At Diamond Estate Jewelry Buyers, we specialize in purchasing fine estate jewelry from all historical periods, including the Arts and Crafts Movement. If you own a piece of fine jewelry from this era, this knowledge article will help you better understand why the antique Arts & Crafts jewelry is so special and sought-after by collectors.
The Arts and Crafts Movement was an international phenomenon in the decorative and fine arts that arose in the latter part of the 19th century. Its adherents included artist, architects, designers, writers, craftsmen, and philanthropists who were united by the aim of breaking down the hierarchy of the arts and restoring prominence and dignity to traditional handicrafts.
Partly in reaction to the over industrialization and mechanization prevalent in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the movement had its genesis in Great Britain, where the Royal Society of Arts had begun awarding prizes to inventors and innovators that had traditionally been awarded to artists. The Great Exhibition of 1851 was a tour de force of machine-made items, which was widely critiqued as having nothing of artistic merit to offer, proving to some that mechanization had all but killed aesthetic achievement.
The jewelry of the Arts and Crafts movement reflected the aims of this greater cultural movement, and was characterized by hand-made pieces with beaten metal surfaces, brightly colored enamels, soft colored cabochon stones, and floral motifs from a romanticized, pre-industrial past.
William Morris, John Ruskin, and the Arts and Crafts Movement
The intellectual seeds for the Arts and Crafts Movement were planted by the writer and art critic John Ruskin. His insistence on the need to preserve individual craftsmanship and design came as a response to the negative social and aesthetic effects of the Industrial Revolution.
By about 1862, William Morris had brought Ruskin’s ideas to fruition. Both men believed that the dehumanization of workers through the mechanized division of labor had led to an aesthetic downturn that could only be addressed by a return to traditional craft skills.
Believing that art should be both beautiful and functional, Morris founded the design firm Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Company to revive manual craftsmanship in an era of mass production. His ideals were further strengthened by his relationship with members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a literary and artistic group who looked to the Middle Ages for inspiration. This hearkening back to the traditional skills and techniques of the Middle Ages would be the driving force in the development of the Arts and Crafts jewelry style.
The Revival of the Guild System
One way the broader Arts and Crafts Movement influenced jewelry production was in the revival of the Medieval style of guilds. The first of these, the Guild of St. George, was opened by Ruskin in 1871. This guild emphasized the education of craftsmen in the techniques and design ideas of the past, which led to the Gothic and Renaissance Revival movements in jewelry making.
Other guilds soon followed, most notably the Guild of Handicraft established by C.R. Ashbee, an early proponent of Arts and Crafts jewelry design. His translation of Renaissance master goldsmith Benvenuto Cellini’s “Notebooks” became the standard by which his guildsmen were trained. Ashbee’s Guild of Handicraft became the model for how to set up a successful guild in jewelry design and production. The Viennese workshops, the Birmingham Guild, and Wiener Werkstätte were all based on Ashbee’s Guild of Handicraft.
Arts and Crafts Jewelry Techniques and Design
In keeping with the socialist aims of the larger movement, proponents of the guild system rejected traditional jewelers and manufacturers, believing that the beauty of handmade jewelry relied on the design, and not the intrinsic value of the materials. Specialization by craftsmen was antithetical to the larger principles of the movement—each piece was to be made by one person, from beginning to end, keeping costs in line with middle class incomes.
As a result, craftsmen often avoided the use of precious stones, and favored silver, aluminum, and copper as the primary metals for their works. Hammered textures were popular, highlighting their difference from perfectly smooth, shiny, machine made parts. Stones like turquoise, moonstone, garnet, opal, and amethyst were widely used, and often cut en cabochon and usually collet-set.
Hand painted enamel was used widely as a decorative element during the period, and it was sometimes seen as a way of confirming an individual piece was in fact hand-made. Leaves were also a distinguishing design element, and were often so unique to a specific artisan that they can be used like a maker’s mark to prove the identity of the craftsman.
Arts and Crafts jewelry was in many ways more utilitarian and less frivolous than the mass produced jewelry it replaced. Belt buckles and coat clasps featured enamel and gemstone highlights, and hair ornaments were more likely to be hand carved ivory or horn than diamond tiaras. Renaissance and Medieval design motifs were prevalent in many pieces, including necklaces, the most popular adornment made during the period.
Necklaces were often made of chains that were swaged, or paper-clip looped, and held enamelled pendants with cabochon set gems. Bracelets featured chain links, flowers, and ribbons, and the few rings produced during the period displayed carved metal insect and plant motifs wrapped around two cabochon set stones.
Mass Production, and the End of the Arts and Crafts Movement
The idealistic aims of the original movement were successful in reviving aesthetics, but ultimately they experienced limited commercial success. Small, independent workshops rarely had their own commercial venues and had to rely on exhibitions for selling their jewelry. When single craftsmen executed all the elements of a piece, the results often proved too costly for the masses. One company that embraced the aesthetics of Arts and Crafts style but not the manufacturing idealism was Liberty and Company.
Arthur Liberty simply adapted Arts and Crafts styles for mass production, and his high standards secured lasting success with the jewelry buying public. His designers, while their identities were generally kept secret, included Archibald Knox, whose work with Celtic revival pieces lent itself to mass production. Enamel remained an important design element at Liberty, and a signature motif was concave leaves with enamel filler. Initially featuring many colors and intricate design, Liberty’s enamels were eventually a victim of commercial need. Later pieces featured only a few blended colors, and none of the intricacy of the early jewelry.
The Arts and Crafts Movement waned in the pre-World War II era. Individual artisans continued to work in the style, but the guild system declined, and all but disappeared after the war, giving way to independent jewelers once again. Artisans began to embrace the overlapping styles of the Modernist Movement, though the hand-made techniques taught in the guilds at the height of the Arts and Crafts Movement have continued to be prized by the jewelry buying public.
Selling Your Antique Arts & Crafts Fine Jewelry
If you have antique jewelry from the Arts and Crafts Movement that you would like to sell for a generous cash offer, please contact Diamond Estate Jewelry Buyers today for a free cash appraisal. Our jewelry appraisals and consultations are completely free of charge, with no obligations.
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Learn more about selling your valuable antique and vintage jewelry for cash in our knowledge article: How to Sell Estate Jewelry.