A History of Jewellery

Arts & crafts jewellery

Pendant-brooch (detail), designed by C.R. Ashbee and made by the Guild of Handicraft, about 1900. Museum no. M.31-2005. © Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Pendant-brooch (detail), designed by C.R. Ashbee and made by the Guild of Handicraft, about 1900. Museum no. M.31-2005. © Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Developing in the last years of the 19th century, the Arts and Crafts movement was based on a profound unease with the industrialised world. Its jewellers rejected the machine-led factory system - by now the source of most affordable pieces - and instead focused on hand-crafting individual jewels. This process, they believed, would improve the soul of the workman as well as the end design.

Arts and Crafts jewellers avoided large, faceted stones, relying instead on the natural beauty of cabochon (shaped and polished) gems. They replaced the repetition and regularity of mainstream settings with curving or figurative designs, often with a symbolic meaning.

Art Nouveau jewellery and the Garland style 1895–1910

Hair ornament, made by Philippe Wolfers, 1905-7. Museum no. M.11-1962. © Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Hair ornament, made by Philippe Wolfers, 1905-7. Museum no. M.11-1962. © Victoria & Albert Museum, London

The Art Nouveau style caused a dramatic shift in jewellery design, reaching a peak around 1900 when it triumphed at the Paris International Exhibition.

Its followers created sinuous, organic pieces whose undercurrents of eroticism and death were a world away from the floral motifs of earlier generations. Art Nouveau jewellers like René Lalique also distanced themselves from conventional precious stones and put greater emphasis on the subtle effects of materials such as glass, horn and enamel.

However, the style's radical look was not for everyone or for every occasion. Superb diamond jewellery was made in the 'garland style', a highly creative re-interpretation of 18th- and early 19th-century designs.

Art Deco jewellery to the 1950s

Commemorative Brooch, 1937. Museum no. M.115-1993

Commemorative Brooch, 1937. Museum no. M.115-1993. © Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Although buffeted by cycles of boom, depression and war, jewellery design between the 1920s and 1950s maintained both innovation and glamour. Sharp, geometric patterns celebrated the machine age, while exotic creations inspired by the Near and Far East hinted that jewellery fashions were truly international. New York now rivalled Paris as a centre for fashion, and European jewellery houses could expect to sell to, as well as buy from, the Indian subcontinent.

Dense concentrations of gemstones are characteristic of Art Deco jewellery. From about 1933 gold returned to fashion, partly because it was cheaper than platinum.

Artists and designers from other fields also became involved in jewellery design. Their work foreshadows the new directions jewellery would take.

Contemporary jewellery

Brooch, designed and engraved by Malcolm Appleby, made by Roger Doyle, 1975. Museum no. M.314-1977. © Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Brooch, designed and engraved by Malcolm Appleby, made by Roger Doyle, 1975. Museum no. M.314-1977. © Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Since the 1960s the boundaries of jewellery have been continually redefined. Conventions have been challenged by successive generations of independent jewellers, often educated at art college and immersed in radical ideas.

New technologies and non-precious materials, including plastics, paper and textiles, have overturned the notions of status traditionally implicit in jewellery.

Avant-garde artist-jewellers have explored the interaction of jewellery with the body, pushing the boundaries of scale and wearability to the limits. Jewellery has developed into wearable art. The debate on its relationship to Fine Art continues.

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Event - Bedazzled: A History of Jewellery

Wed 15 April 2015–Wed 24 June 2015

10 WEEK COURSE: Trace the history of Western jewellery over the past 800 years by studying the comprehensive collection of over 3,500 jewels presented in the V&A’s William and Judith Bollinger Jewellery Gallery.

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