, Arts and Crafts designers rebelled against the standards set by traditional jewellers and produced dramatic pieces with semi-precious stones.
From around 1860 to the 1920s, the only women who shunned the glitter and glamour of diamonds were the emancipated free-thinkers of the Arts and Crafts Movement. Their jewels, of semi-precious or geological stones with silver, adorned their loose-flowing 'medieval' robes and kimonos, and were worn as a social statement.
The Arts and Crafts Movement was founded on the theories of John Ruskin and William Morris, who believed that 19th-century
mechanization had undermined the role, and the moral fibre, of the craftsman. Art schools and co-operative guilds were set up, as Ruskin and Morris advocated, on the model of medieval workshops, in the (sometimes mistaken) hope that amateur craftsmen would acquire the all round skills necessary to design, develop and manufacture hand-made objects.
GEMSTONES AND SETTINGS
Arts and Crafts jewellers rejected specialization and the insult of confining a craftsman's skills to making an invisible setting or a precious stone. Large format jeweller such as pendants, hair ornaments, brooches for shawls, cloak clasps and belt buckles were much favoured, since they offered a sizeable surface for integrating stones with a setting of soldered, embossed, chased and hand-beaten silver.
Uncut turquoise matrices, tiny baroque and river pearls, opals, moonstones, garnets and materials like horn and enamel were chosen for their subtle colours and textures rather than any intrinsic value. Even flawed and unevenly coloured gems were used, since individuality was prized above uniformity or the conventional beauty of a facet-cut stone.
Settings were an all-important and integral part of the design. The characteristic Arts and Crafts piece combines cabochon stones (polished, not facet-cut) with stylized flowers, leaves and tendrils of silver openwork. This is the
hallmark of C R Ashbee's work, and of the students at the Guild of Handicraft which Ashbee established in 1888.
This form of design is also characteristic of Arthur Gaskin and the style emanating from Birmingham, the heart of the jewellery trade. Gaskin's jewels typically have a fret of silver coils, willowy tendrils and spiky leaves enclosing tiny flowers and songbirds, generously encrusted with cabochon stones. By 1907, this style dominated the movement and it continued with Sybil Dunlop's work until the 1920s.
Other designers, like Nelson and Edith Dawson and Alexander Fisher, revived the beauty of Limoges-style enamelling, while the heraldic medieval world is evoked in the enamels and clusters of moonstones and amethysts used by such craftsmen as Henry Wilson and John Paul Cooper.
Arts and Crafts designs were never a mainstream taste, although they were sufficiently popular for wily entrepreneurs like Arthur Lazenby Liberty to mass-produce them using machinery. These cheaper imitations eventually squeezed Ashbee's Guild of Handicraft out of business in 1907, along with numerous one-man workshops up and down the country.
Semi-precious stones, such as turquoise, jade, amethyst, amber and moonstone, set in elaborately fashioned mounts - which were as important to the overall design as the stones themselves are the hallmarks of Arts and Crafts jewellery.
Arts and Crafts designers used stones, enamels and other materials as part of an overall composition. Nature, the Middle Ages and Japanese art provided their main sources of inspiration.
Unlike French art nouveau designers, they preferred a more rigid and stylised
interpretation of nature, for enamelled plaques as well as silver openwork. The abstract Celtic motifs of
Liberty's popular Cymric range, designed by Archibald Knox, illustrate the more static style favoured by British designers.
Silver was chosen both for its sculptural potential, and because it allowed separate parts of the jewel to be soldered together, which lent an organic, natural feel to the pieces.
Unsigned Guild of Handicraft pieces are pricey and have become scarce, while authenticated Ashbee designs fetch four figures. Liberty's stylish pieces by Knox are equally hard to find and are also in the four-figure range.
At the upper end of the market, top-quality Arts and Crafts pieces can cost as much as traditional diamond and platinum jewels. Whether you want to pay this premium merely for the jewellery's historical and artistic significance is a matter of personal taste.
Discoloured, veined, misshapen and unevenly matched pearls may 'make' an Arts and Crafts jewel, but would be considered flaws in a traditional piece. Equally, Arts and Crafts designers preferred natural, uncut turquoise matrix, or the greenish turquoise which is a cheaper and inferior stone, whereas anything less than perfectly matched, brilliant blue
turquoise stones will automatically lower the price of a traditional jewel. Smooth, cabochon stones have a medieval allure - yet 90 per cent of a gem's financial value can be carried in the quality of the cutting.
Collectors, therefore, need to be aware of the craftsman's intentions and priorities before making any judgements on the value of an ornament Genuine flaws or bad condition should
always be avoided by anyone buying as an investment. Watch out for 'skinned' pearls (which have lost a layer of nacre), stones darkened by perfume and body oils, cracked opal (they need to be kept at an even temperature) and faults like bad repairs, lead rather than silver, solders, damaged enamel and missing or replacement stones.
Quality of workmanship is of paramount importance and will always affect the price, so study the backs of jewels, where the crafts-man's skills are instantly apparent. Henry Wilson's jewels are an excellent example. He took care to disguise metal joints with tiny gold discs and, like all the best jewellers, shows how a virtue can be made out of a structural necessity.
So, invest in good workmanship, and look for balance of design, materials and technique.