Professional Jeweler Archive: The Elegantly Casual Negligee Brooch

December 2000

From the Vault

The Elegantly Casual Negligee Brooch

Styling reflects changes under way in early 20th century society

Jewelry, besides being beautiful and valuable, gives us clues to social change. The lovely diamond and pearl brooch shown here perfectly illustrates this premise: it combines more than one design style and points to some interesting forces at work on society at the time it was made.

At first glance, the brooch appears to be typical of jewelry made in the early 20th century. Fabricated of diamonds and pearls set in platinum with a gold backing, it fits the monochrome style then in fashion with upper-class society, who chose expensive jewels to show their wealth and social clout.

The ornamental styles of past centuries had been the dominant source of design inspiration in the 1800s. This historicism carried over into the 20th century and can be seen in the garland-style jewelry derived from the 18th century French court of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. In fact, some of the strongest characteristics we equate with garland style – the monochrome look, pavé setting, white metal, bow motifs and choker necklaces – were first introduced in the 18th century. Bow motifs from the period are symmetrical and stiff. During the 19th century, they became more realistic, culminating in 1900 with intricate examples that imitate lacy ribbon tied in fluid bows, both ends fluttering.

Garland Style Meets Art Nouveau

Although the elements used in the brooch illustrated here are characteristic of the garland style, the design is clearly Art Nouveau in its balanced, asymmetrical arrangement of leaves and lyric movement of line.

Jewelry in the Art Nouveau style was patronized primarily by the artistic vanguard and generally disdained by the conservative upper class as decadent and unseemly. In contrast to the brooch in question, Art Nouveau jewelry usually was made of gold or silver, and the emphasis was on artistic value rather than the value of the material.

Diamonds were seldom used in Art Nouveau jewels, except as accents. Colored gems, combined with unusual materials such as glass and cows horn, were used primarily for color and texture rather than as the focal point.

Négligée Style

The leafy vine motif in the brooch pictured here has been arranged to look like a loose bow with uneven drop pendants in a style known as négligée, meaning "careless undress." Négligée-style jewels first appeared in the early 1900s; although they became more streamlined in design, they remained fashionable into the early 1920s. The popularity of the négligée style during this period suggests society was becoming less uptight and more carefree.

This brooch is very telling. It was made for the upper-class market, but it was designed in the avant-garde mode. The subtle message: there was a new spirit at work. Although society hadn't quite let go of the past, there was a desire to move forward, relax and embrace change. This is indeed what the early 1900s were all about.

– Elise B. Misiorowski

Pearl and diamond brooch with négligée pendant pearl drops combines the Art Nouveau and garland styles, indicating subtle changes in society. The brooch is courtesy of the S.H. Silver Co., Menlo Park, CA; (650) 325-9500, fax (650) 325-9518.

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