Art nouveau literally translates as “new art,” and in the late 19th century the art nouveau movement became a new and popular way of looking at many things, including architecture, sculpture, jewelry and items commonly found in homes of the day, including such domestic items as lamps and works of silver. Household goods were no longer limited by their function, but instead they became works of art and beauty while retaining their function, and the line between fine and applied arts began to blur. The characteristics of art nouveau silver include graceful lines and motifs from nature, such as birds, plants and flowers. Another main characteristic is the combination of beauty with function.
The art nouveau silver items created by the Gorham Manufacturing Company in the 1880s, for example, show the influence of the new style on both the manufacturing process and the items that were produced. Before art nouveau took hold, Gorham’s silver pieces were uniform and mass produced. As the movement took hold, the company created art nouveau silver pieces less as merely products and more as pieces of useable art, with each piece unique and handcrafted. Gorham and other companies of the period created silver art nouveau jewelry, jewelry cases, letter openers, tea sets, tureens, loving cups and other items for the home and for personal use.
Because the pieces were so stylized, they required many hours of fine craftsmanship. Some of the more detailed and complicated silver items required almost 100 hours to make. Silversmiths working in the art nouveau style relied mostly on two techniques, called chasing and repoussé, often using both techniques together. Chasing called for the silversmith to hammer the silver into the desired shapes from the front, while the silversmith worked on the silver from the back in the repoussé technique.
Additional motifs featured on art nouveau silver include much scrollwork, the female form with women’s hair long and wavy, animals, dragonflies, fairies and angels, with combinations featuring the world of nature beside the world of fantasy. These motifs were featured on everything from silver hairbrushes and lint brushes to cigarette holders, button hooks, thimble holders and ink wells. Some rare items leaned toward the erotic, such as the sterling silver repoussé cigarette case whose front piece is adorned by a full-figured female nude.