1890 - 1920
Delicacy in the Details.
- 1898 Spanish-American War.
- 1898 First exhibition of the Vienna Secession.
- 1901 McKinley assassinated, Theodore Roosevelt becomes president on September 14.
- 1901 Paris Exposition Universelle in Paris.
- 1903 The Wright brothers are the first to fly at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.
- 1907 Leo Baekeland invents Bakelite.
- 1908 First Model T rolls off the Ford assembly line.
- 1912 La Gazette du bon ton begins publishing leading European fashion magazine.
- 1914 Panama Canal completed.
- 1914-1918 World War I.
- 1917-1921 Russian Revolution
- 1919 The Bauhaus School is founded in Weimar, Germany, by Walter Gropius.
- 1920 Nineteenth Amendment gives women the right to vote.
A new international movement was growing in jewelry as America approached the new century. Artisans, reacting against the mass production and mechanization of the Industrial Revolution, espoused the ideals of the Arts and Crafts movement, based on the ideas of Englishmen John Ruskin and William Morris. In England, new societies and vocational schools were founded that were dedicated to maintaining traditional craft techniques. As American artists traveled to Europe and participated in exhibitions, they were exposed to this new movement. C. R. Ashbee’s Guild and School of Handicraft in London inspired the foundation of new American art schools, as well as organizations such as Boston’s Society of Arts and Crafts in 1897. The jewelry handmade within the workshops of the Society’s members provided a marked contrast to the thousands of pieces produced in the factories of Providence and Attleboro.
Just as the 1851 Crystal Palace Exhibition ushered in the beginning of the Arts and Crafts movement, so the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1900 introduced the sinuous curves of Art Nouveau to Europe and America. Named for Samuel Bing’s Parisian shop, L’Art Nouveau, the designs at the Fair were a dramatic change from the ubiquitous archaeological and revival styles of the 1860s-1880s. The Art Nouveau movement focused on several key themes: the whiplash curve, nature, and the female form. In America, Art Nouveau jewelry was produced in small workshops and studios. Like Arts and Crafts jewelry, these pieces eschewed expensive precious stones for deeply colored semi-precious gems. They also often utilized simple or mundane materials, such as the glass plique-a-jour enamel in Louis Comfort Tiffany’s evocative flower brooches.
Eventually, these avant-garde art movements became accepted and found their way into the mainstream. In the first decades of the twentieth century, American women were enthralled with the feminine curves and natural forms of the Art Nouveau style. The large manufacturing firms in Providence and Attleboro responded to the demand for Art Nouveau-inspired jewelry designs. However, this jewelry was not handmade in an artist’s studio, but mass-produced on specialized machinery invented and built in America. These factories, capable of producing large amounts of jewelry in a variety of different materials, made it possible for all women to own beautiful, well-made jewelry. If one could not afford solid gold, popular designs were also produced in gold-filled or electroplated variations.
In the first decades of the twentieth century, England’s new queen, Alexandra, the wife of King Edward VII, influenced jewelry designs in Europe and America. The Edwardian period reinstated the vogue for creamy pearls and sparkling, colorless diamonds. Innovations in diamond-cutting techniques created stones with numerous facets that captured and refracted light. Edwardian designs softened the undulating curves of Art Nouveau and added an elegant symmetry that complemented the feminine fashions of the 1910s. Women of more modest means could look to Providence or Attleboro for affordable, mass-produced jewelry with an Edwardian flair. Rather than platinum set with numerous diamonds, a woman could select a gold piece of similar design set with a single small diamond. In many cases, the same company had the capability to produce both Art Nouveau-inspired jewels and Edwardian pieces.
Edwardian jewelry ranged from exquisite, airy diamond brooches set in knife-edged platinum to mass-produced fourteen karat gold brooches highlighted by semiprecious stones, seed pearls, and small diamonds. The growth of the Providence area’s jewelry companies made possible this wide variety of shapes and styles.
While these artistic movements influenced the design of upscale jewelry, there were also short-lived jewelry fads during the turn of the century period. In the 1890s, one of the last gasps of Victorian sentimentality, many women wore novelty jewelry inscribed with a name or saying. A popular form of novelty jewelry was the small bar pin in gold or silver, worn at the throat, which was typically accompanied by a watch pin, watch, and reticule. Where watches were worn on long gold neck-chains throughout most of the nineteenth century, fashion now dictated that a small watch was worn suspended from a decorative pin on the blouse.
The turn of the century also saw the continued growth of Boston’s jewelry district along Washington Street in the Downtown Crossing area. Although Boston’s oldest jewelry company Shreve, Crump, & Low was located near the Public Garden, a large number of jewelers, including the renowned Bigelow & Kennard, established their showrooms along Washington Street.