The history behind … Belle Époque jewelry

TrendsFeb 07, 2016

The history behind … Belle Époque jewelry

Susan Abeles of Bonhams gives insight into this era of jewelry design, created as a display of wealth during the early 20th century.

New York--The early 1900s were a time of peace and prosperity in the United States and, for many, also a time of wealth, as small businesses grew and factory output flourished.

This Belle Époque diamond solitaire ring has delicate openwork on the mounting, a characteristic of jewelry from the period.As incomes rose, those affected sought to display this status much like we do today--with jewels and adornments. This paved the way for Belle Époque jewelry, which is characterized by garlands, foliate motifs, lace and bows.

Susan Abeles is the director of U.S. jewelry at the auction house Bonhams in New York. She recently took the time to speak with National Jeweler about Belle Époque jewelry, its history and how much it is worth today.

What is Belle Époque jewelry? Belle Époque jewelry was created during the first 15 years of the 20th century, and was inspired by motifs popular during the rule of Louis XIV--bows, swags (wreaths or garlands of fabric) and wreaths were favored.

This jewelry was fashioned with pale-colored gemstones, like pearls and diamonds, into lavish necklaces, stomachers (the triangle-shaped panel used to fill the front of a woman’s dress), tiaras and earrings.

Platinum replaced heavier silver mountings, allowing gemstones to appear in delicate-yet-strong mountings that provided optimum light, airiness and natural beauty. “It was a time of elegance and opulence,” Abeles said.

Why was Belle Époque jewelry created? What was it used for? Belle Époque is French for “Beautiful Era,” because it was a peaceful and prosperous time. Progress in technology and advances from the industrial revolution brought wealth to all classes.

“Belle Époque jewelry was used to display this new wealth,” Abeles said. “Ladies dressed for evening in beautiful lightweight material of chiffon or satin, which were adorned with elaborate lace and beadwork. These diaphanous, high-waisted, less-fitted gowns with low necklines, short sleeves and long-gloved arms provided the perfect stage to showcase the jewels of this era.”

Long hair also was worn up and ornamented with jewels and feathers, while ladies’ necklines would typically display a natural pearl choker complemented by a sautoir or multiple strands of pearls.

When was it popular? “Belle Époque jewelry was popular from approximately 1900 to 1915.

“Today, jewels of this era remain collectible as they are rare and limited in number,” Abeles said. “Moreover, the value, rarity and appreciation for natural pearls continues to grow, creating

a demand for Belle Époque jewelry.”

What other materials were used in Belle Époque jewelry? Aside from natural pearls and diamonds, fancy colored diamonds in yellow, pink and blue while aquamarine, topaz, demantoid garnet and rubies served as accent gemstones.

How much are Belle Époque pieces worth? The value of a piece is dependent on many factors, including material, design, significance, provenance, signature, market and wearability, Abeles said, noting that prices can range from $20,000 and up, sometimes reaching more than $5 million.

How can a retailer add Belle Époque pieces to their jewelry offerings? “Of course, purchase them at auction,” Abeles said, jokingly.

Really, though, interested jewelers might want to look there first.

“Belle Époque is a very limited quantity of jewels that really have survived, and survived in their natural state,” she said. “The pieces are rare, and high-quality fine piece of any era remain collectible.

“Jewelers do recreate pieces in this style, and that’s remained popular, but for a retailer they either need to own or purchase Belle Époque jewelry from an estate, at auction or from a client. That’s the main way it becomes available.”

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