What’s All the Buzz About Pliqué à Jour?

If you get the chance to buy a piece of authentic pliqué à jour art nouveau jewelry, don’t hesitate. With demand rising and supplies tight, you’ll be fortunate to find almost anything. Some say the supply is so limited that the only trading is among dealers themselves.

Why the scarcity? Estate jewelry expert Diana Singer, owner of D&E Singer in New York, cites three reasons. “One, there wasn’t a ton of it made. Two, it is fragile—it’s basically stained glass. And three, it has become highly collectible.” The recent Florida estate jewelry show and the Lalique exhibits in New York, Washington, D.C., and Dallas all served to heighten demand.

“There’s not much of it around these days, especially since the museum shows,” explains jeweler and appraiser Eleanor Agnelli of East Hartford, Conn., an art nouveau specialist. Adds Singer, “In the past you could always turn up pieces, if not here, then somewhere outside New York. But not these days.”

Availability isn’t the only problem. Pricing is another. “I’ve been doing this for 25 years, and I still don’t know what a piece is really worth,” says Singer. As the popularity of art nouveau jewelry increases, determining what you should pay for it won’t get any easier.

The “frou-frou” look. The art nouveau period began in England around 1860, but it was French jewelers such as René Lalique, Henri Vever, Lucien Gaillard, and Georges Fouquet, along with Belgian Philippe Wolfers, who launched the art nouveau jewelry movement in the 1880s.

Art nouveau jewelry emphasizes the graceful, asymmetric, curvilinear shapes found in nature. Its motifs depict flowers and flying insects, and its richly detailed designs twist and twine and recur. “You either love it or you hate it,” says Agnelli. “You either like that frou-frou look, with all the curvilinear swirls, or you like the angles and straight lines of the art deco or arts and crafts movements.” Art nouveau jewelry incorporated less expensive gems, such as peridot, amethyst, and citrine, as well as artistic materials never before combined with jewels, like horn and pastel-colored enamels.

“The enameling techniques of the past were revived in the second half of the 19th century by art nouveau jewelers, particularly pliqué à jour enamel,” says Tamara Shal of New York, an expert in art nouveau enamel restoration. “The effect is achieved by fusing transparent enamels into the openings of a metal filigree.” The open metal cells, unlike the closed-back cells of other enamels, produce a stained-glass effect.

The cost of pliqué. Because pliqué à jour is rarely found on the market, the higher-quality pieces that can be found are expensive, according to Billy Ford of S.W. Ford Inc. in New York City, a wholesaler of antique and estate jewelry. The big auction houses, such as Sotheby’s and Christie’s, have had the best. “A Lalique piece, at the very least, should bring in somewhere in the tens of thousands of dollars,” says Ford. “A Fouquet brooch, which sold for $10,000 wholesale, was set with a slightly chipped white opal and a mediocre pearl.” Undamaged, the piece would have fetched even more.

Louis Comfort Tiffany, a name synonymous with art glass and jewelry, had manufactured a limited number of unique pliqué à jour pieces for clients. Though some believe Tiffany pliqué was less than spectacular, his success in lamps, windows, and other art glass translates into selling prices of $15,000 to $30,000 for his jewelry pieces.

Chances are, though, you won’t be spending that kind of money on art nouveau pliqué à jour. According to Ford, 99% of the pieces found in the United States were made not in Europe but in Newark, N.J. That city was an art nouveau jewelry manufacturing center, and the upper-middle class could readily obtain jewelry manufactured there, explains jewelry historian and author Janet Zapata. “Companies there made the smaller pieces, and in multiples. It was ‘day jewelry,’ ” Zapata says. “Designers went to Paris. Like all good jewelry designers, they, too, went to trade shows. They came back with French designs but created softer versions for the U.S. market.”

Don’t expect to pick one up on the cheap. Prices are climbing rapidly, even for the small stuff, according to Agnelli. “Skinner’s auction house in Boston had a piece set with peridot, which was estimated at $1,200 but sold for over $7,000 just because of the pliqué à jour.”

How much should you expect to pay for an original art nouveau pliqué à jour piece? “Talk to knowledgeable people and review auction results,” advises Singer. “Not just the results of what the pieces sold for, but by whom the pieces were purchased. You want to pay attention to what dealers paid, or when they dropped out of the bidding.”

Caveat emptor. Recently, Christie’s in London determined that an “art nouveau pliqué à jour” bat brooch was only “possibly” from the art nouveau period and made not of enamel but of an acrylic or resin. Christie’s spokesman David Warren doesn’t know if a date can be established. “It came to us from a source you would normally not question, so this puts you off guard. You expect it to be genuine.” Even after a thorough examination, Warren is still uncertain about the piece. Is it an intact original or a damaged art nouveau enamel that was totally restored with resin? “Perhaps it was originally made of acrylic in 1900 to mimic art nouveau enamel,” says Warren.

If the piece were an original pliqué à jour art nouveau enamel, the estimated sale price would be around $10,000. As an acrylic that might have been made in the art nouveau period, its estimated sale price is $3,300 to $4,900 (£2,000 to £3,000).

Look carefully. To determine if a piece is genuine, look for signs of wear, note styles of stone faceting, check the workmanship of the metal, and determine if the overall aesthetics are appropriate to the period, Singer advises. “One of the best giveaways on the modern pieces are modern-cut brilliant diamonds.” Enameling, on the other hand, can fool the experts. Look for the right colors. Bright and bold were not typical of the art nouveau period.

Colors should call to mind impressionistic painting, evoking the light of dawn or dusk in springtime, Zapata says. Shading should have subtle transitions. By contrast, new pliqué à jour colors will look frosty or intense. Shal points out that art nouveau jewelers had a unique ability to shade and blend enamel, which she believes is almost impossible to duplicate.

It’s also important to note the metalwork. “If you are offered a piece of gold art nouveau, and you are told that this piece is French, and upon examining it you see that it is stamped 14k, you will know right away that something is wrong,” warns Shal. French art nouveau was always 18k with an eagle’s head stamp. “If you are offered an American piece, it may have 10k, 14k, or an 18k stamp.”

Both the front and the back should show the same fine finish. The metal should not be highly polished.

New pliqué. Some manufacturers still produce the original designs. Nouveau 1910, in Barcelona, Spain, is the only art nouveau jewelry business continuously owned by the same family that’s still working with designs drawn in the early 1900s. It is manufacturing as it did four generations ago, when it was under the guidance of master jeweler Josep Arquer. Nouveau 1910 is represented in the United States by the Rolling Stone Co. in New York. Masriera, another company still manufacturing art nouveau jewelry, uses the old master jeweler’s name but is no longer owned by the Masriera family. Some experts say Turkey is exporting fantastic replicas of art nouveau jewelry.

Restoration. Pliqué à jour is delicate, and many pieces have become damaged through normal wear. Collectors won’t accept major damage.

Because it takes multiple firings to create pliqué à jour enamels, it is difficult to restore damaged areas and keep the rest of the piece intact. “You could just cry when you see pieces where someone has tried to fix a piece, used standard enameling techniques, and basically destroyed the jewelry,” says Shal. She and her husband, Roman, have spent years perfecting the process to restore important pieces.

The bottom line: Be ready to buy, but don’t be fooled. Says Singer: “For those unfamiliar with art nouveau pliqué à jour, if they want to be successful in this area, they should really do their homework. There is really nothing like the real thing.”