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Arts & Crafts Jewellery

1880-1920

Arts & Crafts Necklace by Charles Ashbee in the V&A Museum, London

Much like a lot of jewellery output today, the majority of jewellery at the end of the 1800s became mass produced and somewhat repetitive. Jewellery manufacturers across the UK flooded the market with the same designs, and huge amounts of jewellery was produced for commercial gain rather than artistic merit. Both lower and higher end jewellery was affected - price was no barrier to this now mechanised trade. Ironically, nowadays, we adore the Victorian mass-produced jewellery that survives, but at the time a small resistance began to form.

The Arts and Crafts movement evolved as an antidote to this wave of industrialised output. It was a revolution which with artistic, social and moral reform at its core. Guilds and Arts Schools were founded upon socialist principles to promote the decorative arts and teach skills arts such as enamelling, engraving, silversmithing and metal working.

Artisans and students set up workshops all over the country; understated and predominantly silver jewellery, decorated with pearl, garnet, moonstone, turquoise, rock crystal, opal, amethyst, hardstones and enamel began to be produced. The artist in the Arts and Crafts movement had complete freedom of expression, all jewellery was entirely hand made and its beauty was considered in no way dependent on the value of the materials.

Arts and Crafts principles were opposed to specialisation, and while there are some very fine Arts & Crafts pieces like the one pictured by Charles Ashbee, many other pieces may appear a little crude. Having one craftsman do all the work meant it was not only difficult for one jeweller so achieve such a level of diverse skill, but also meant the jewellery piece was far more expensive than a machine equivalent due to the time taken to create it.

Liberty Arts & Crafts Necklace

As a reaction to the trend of shiny and well-matched gemstones in jewellery, faceted stones were rarely used in Arts and Crafts creations. Instead smooth cabochons or uncut stones were favoured in the plain collet setting. Necklaces were the favourites pieces to create, often medieval in feeling with loops or festoons of chains.

The enamelling revival was crucial to the Arts and Crafts jewellery movement. These hand painted enamels were of a far higher quality than could be commercially produced. But commercially produced they would become, when designs were bought by Liberty in the early 1900s and produced on a bigger scale and more cheaply. A stereotypical 'peacock' enamel of mingled blue and green on silver became the norm.

Of course, once mass production crept in, the principles the movement had been founded on were lost, and the movement slowed pace. Chronologically Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau ran side by side and stylistically there are several comparisons. So it is from here we will move over to Art Nouveau jewellery.