Taking Liberties with Arts and Crafts Jewelry
The necklace pictured is from the ‘Cymric’ line of jewelry sold at the London retailer and design firm Liberty & Co. ‘Cymric’ jewelry capitalized on the aesthetics of the Arts and Crafts movement, but disregarded most of its founding principles.
Liberty & Co. aided in spreading the Arts and Crafts jewelry style across greater echelons of British society. Launched in 1899, the ‘Cymric’ line featured the typical characteristics of Arts and Crafts movement jewelry and appeared to be handmade, but was actually mass-produced. While some details still required hand finishing, cheaper machine processes were used whenever possible. Manufactured by Haseler of Birmingham, these high quality pieces were a fraction of the cost of their handmade Arts and Crafts equivalents.
Much of the line’s success can be attributed to the painter, teacher and designer of jewelry and metalwork, Archibald Knox (1864-1933). From 1897 to 1912 Knox designed not only jewelry but also a wide array of silver, pewter, carpets and textile designs for Liberty. As Liberty’s chief designer, Knox infused the Arts and Crafts aesthetic with Celtic inspiration from his native Isle of Man. His elegant adaptation of Celtic interlace became one of the most distinctive characteristics of the line. ‘Cymric’ jewels were produced in both gold and silver and often set with turquoise, blister pearl or mother-of-pearl or decorated with enamel. This blister pearl, opal and gold necklace ca. 1900, designed by Archibald Knox for Liberty and Co. illustrates many of the key characteristics, materials and techniques found within the ‘Cymric’ line of jewelry.
The chain and gold pendants on this delicate necklace were mass produced, while the setting of the opals as well as the pearls required expert hand finishing. Though not entirely handcrafted, the integrity of the design attests to the clever hand of its creator.
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Arts and Crafts Jewelry, An Introduction
Pictured above is a Scottish kilt plaid brooch by Sybil Dunlop, a designer highly regarded for her Arts and Crafts jewelry of the 1920s and 1930s. Made of silver, cabochon stones, and done in a Scottish design, this piece adheres to the Arts and Crafts principles that have their roots in the 1860s. In this post we will explore the background of the Arts and Crafts movement and how it applies to jewelry.
The British Arts and Crafts movement flourished between 1860 and 1910. Inspired by the writings of John Ruskin (1819-1900) and spearheaded by William Morris (1834-1896), the movement was a reaction against mass-production and mechanization. Distraught over the impoverished state of the decorative arts as well as the conditions in which they were produced, those involved in the Arts and Crafts movement aimed to both reform design and reinstate the dignity and importance of the individual craftsman. While the Arts and Crafts style and philosophy were successfully adhered to a majority of the decorative arts, producing jewelry within the movement’s aims proved to be quite challenging.
In accordance with the philosophy of the movement, a jewel was to be designed, created and decorated from start to finish by a single craftsman. The movement not only shunned the use of mechanization but also held disdain for the practice of specialization within any given field. While a successful piece of furniture could be achieved within these parameters, they proved to be quite detrimental when applied to the art of jewelry making. Historically fine jewels are often the result of many specialized craftsmen (lapidaries, enamellers, chasers, engravers, modelers etc.) and the collaboration of these specialties are most exemplified in the jewelry of the Renaissance era.
The Arts and Crafts jewelers aimed to create handmade jewelry of artistic rather than intrinsic value. Silver was preferred over gold and while faceted stones were rarely used, diamonds never were. Cabochon or uncut stones enlivened the designs while recalling Medieval tastes. The natural qualities of the materials were celebrated and mother-of-pearl, turquoise matrix and unique baroque pearls were some of the jeweler’s favorites. The nineteenth century revival of Renaissance and Medieval enameling techniques were also hugely important to Arts and Crafts jewelry. Not only did the traditional non-precious material embody the sentiments of the movement, it also afforded the jeweler unlimited artistic possibilities.
The Guild of Handicraft produced some of the finest examples of Arts and Crafts jewelry. Founded in 1888 by Charles Robert Ashbee (1863-1942) the Guild of Handicraft was both a workshop as well as a school. Initially the Guild concentrated on woodcarving and metalworking but in 1891 the first jewelry classes were offered. The early pieces produced by the Guild were predominantly silver, quite large in size and unashamed of their unrefined handmade appearance. By the turn of the century, many more conventionally trained craftsmen had joined the workshop and the Guild began to produce increasingly more elaborate jewelry. In keeping with the characteristics of other Arts and Crafts jewelers, defining features of the pieces produced by the Guild of Handicraft include hand-beaten metal surfaces, the use of traditional enamel and cabochon stones as well as the preference for decorative themes derived from a romanticized pre-industrial past.
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