hen William Morris founded the Arts and Crafts Movement he was fed up with what he considered the garish, over-mechanization of Victorian decorative design. Influenced by A.W. Pugin's Gothic revivalism, an affinity for the simplicity of Medieval ideals, as well the ideas of John Ruskin, the Arts and Crafts movement focused on the execution of beautiful design (in architecture, furniture, jewelry, textiles, etc.) by a skilled artisan from start to finish. Whereas the mass-produced goods sold in the main stream at the time were machine-made to perfection, signs of handiwork and slight flaws or asymmetries were embraced in Arts and Crafts style design because they highlighted the work of the individual. Equally important to Morris and his followers was the search for a new English style. He felt the art produced at the time was too overdone and wanted to find a new aesthetic sensibility that could be quintessentially English.
The Arts and Crafts movement was intimately linked with the Pre-Raphaelites because of their similar ideologies and rejection of mainstream Victorian artistic culture. Like many Pre-Raphaelites such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti, often Arts and Crafts artists pursued a wide array of artistic endeavors, including architecture, painting, textiles, metalwork, and jewelry. Most Arts and Crafts jewelers began their careers in other artistic pursuits like painting or architecture and learned the jewelry trade to a large extent through trial and error. Some of the key figures in the jewelry of the Arts and Crafts movement were Andrew Fisher, C.R. Ashbee, Arthur and Georgie Gaskin, and Edith and Nelson Dawson. These artists often traveled in the same circles with the Pre-Raphaelites, sharing ideas about design and aesthetics. Georgie Gaskin was a close friend of Georgiana Burne-Jones and May Morris, for example. These close interrelations between the artists and craftsmen acted synergistically on the work as ideas and philosophies emerged, were discussed, and then were applied to the artistic process.
Specifically in terms of jewelry design, the Arts and Crafts movement provided more of a philosophy than an over-arching style. Because a great deal of work was designed by one artist and then passed on to others for actual production, it is often hard to credit a specific artist with the creation of a piece of work. Many of the work went unsigned, as well. Though it's difficult to pinpoint an exact style indicative of Arts and Crafts jewelry, there were common themes used by most, if not all, of the jewelers associated with the movement. Influenced by John Ruskin, a great deal of the jewelry was inspired by nature and organic forms. Leaves, flowers and birds were common motifs. (See Necklace and Pendant by Nelson and Edith Dawson.) The materials chosen to create the pieces were also a unifying factor in Arts and Crafts jewelry.
Unlike the diamond-encrusted gold and pewter designs most popular in Victorian jewelry during the latter half of the nineteenth century, Arts and Crafts jewelers chose to use less precious metals like copper, brass, aluminum, and silver that revealed the hammer marks of the jeweler. Gemstones were primarily used just as accents rather than focal points and stones were often chosen for their colors, not for their monetary value. The stones, translucent moonstones or opals, for example, were usually cut en cabochon (a rounded, polished surface and a flat back), instead of faceted, an idea derived from Ruskin whose own gem collection remained entirely uncut. (See Arthur and Georgie Gaskins jewelry for an illustration of the cabochon cut.) Pearls were also popular as accents, though the ones used were not perfectly rounded like in mass-produced jewelry. Many artists also used a duller, textured type of turquoise in their designs. The choice to employ "second-grade" materials allowed for the craftsmanship to be the focus of the jewelry, rather than the materials. Artists like Edith and Nelson Dawson employed a Renaissance practice called enameling in their jewelry. It required a small kiln and enamellers like Edith Dawson often became ill due to the toxic fumes emitted during the process. Edith Dawson learned enameling from her husband who had learned from Alexander Fisher, a master enameller who in turn had learned in France.
Unless artists had a specific wealthy patron or were independently wealthy, it was extremely difficult to support themselves financially. Thus, groups like the Guild of Handicraft, started by C.R. Ashbee in 1888, were founded based on the ideals of John Ruskin. The focus and philosophy remained that each piece of work should be created from start to finish by the same pair of hands. In the Guild of Handicraft, Ashbee designed most of the work and then the workers actually created it. The Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society was formed in 1887 to provide a showcase for guild work. The philosophy behind the exhibitions was, "to bring the pleasure of original creative activity into the lives of the men and women of the working classes, and to relieve the monotony to which repetitive mechanical labour condemned them for the greater part of their waking hours" (O'Day 165). The philosophy of having one person complete a work from start to finish was admirable; however, in reality a piece was usually started by a jeweler, passed on to an enameller, and then finished by assistants. Many individual craftsmen weren't skilled enough to even create a piece from start to finish, and therefore had to rely on a group of people with different skill sets.
1. Arts and Crafts jewelers had a similar philosophical crisis to that of Morris. Though they used materials that were significantly less expensive than the precious stones and metals used in mainstream Victorian jewelry, because of the expense in creating each piece by hand, the work was still significantly more expensive than more popular styles. Additionally, the jewelry wasn't even particularly popular beyond the close circles of the artists themselves. "Ironically, although Arts and Crafts jewelry was conceived of as wearable art for the masses, it became a style appreciated and purchased only by an elite portion of the aesthetically oriented middle class" (Karlin 31). Given this disjuncture between the ideals of the movement and the actual practical way in which it was carried out, can the Arts and Crafts movement be considered a success? Do the practical limitations of the distribution of the actual goods of the movement disvalue the philosophy?
2. Because jewelry was made primarily to decorate women, it was an artistic field that was relatively acceptable for women to pursue. Jewelry was decorative, therefore equated with the domestic and distinctly feminine realm. Many jewelers were untrained craftsman, allowing uneducated women an equal footing with their male counterparts. Additionally, many jewelry studios, like that of Arthur and Georgie Gaskin and Nelson and Edith Dawson, were in the home. Compare the role of women in the Arts and Crafts jewelry and decorative arts world to women associated with the Pre-Raphaelite women. For example, in a time when the status of women was clearly subordinate to men, why did someone like Christina Rossetti become so visible and accepted?
3. Though the philosophy of the Arts and Crafts movement championed the idea that one craftsmen would create a piece from start to finish, the work often passed through many hands before completion. Additionally, later in the century many Arts and Crafts designs were produced by larger production firms like Liberty and Co. Were the works of the Arts and Crafts artists really all that different from the mass production and mechanization that they were rejecting? In light of the way their work was actually produced in contrast to the philosophy behind it, can the movement be seen as having integrity and being successful?
Flower, Margaret. Victorian Jewelry. New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1951.
Gere, Charlotte. Victorian Jewelry Design. Chicago: Henry Regenery: 1972.
Karlin, Elyse Zorn. Jewelry and Metalwork in the Arts and Crafts Tradition. Antglen, PA: Schiffer Publishing, 1993.
O'Day, Dierdre. Victorian Jewelry. London: Letts, 1982.
Last modified 24 November 2004