Nouveau Jewelry Boxes Portray Spring Floral Fantasies

As it appeared in Collectors Journal, May 27, 2008
By Joanne Victorie Wiertella and Steven P. Pody
Photography by Willa Davis

Nouveau Jewelry Boxes Portray Spring Floral Fantasies

Interior of box with Violet motif

A jewelry box on a lady’s dressing table during the early 1900’s represented much more than just a repository for jewelry. It was a cherished container of personal treasures and memories, and an aesthetic artwork in itself. Regardless of its content, the Art Nouveau jewelry box was a statement of lovely sentiment and a treasured showpiece that proclaimed beauty about any room.

Flowers have been greatly esteemed since the dawn of civilization. Ancient Egyptians painted them on their temple walls and the withered remains of flowers have been found in ancient tombs around the world. The colorful and fragile beauty of flowers has given rise to countless culturally symbolic meanings, and folktales about flowers have abounded from the earliest times. Floral representations have been added to all forms and materials of artistic effort—paintings, metal ware, furniture, fabric and so on. Floral names have even graced our daughters. Although less common now, names such as Rose, Daisy, Myrtle, Pansy, and even Honey (originating from flowers), were once quite popular.

Violet casket style jewel box. 1911; 4 1/2 x 2 1/2 x 2 1/2"; Weldlich Bros

In Europe, correspondence through flowers began the 1700’s, when Charles II of Sweden introduced the Persian custom referred to as the “Language of Flowers.” The advent of the Industrial Revolution and the reign of Queen Victoria (of England) combined to spread the idea of sentimentality with floral motif to the American continent. So, in Victorian America, a gift of flowers held much significance; each blossom conveying a message. An entire conversation could be expressed through the exchange of flowers! Victorian homes, too, were elaborately decorated with floral motifs on the walls, furniture, paintings, utensils, and trinkets, jewelry, and accoutrements for the dressing table–among these, the Jewel Box. Also called Jewel Casket or Trinket Box—a lady’s Jewelry Box was one of her most valued possessions, holding precious jewelry and memories. These delightful Art Metal boxes, often received as gifts of love, were decorated profusely with flowers of all varieties, providing special significance to the gift, and to the one who gave it.

Daisy motif. 1906–08; 4 1/2 x 2 1/2 x 3"; Jennings Bros

With the advent of the 19th century, the growing scientific sophistication of Western civilization and explorations to the furthest exotic corners of the earth greatly increased popular interest in nature and the natural richness of the planet. An increasingly educated public was captivated by its wondrous beauty and diversity. Concurrently, the Romantic Era response to the Industrial Revolution (and cold logic of the Enlightenment) combined with naturalism to shape an emotionally warmer and more optimistic view of the world. These forces culminated in the development of Art Nouveau—the first artistic movement in which the primary motif and device was the flower.

Art Nouveau was springtime incarnate—a time of budding promise and great intellectual fertility, in contrast to the soulless machines and soot of industrial enterprise. Nature had affected the human conscience, and it now entered the public imagination as never before. Flowers bedecked many pre-Nouveau forms, but in Art Nouveau (the New Art!) a true departure emerged. Nowhere was such a profusion and variety of flowers to be seen as that which emerged upon the popular scene in the Art Nouveau period.

Roses and forget-me-nots motif. 1904–08; 6 x 4 x 401/2"; Brainard & Wilson

Jewelry boxes for M’Lady were a particularly popular item upon which was expressed these fanciful flowers. On Nouveau jewel boxes one sees the bold beauty of the flower displayed from infinite perspective. In fact, flora of all sorts, flowering and non-, fairly burst forth in three-dimensional glory from the molded metal. However, the artist was not simply expressing admiration for nature by randomly adding a bunch of pretty flowers to a design. The flowers themselves held a special place of symbolic honor during this period and conveyed an importance or significance lost on us today. Each flower type represented a long history of myth and meaning. Today, we still share a common cultural bond with our grandparents and great-grandparent, in that Roses signify love and lilies purity. But do we remember that, during the 19th and early 20th centuries, love was also expressed with Myrtle, Creeping Willow and Ambrosia, as well as with Roses? Do we currently equate, “affection” with Mossy Saxifrage, Pear, and Sorrel? Or know that “marriage” was indicated by Ivy?

The many legends attached to flowers might be divided into three classes: the mythological, the ecclesiastical/ historical, and the poetical. The mythological legends often relate to “creation” stories as well as the transformation by the gods of luckless nymphs and youths into flowers and trees, which have since kept their names. Many stories describe the origin of the color of blossoms. For example, white flowers are represented as having originated from fallen tears, and pink or red flowers from blushes or blood. The ecclesiastic/historical legends are generally due to the reverent imaginings of Catholic monks. While tending their flowers in the quiet and seclusion of monastery gardens, they may have associated a certain flower with a memory of some favorite saint or martyr, and allowed their fancy to weave a fiction to perpetuate the memory of that saint. Many historical legends pertain to favorite sons and daughters of the Church. The poetical legends include the numerous fairy tales in which flowers and plants play an important part, and which may include elves, trolls and witches. In more recent history (the Victorian era), flowers came to be a language of symbolic content.

The following represents a brief summary of just a few of the myriad of flower tales about the blossoms that adorned the lovely Art Nouveau jewelry boxes of the early 1900’s:

  • According to a German tale full of melancholy and romance, a young couple was walking along the banks of the Danube on the eve of being united. They saw a cluster of Forget-Me-Nots floating on the stream which was bearing it away. The bride-to-be admired the beauty of the flower and lamented its fatal destiny. Her lover plunged into the water to secure the flowers. No sooner had he caught them than he found himself sinking. Making a last effort, he threw the bouquet onto the bank at the feet of his betrothed and, at that moment of disappearing forever, exclaimed, “Vergiss mein nicht!” (FORGET ME NOT!)
  • LILY OF THE VALLEY, also called “Virgin’s Tears,” have blossoms that were thought (during the mid-1500’s) to possess a perfume highly medicinal against “nervous affections.” The water distilled from them was in such great repute that it was kept only in vessels of gold and silver. There is also a legend that in the forest of St. Leonard, where the hermit-saint once dwelt, fierce encounters took place between him and a dragon. The holy man finally succeeded in driving the dragon away, and the scenes of their battles were revealed afresh each year, when beds of fragrant Lilies of the Valley appeared wherever the earth had been sprinkled by the blood of the warrior saint.
  • The DAISY has been called the “poet’s darling.” Shakespeare and Wordsworth, and many poets in between, have used the Daisy to represent the quality of pure innocence. The ancient English name of this flower was Day’s Eye, from which came its present name. Chaucer called it the “ee of the daie,” probably from its habit of closing its petals at night and during rainy weather. There once was a popular superstition that if you failed to put your foot upon the first Daisy of spring, Daisies would grow over you before the year was out. Another tale was that Spring had not arrived until you could put your foot upon twelve Daisies. Today, we enact the popular tradition. “He loves me, he loves me not.” It is considered lucky to dream of Daisies in Spring or Summer.
  • The common CLOVER has a rich symbolic folklore—not just about its leaves, but also its blossoms. It was used in festivals of the ancient Greeks. Hope was depicted as a little child standing on tiptoe, holding a Clover blossom in his hand. The Druids also used clover in their ceremonies. More recently, to dream of seeing a field of Clover indicated health, prosperity, and much happiness. A fairy tale from Cornwall goes like this: One evening a maiden set out to milk the cows later than usual, and the stars had begun to shine before she completed her task. An enchanted cow was the last to be milked, and the pail was so full that the milk-maid could hardly lift it to her head. So she gathered some handfuls of grass and Clover, spreading it upon her head, in order to carry the milk-pail more easily. But, no sooner had the Clover touched her head, then suddenly hundreds of little people appeared surrounding the cow, dipping their tiny hands into the milk and gathering it with Clover flowers. When the astonished milk-maid reached home, she recounted this wonderful experience to her mistress who at once cried out, “Ah! You put a four-leafed clover on your head.”
  • The VIOLET has always been a favorite among the first flowers of Spring. Its quiet beauty and love of sheltered spots have made it the symbol of true worth that shrinks from the parade. During the Middle Ages, there existed a curious tradition in Toulouse, France, called the “Floral Games,” which filled the poetry of that nation with symbolic images drawn from floral and botanic subjects. These poetical contests were held annually, and the prizes were awarded early in May. The author of the best poetical composition was presented with a golden violet, and the secondary writers with a silver violet A melodramatic ballad involves the fair lady Clemence Isaure, sometimes called the “Queen of Poetry,” who some say was instrumental in the revival of these games:
  • A knight was deeply enamored with Clemence, and she returned his passion. Her father, however, had chosen another husband. Clemence resisted the union saying that her life was at her father’s disposal but that, as long as she should live, her heart belonged to the knight. So the father had her chained and held in a strong tower, promising to kill the knight if he could. The knight learned of his mistress’s imprisonment and, like a true lover, went to the tower and repeated his vows and sorrows to Clemence. She presented him with a nosegay of violets, that he might know of her constancy, and warned him of her father’s threat. The knight departed to join the king’s court but, on his way, learned that the English were marching against the city. He returned, finding only one old man still resisting the enemy. The knight hurried to his assistance and saw that it was the father of his only love, Clemence. At the moment that a fatal stroke was aimed at the old man, the knight rushed forward and received the mortal wound himself. Dying in the old man’s arms, the knight presented the flowers he had received, begging they should be returned to Clemence. The father relented, and in great sorrow told his daughter of the untimely death of her knight. Clemence, in turn, fell victim to her despair and anguish, and followed her lover to the grave. Since then, the violet has become a symbol of faithfulness and constancy.
  • “How the universal heart of man blesses flowers! They are wreathed round the cradle, the marriage-altar. . . . How charmingly a young gentleman can speak to a young lady, and with what eloquent silence in this delightful language. How delicately she can respond, the beautiful little flowers telling her tale in perfumed words. . . . Flowers should deck the brow of the youthful bride, for they are in themselves a lovely type of marriage. . . .” (From Collier’s Cyclopedia, Published 1883, New York.)

Clover and poppy motif. 1904–07; 4 x 3 x 2 1/2"; Brainard & Wilson

American Art Metal Jewelry Boxes (Jewel Caskets, Trinket Boxes, Jewel Cases) were much treasured by their original owners, and now by collectors. American ladies of the early 1900’s aspired to the “high style” of the world’s great cities like London and Paris. Mail order catalogs–Sears and Roebuck, Montgomery Ward, and Marshall Field–enabled the American lady to purchase a jewel box from her own home. Jewelry stores also carried a selection, displaying “the latest” designs in their windows.

Jewel boxes were classified as Art Metal Wares and made of cast metal– the most common was spelter or antimonial lead. Art Metal manufacturers experimented with many finishes. Jewel boxes were electroplated with gold (sometimes called “Ormolu”), silver, and a variety of other finishes such as “French Bronze,” “Roman Gold,” “Pompeian Gold,” “French Gray,” “Parisian Silver,” and copper. About 1911, ivory finishes were introduced. These boxes were painted with enamel, then finished with various oxides, resulting in “Old Ivory,” “Oriental Ivory,” and “Tinted Ivory.” Ivory enamel finished boxes were advertised as “more lasting than gold- or silver-plated boxes” and, in fact, they were.

Jewel boxes were lined with fine pale-colored silks from Japan and China, and also with faille (a ribbed silk), satin or sateen, and were often trimmed with a fine twisted satin cord. Some jewel boxes were lined with velvet which tended to be in brighter colors. Jewel boxes were available in all sizes—from the smallest ring box to handkerchief- and even glove-size boxes! Often they were decorated as beautifully on the bottoms, as they were on the tops. JVW/SPP

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