Louis Comfort Tiffany: In a Nouveau Light

By Vivienne Becker

S ay the name Louis Comfort Tiffany and chances are that warm, rich, gem-coloured, stained-glass lampshades come to mind. These elaborate and highly desirable pieces certainly represent this artist’s incontrovertible legacy to American decorative arts. Yet much like René-Jules Lalique – whose successful career as a glassmaker overshadowed his original genius as a goldsmith and jeweller – Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848–1933) also created evocative pieces that have come to define American Art Nouveau jewellery. 

The talented son of Charles Lewis Tiffany, whose Tiffany & Company (founded in 1837) specialised in stationery, silverware and jewels, Louis Comfort started out as a painter and  turned to jewellery around 1902, when he became Tiffany & Co.’s first design director.  Two years later, one-of-a-kind pieces began to emerge from his workshop. Highly individualistic, organic, handcrafted studies of nature, his jewels and their cerebral beauty enthralled collectors and connoisseurs.  

In 1889, Louis Comfort visited the Exposition Universelle in Paris, where he met painter Alphonse Mucha and was overwhelmed by the glasswork of Émile Gallé. Influenced by these artists, Tiffany tapped into the aesthetic revolution of the time – a drive to elevate  jewels into true works of art. In tune with the spirit of Art Nouveau, he found inspiration in nature, and while studying the structure of plants and insects – wild flowers, vines, as well as the intricately veined gossamer wings of dragonflies – he also explored enamels with the many skilled artisans in his studio, including such gifted female enamellers as Julia Munson. Choosing gems like opals, garnets, native American Montana sapphires, amethysts and citrines not for their value but rather for their artistic worth and painterly effects, he combined them with enamels in exquisite compositions. The sophisticated derived shapes and gorgeous interplays of hues and materials represented a precious, wearable form of Art Nouveau. 

Today, these striking jewels are astonishingly rare, so the appearance of multiple superb examples immediately captures the imagination. Comprising brooches, earrings and necklaces, Sotheby’s April offering showcases the wide palette of Tiffany’s gemstones – his favourite being black opal, with its flashes of deep blue and green – as well as his vivid colour compositions. One piece represents his celebrated interpretation of natural forms, with soft lilting leaves and scrolling vines framing a centre stone, while the jeweller’s best-loved grapevine motif clambers around the opals in a necklace, brooch and earrings set. A dramatic citrine pendant necklace with melting autumnal hues, ornamented with a bird’s nest and enamelled leaves, embodies the handcraftsmanship and lyrical details that make these jewels so appealing and keeps Louis Comfort Tiffany’s soulful artistry close to the heart.

 Vivienne Becker is a jewellery historian and a contributing editor of the Financial Times’s How to Spend It

Click the slideshow to discover jewels designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany in Sotheby's Magnificent Jewels sale:

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