French for “Beautiful Age,” Belle Époque celebrated a period of prosperity, peace and an abundance of creative talent in all of the arts, including fashion and jewelry. It was a time of all things elegant and beautiful.
A Little History
Belle Époque is generally believed to have begun in 1871, following France’s disastrous defeat in the Franco-Prussian War. Other countries across the world were also finding peace and prosperity following turbulence and war. In America, the time before and after the turn of the 20th Century would be called “The Gilded Age.” In England, “Pax Britannica.” In Spain, “The Restoration.” In Japan the “Meiji Restoration.” The period of beauty and joy would last until the beginning of the Great War in 1914.
Paris was rebuilding, and much of it reflected the Belle Époque style. A number of Paris’ most memorable landmarks were created during this time. The Eiffel Tower, Petit Palais, Grand Palais and the Palais Garnier, Paris’ opera house, are but a few examples.
As well as architecture, literature and art were also enjoying a fantastic period of creative evolution. Impressionism, Cubism and Fauvism were all the rage in the art world, and graphic designers were taking printmaking to a fine art form.
During the Belle Époque, Paris became a hub for writers, most notably Emile Zola, Guy de Maupassant and Victor Hugo.
Where Three Roads Meet
Belle Époque actually included three periods of jewelry design: The Arts and Crafts movement, which began as a rebellion against the mechanization of jewelry creation and produced a wealth of creative jewels; Art Nouveau, which featured sinuous curves, mythical creatures and the female form; and the Edwardian Era, named for England’s Edward VII, a primarily a British affair, although the jewelry used many of the same motifs as the Belle Époque fashions coming out of Paris.
Belle Époque Materials
Natural pearls continued to enjoy popularity. The first cultured pearls were being harvested in Japan, but they wouldn’t be available to the public until 1921.
Fancy colored yellow, pink and blue diamonds were in demand. Precious and semi-precious color gemstones in soft shades were a hit - aquamarine and topaz, for example. Demantoid garnet and rubies also served as colorful accompaniments.
The modern round brilliant-cut diamond hadn’t been invented yet - would be in 1919. Diamonds employed the old mine cut (a rounded, square-shaped diamond that had the same number of facets as the modern brilliant-cut, without the exacting proportions that make today’s diamonds sparkle); and the old European cut (a round, faceted diamond that was a step up from the old mine cut). Gemstones also featured the cabochon-cut (with a rounded top and flat bottom).
Thanks to the invention of the acetylene torch in 1903, platinum was used to create light, delicate works of jeweled art featuring lacy patterns dotted with sparkling diamonds and pearls. Its strength and durability gave platinum the edge over softer metals. Milgrain detailing, which produced a close-set row of metal beads used to border the jewelry, was featured liberally in Belle Époque fashions.
Belle Époque clothing fashions were crafted of lovely, lightweight fabrics that featured exquisite lace and beadwork. They were high-waisted and loose with plunging necklines and short sleeves (one was expected to wear long gloves). These fashions set the stage for lavish jewels to create the perfect effect.
Belle Époque Must-Haves
The most common motifs of this era included: garlands, swags, wreaths, foliage, lace and bows and ribbons.
As to the jewelry wardrobe of high society, it would have contained these pieces:
- Rings: Lovely and understated, rings were most often crafted of platinum and set with diamonds and gems with classic Belle Époque motifs. Milgrain finishing was also in play, as were galleries embellished with reeded decoration, engraved scrolls and tiny diamonds.
- Necklaces and Pendants: A festoon necklace was simply one that draped. Lavaliers were pendulum-style pendants. And a sautoir was a long necklace, most commonly comprised of ropes of pearls that suspended a tassel or other ornamental object.
- Earrings: The fashion for small studs of pearls or diamonds gave way to dangle style earrings. Screw-back earrings were invented in 1894, precluding the need to have one’s ears pierced.
- Stomachers: These were triangle-shaped panels that filled the front of a woman’s dress. Stomachers were decorated with an array of pearls and diamonds.
- Tiaras and Hair Ornaments: Women’s hair was long but worn up and decorated with jewels and feathers.
- Brooches: From the most basic bar brooches set with a single gemstone or series of graduated stones to the more elaborate geometric shapes, brooches were a fashion essential.
- Chokers: Also known as “dog collars,” these tight-to-the-neck adornments came in many forms, from a band of velvet to rows of pearls.
The end of Belle Époque came too soon. Book-ended by war and tragedy, this lively period of history is still relished to this day in designs that are original, bright and breathtaking.