Perhaps the most magnificent jewelry ever made was made during the Edwardian era. While Edward only sat on the throne for a few years, he lent his name to the period from 1901 to 1914. The period is also known as the Belle Epoque, or beautiful era and the jewelry of this period certainly warrants the name.
In 1900, London was the capital of the world and Paris the leader of fashion. Increasingly, the new wealth of America pulled jewelers to its shores and the big houses began to open branches on the other side of the Atlantic. After economic depression in England at the end of the 19th century, many English and French workmen sought work in America and even Australia.
The somber Victorian era was replaced by the rule of her fun-loving son Edward and his elegant wife, Alexandra. Sophisticated, international-looking and pleasure-seeking, they led the pursuit of luxury and style. This love of the good life gave the name to the Belle Epoque, which lasted after the death of the king (1910), to the outbreak of WWI.
The turn of the century saw three concurrent styles of jewelry: traditional, Art Nouveau and Arts and Crafts. The latter two movements were to peter out while traditional jewelry developed into the Belle Epoque style.
Arts and Crafts was criticized for being boring and poorly made. Unsurprisingly, the movement soon faded. In contrast, the Art Nouveau jewelers were technically brilliant. Jewelers like Lalique and Vever made outstanding jewels. Interestingly, the staid English viewed these superb French Nouveau jewelers with suspicion.
Edwardian and Belle Epoque jewelry often bears confusing traces of their Art Nouveau and Victorian predecessors as well as a foretaste of the Art Deco period to come with its geometric features and linearity.
Queen Alexandra was the undisputed leader of fashion and while her chokers, stars and crescents, are often discussed, we hear little to nothing about her earrings.
Understated elegance reflected the aristocratic and noble society leading fashion at the time. Use of garlands, ribbon bows and tassels were popular. Sadly, many of the fine jewels of those days were broken up and sold since then.
From the Edwardian through the Belle Epoque, jewelry departed from the heavy Victorian to a lighter, more elegant and feminine style. Light, delicate and feminine, to match the lace and feathers of fashion. Harold Newman refers to Edwardian jewelry as 'spindley'. This may sound insulting, but there is an element of accuracy in the very fine, long pendant earrings of the period.
Technological advances made fine, light jewelry possible:
1. Advances in gemstone cutting, most notably the new brilliant cut in diamonds, producing more life and sparkle from the stone. Calibre cut sapphire and emeralds, baguettes, briolettes showed off colored gems to best advantage.
2. The introduction of platinum brought a number of benefits. Platinum is much stronger and harder than silver and allowed jewelers to set precious gems in tiny, delicate mounts. Close on invisible or millegrain settings were made possible by the use of platinum in this period. Jewels could be finer and thinner, with openwork features, lacelike in appearance. Platinum's white color shows off diamonds to great effect.
Platinum does not tarnish, so gone were the heavy, double layers of silver on gold that preceded the use of platinum.
Other features of Edwardian earrings:
- Plique a Jour was still being used by Nouveau designers and jewelry such as Boucheron. It is very rare to find it in earrings.
- Knife Edge settings, introduced a little earlier, made gems appear to float in thin air.
- Earrings were made to be worn at night and designed to best reflect the new electric light.
- Pearls, all natural at this time, were used to offset diamonds to best advantage.
- Most traditional earrings of this era consisted of a diamond surmount and drop of either diamond or pearl.
- Mikimoto was busy perfecting his cultured pearl innovation.
- Demantoid garnets began making their appearance late in the 19th century. Now, their startling bright green color was often used to offset and highlight jewelry (their Russian source depleted, they are highly sought after today).
While not entirely new, this period saw the recognition of the importance of provenance and signatures to high end jewelry. Makers such as Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels, Faberge, Tiffany, Boucheron etc began signing and numbering their pieces. This led to an increase in their value, but also to the problem of forgeries. Faberge is considered the ultimate Edwardian/Belle Epoque jeweler and his work representative of the period - exquisite workmanship, he often used rose-cut and not brilliant cut diamonds. Faberge also used a variety of colorful semi-precious gems for a gently colorful effect. Delicacy and naturalism.
At the same time, another innovation was taking place, reflecting the rise of the less wealthy. Costume jewelry, spurred by the new industrial workers and even more by the rate of change in the fashion world. Led by the great fashion houses, styles went in and out of fashion with every season, necessitating a faster change of jewelry than ever before. Costume jewelry could simply be discarded and make way for the new. New industrial methods such as gold plating and mechanical stamping made jewelry production much cheaper and available to the masses. Most important was the introduction of new materials such as Bakelite, which began a whole new world of jewelry made of plastic.