Masriera, Master of Modernism

Barcelona, St. Martin’s Day, December 21, 1901: A few days before Christmas, the gas-lit sidewalks along the Carrer de Ferran are filled with finely dressed ladies and gentlemen, while carriages jam the street, jockeying for position to deposit still more holiday shoppers. The dense knot of foot traffic thickens, then stops dead in front of the glistening windows of the jeweler Masriera Hermanos. Something new has arrived in Barcelona. Art Nouveau jewelry, the spirit of “Modernisme,” shimmers and spreads its wings before a captive audience. Within a week the showcases are empty, and the name “Masriera” is soon spoken with new regard throughout Europe.

The jeweler and the jeweled city. Lluis Masriera, the third generation of Masriera jewelers, caught Barcelona by surprise and achieved “overnight success” in 1901. He was born into a family and into a culture where the arts and society overlap. His jeweler father was also a painter, and his uncles and cousins were painters, sculptors, musicians, and literary critics. From an early age, Lluis was given a connoisseur’s training in the arts. He would later publish an art journal, write, paint, design his store interiors and exhibition spaces, modernize his jewelry manufacturing facilities, and become fully involved in the performing arts.

His story is the story of a special family of jewelers wedded to the history of a beautiful city.

In the footsteps of tradition. In 1839, Josep Masriera opened a wholesale jewelry establishment after completing the usual six-year apprenticeship and passing his master’s exam, the passantia. The emerald earrings he created for the exam reflect the regional taste that followed traditional jewelry patterns of the previous hundred years. Jewelry at this time was the prerogative of the rich landed families, the nobility, and a certain sector of the merchant class that provided new products and manufacturing in the burgeoning Industrial Revolution.

Josep’s marriage resulted in three sons and two daughters. Josep, Francesc, and Frederic each entered their father’s craft around the age of 13. Early on, they showed exceptional talents outside the typical realm of jeweler and silversmith: Josep and Francesc were skilled painters, and Frederic was drawn to sculpture. In 1860, the firm of Josep Masriera participated in a national exhibition and won critical acclaim for its work in jewelry, gold, and silver.

Josep Masriera also was a partner in another firm at the exhibition, Rosés y Masriera, which made metal tacks and nails. An odd combination, it illustrates the ingenuity and invention that would later define Masriera artistry and technical skill.

Josep and Francesc took fine-arts training in Barcelona and were encouraged by their father to see the International Exhibitions held in London and Paris in the 1860s. They traveled throughout Europe and in 1867 stayed in Paris to learn precious stone engraving. In 1868 and 1871, the firm again showed at exhibitions in Spain and was awarded prizes for its jewelry, while Francesc and Josep received bronze medals for their painting. Francesc and a worker from the Masriera workshop went to Geneva in 1870 to learn the famous Swiss techniques of enamel painting.

In 1872, the firm moved to spacious quarters at 35 Carrer de Ferran, among the leading jewelers of Barcelona. Jewelry styles at this time were eclectic, drawn from a variety of historical sources. Drawings from the Masriera archives show diamond and precious-stone brooches designed as birds, roses, or mythological beasts—styles popular throughout Europe from the mid to late 1800s.

By the time Josep Masriera passed away in 1875, the firm’s success was well established. The Masriera ledgers are filled with names of nobles, bankers, and industrialists, and commissions for jewelry, gold, and silver work came from all over Spain and South America. Masriera was known for fine jewelry, silver hollowware, and ornately crafted works of religious art commissioned by churches or individuals.

Josep and Frederic were also members of various academies of the arts and sciences and fine arts. Membership in these organizations was awarded to recognized leaders in their fields, and these academies served as artistic tastemakers. Members reported on trends and encouraged artistic and scientific growth and development, which were equated with a better society.

In 1884, the two brothers opened a “temple of art”—a large Greek temple façade building that functioned as their studio and retreat—filled with eclectic objects to inspire them in design and painting. But one year later, Frederic was drawn away from jewelry into a foundry business that would lead him to fame as a producer of bronzes and monumental sculpture. By 1886, the firm was owned by the remaining brothers, Josep and Francesc Masriera, and became known as Masriera Hermanos—”Masriera Brothers.”

The new art arrives. In 1888, Barcelona hosted an International Exhibition. Modernisme was beginning to flower. Masriera Hermanos received a gold medal for its jewelry and silver work, in addition to a “Single Prize and Diploma” for the beauty of the exhibit itself. At the 1889 Exposition Universalle in Paris, they also were awarded a medal.

Josep Masriera i Manovens had four sons, two of whom participated fully in the business. The third generation, Josep and Lluis Masriera, at 19 and 17 years of age, respectively, were already contributing to the firm’s exhibition in Paris in 1889. Like their father, both sons received training and were sent abroad to travel and learn.

At age 15, while attending classes at the School of Fine Arts, Lluis Masriera joined the family workshop. The first piece made from his design was a diadem for the bride of a marquis. In 1889, Lluis was sent to Geneva for training under Frank-Edouard Lossier, a direct heir to a long tradition of enameling. Lluis studied enamel painting, especially portrait painting and enamels in relief. Enameling was considered a specialized skill: Jewelers would prepare the plates that were then sent to enamel workshops for completion. It was rare for a jeweler to combine both operations under one roof.

Overnight success. A crucial moment arrived for Lluis when he visited Paris to see the 1900 International Exhibition, where the Art Nouveau style reigned supreme. It was here that the jewelry of René Lalique received its highest acclaim. The extraordinary enamelwork, technical skill, and imaginative jewels of Lalique struck a deep chord with Lluis. The traditional story says he returned, closed the store, and melted the stock of jewelry to create it anew. While there is no documentation to this effect, the investment in time, materials, and effort to create these new pieces was considerable. Though he was only in his late twenties, Lluis had taken a daring step and moved the firm in a new direction.

His obvious love of enamel and skill as a painter is evident in his jewelry, the bulk of which contain plique à jour or basse-taille enamels. Basse-taille is transparent or translucent enamel fired into a shallow ground, which has been chased or engraved to form a design in relief. The tour de force of an enamelist’s skill is plique à jour. Like a stained glass window, plique à jour is unbacked and open to the light. The enamel is held between the openings in the mounting. Open-backed enamel techniques had been used in antiquity and found favor in the late Middle Ages. The revival of plique à jour enameling in the 19th century parallels the interest in natural light seen in painting. Like brushstrokes in an Impressionist painting, the varying shades and shapes of the enamel work give life to the image.

While plique à jour can be achieved in a variety of ways, the refined mountings of Masriera are largely the work of a great craftsman, Narcis Perafita. The Masriera firm over its entire history has worked with a great number of talented sculptors, designers, and artisans employed within the firm or in outside workshops.

The jewelry of Lluis Masriera is never extreme or macabre. There is a word for it in Catalan: seny, which roughly translates as “a sense of proportion and wisdom.” Harmony, sensual shapes, and wonderful color are evident in his jewels. The albums of Lluis’s drawings center on the Art Nouveau themes of women and nature. The female form is very often depicted in full length, a wonderful excuse to show off beautiful modeling and drapery. His floral pieces have a lightness and delicacy that is unusual and appealing. The bodies of swans or dragonflies are enjoyed for the lacy patterns of wings and feathers. Skillful technology lay under artistic technique. Many pieces were designed to be multi-purpose or articulated to lend movement. However, there is yet another dimension to some pieces that reveals Lluis Masriera as an artist and man of his time.

A moment in time. The pendant with three women gazing onto a seascape is an example of a jewel inspired by a specific place and art movement. The women wear headdresses from an area on the northern seacoast of France known as Brittany. With its cheap rents and summer sunlight lasting until 10 p.m., this area became the haven of a large number of painters in the late 1800s. They came to paint the picturesque scenery and the devoutly Catholic Breton peasants. Paul Gauguin and Vincent Van Gogh stayed and painted together here, and Gauguin remained long enough to influence a group of painters who referred to their work as “cloissonism.” These paintings had bold outlines around each form just like cloisonné enamel. From their first exhibition in Paris in 1892, the painters of “cloissonism”—also called the Pont Aven School—created a sensation in the art world. With the eye of a painter, Lluis created jewels inspired by the new art of his age.

Other pieces—many of which remain in private collections—also capture a moment in time. A pendant commissioned in 1905 records the early history of flight with a plique à jour sky and biplane over an aerial view of Barcelona. Another pendant with a turbaned figure is inspired by the Ballets Russes, a group that toured Spain from 1915 onward. Lluis’s involvement in the arts and progress of his era created an unusual record in jewelry. Reflecting its growing success, in 1902 the Masriera silver and jewelry workshops were transferred to the temple-studio at 72 Carrer de Bailen, combining under one roof silversmiths, goldsmiths, engravers, and enamelists, all working with the most modern technology available.

Two become one. In the 1910s, Modernisme— like Art Nouveau—was being replaced by a new direction in art. Noucentisme was proclaimed in Barcelona as the new art movement of the 1900s. Design returned to more classical roots matched with strong, clean, geometric lines.

In 1915, Masriera Hermanos joined forces with the oldest jewelry family in Spain, the Carreras family, which had begun working in jewelry in 1766. In 1845, Francesc Carreras i Duran, the son of the founder, was appointed jeweler to Queen Isabel II. Working at the top of their field, the succeeding generations produced traditional diamond and precious stone jewelry in addition to religious and civil commissions typical of the 19th century. At the Barcelona International Exhibition in 1888, they received a gold medal, as did Masriera.

At the turn of the century, the Carreras family produced modernist jewelry in a more conservative style. It was the fourth generation of this family that united with the Masrieras. The new company was known as Masriera Hermanos y Joaquin Carreras. They also moved to a new location—26 Passeig de Gràcia, among the finest streets in the city—and in 1924 the company name was changed to Masriera y Carreras.

By the time the two firms merged, Noucentisme was dominating jewelry design, and the romantic natural forms of Modernisme were seen as outdated. The new current in design would later be called Art Deco. An early Masriera example is the combination of platinum, gold, diamonds, enamel, ivory, and sapphires that mixes classicism with Art Deco. The company’s serpent bracelet in yellow gold and colored enamels is a strikingly abstract Jazz Age piece.

The term “Art Deco” is an abbreviation of the title of an international exhibition held in Paris in 1925—Exposition des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes. This was the crowning moment for the new style. The decorative arts of Catalan were displayed separately from those of the rest of Spain. Masriera y Carreras exhibited in a circular space hung with a long curving canvas painted by Lluis. The company received a Grand Prix for their jewelry and silver work, and Lluis received an additional Grand Prix for his work in theatre. In 1921, he had founded the Companyia Belluguet to promote Catalan theater, and by the 1930s his love of the theatre won out—at his peak as a jeweler, he withdrew to pursue another branch of the arts. But this only served to increase the demand for his pieces, and Masriera y Carreras continued to produce his designs without a pause.

Masriera past and future. The tradition of Masriera jewelry continues in the loving hands of the Bagués family under the name Bagués-Masriera. The Bagués firm was established in 1926 and in a little more than two decades had three stores in historic buildings throughout Barcelona. By 1969, the Masriera and Carreras families were no longer involved in jewelry, and the Bagués family purchased 50% of Masriera i Carreras, acquiring the firm entirely in 1985. Bagués recognized the potential in the treasury of original molds, casts, and albums of Lluis Masriera’s designs.

Today Masriera occupies a unique position, continuing to produce jewelry from the original steel dies that created such a sensation at the turn of the century. The enameling is still achieved using traditional methods, under a strict apprenticeship system in which master enamelists pass on their skills to the next generation. The enamel recipes are the same, the result of Lluis Masriera’s careful experimentation and artistry in color. As a concession to modern taste, only brilliant-cut diamonds are used. The pieces are carefully numbered and marked to avoid confusion, and the original molds are used in rotation to create a limited production.

Masriera jewelry is arguably not “reproduction” in the strictest sense of the word, but rather “continuous production,” forming a special chapter in jewelry history.

This article was created with the permission and contributions of the Bagués-Masriera firm. Special thanks to its director of American operations, Mr. Joseph Meli, for his assistance. Photos and captions are from Masriera Jewellery: 200 Years of History, by Pilar Velez, Àmbit, Barcelona, 1999. The biography of Masriera family is described in detail and accompanied by photography from the Bagués-Masriera archives and private collections. The book is available through Masriera U.S.A., (800) 472-9872.