The Aesthetic Period (1885-1901)

Sarah Bernhardt as Cléopatre. Circa 1899.

″Art for art’s sake,″ – Theophile Gautier

The Late Victorian era (1885-1901) is also referred to as the ‘Aesthetic Period’.  It was an era which was defined by its rejection of conservatism, of tradition and of all things repressive.  It was a time of great change in the world of art, fashion and design.  William Morris and The Arts and Crafts Movement (1894-1923)  became hugely influential and there was a revival of all things Medieval and fairy-tale like.  Art Nouveau (1890-1914)  began to emerge during this era.  Art Nouveau was truly a revolutionary design movement, perhaps the most radically new design movement there has ever been.  Japanese design emerged as an extremely strong influence, and there was a new design movement which is referred to as the ‘Aesthetic Movement’ which, in jewelry, is characterized by engraved birds, bamboo and minimal design, usually worked on silver.  Overall, there was an explosion of optimism, of creativity and of a new frivolity which, if it had existed previously, had been repressed and under the surface.

Brooch

England, c. 1900
Ashbee
Brooch, silver and gold with blister pearl, garnet and diamond
V&A Museum

Decorative hair ornamentation, particularly combs, were the order of the day, as these went with the new uplifted hairdos.  Women were now riding bicycles, so purses, glasses and watches were worn on long chains to keep the hands free. Whistle bracelets were also popular for ladies who rose bicycles, so they could summon help from a long distance.

Comb

England, c.1900
Wilson
Comb, silver, garnets
V&A Museum

In general, the taste in jewelry became much less ostentatious and diamonds and other showy gemstones were considered only appropriate for evening occasions.  During the day, women dressed and adorned themselves much more simply, youthfully and altogether with less fuss. Jewelry, when it was worn, became much lighter and smaller.  At the same time as this movement towards naturalness, there was a definite swing towards an emphasis of beauty over utilitarianism. Dresses were simpler and made with lighter fabric and would not support heavy jewels.  Stick pins, stud earrings and tiny chain purses became fashionable. The taste in colors shifted towards lighter and more pastel tones. Sensuality, femininity and subtlety were the prevalent flavors. Some popular motifs included shamrocks, hearts, stars and knots.  Bows were still popular. Novelty motifs were extremely popular, particularly birds and insects. A revival of Ancient Egyptian and traditional Indian jewelry styles also emerged.

A late 19th century tiger's eye quartz, diamond and onyx bee brooch

A late 19th century tiger’s eye quartz, diamond and onyx bee brooch
Christie’s Sale 6423

Brooch

England, c. 1890
Brooch, gold, enamel, ivory, citrine.
V&A Museum

Although Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau style jewelry were both very popular, there was still a broad taste for more conventional styles.  Diamonds, although not considered proper for day time wear, were still preferred for special evening occasions, particularly set in tiaras and rivières. Old mine cuts, cushion cuts and rose cut stones were the most frequently used. Stones were set with less metal and with more emphasis on the gem itself.  Platinum began to emerge as a popular metal.  Other gems apart from diamonds became more popular during the years of the Boer War (1899-1902). There was an emphasis on cabochon cut gems; opals, amethysts and emeralds were particularly popular.

A late 19th century diamond brooch  Diamond Brooch, Late Victorian, Christie’s

A Star Sapphire and Diamond Brooch, Late Victorian.

Christie’s Sale 6968

A late 19th century coral brooch and earring suite

A late 19th century coral brooch and earring suite
Christies, Lot 6704

Sources / further reading: http://www.langantiques.com/university/index.php/Aesthetic_Period_1885-1901 http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2011/mar/26/aestheticism-exhibition-victoria-albert-museum http://www.silvermagpies.com/2011/07/20/vintage-silver-of-the-aesthetic-period/ http://suite101.com/article/va-exhibition—the-cult-of-beauty—the-aesthetic-movement-a362629

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