Books: Henri Vever's Bible of French jewellery studies

The Vasari of his field, Vever was himself a jeweller—though like Vasari he is better known for his writing


Only two years after the appearance of her book on the French 19th-century jeweller Falize, Katherine Purcell’s translation of Henri Vever’s monumental three volume La bijouterie francaise au XIXe siècle is published this month. To celebrate this, Wartski is mounting a survey of 280 pieces of 19th-century French jewellery, all by jewellers mentioned in Vever’s work.

Vever’s book is the Vasari of the jewellery world and still the only primary source for any unmarked French jewellery. Cartier, Boucheron, Chaumet and Lalique are familiar names because their workshops still exist, but there were a host of other, equally talented jewellers such as Falize, Fontenay, Fouquet, Froment-Meurice, Gaillard, Mellerio and Vever himself.

Katherine Purcell has tried to echo the range and scope of Vever’s work in this exhibition. The variety of designs on show illustrates to what extent 19th-century jewellery was a series of revivalist and historicist styles. In the early part of the century the neo-Gothic style was in ascendancy, shown here in gold brooches by Wièse, with delicately cast and chased gargoyles and monsters. Then came the discovery of Pompeii and Herculaneum and the fashion for archaeological and Egyptian revival pieces. Neo-Renaissance pieces include Boucheron’s pendant of Fortune sitting on a diamond wheel of fortune.

Vever came into his own as one of the most original designers of the art nouveau style demonstrated by a brooch in the form of a fuschia flower set with opals and green plique-à-jour enamel and little diamond stamens. Another original piece by Vever is “Ghosts” which shows two heads, one of carved ivory, emerging from a background of stylised waves, showing the influence of the newly arrived Japanese taste.

There are objects by Lalique, alongside those by less well known designers such as an opal set pendant by Fouquet in the form of lotus flowers or Fayat’s graceful seagull brooch decorated with grey enamel and hung with opals. Insects and natural history were a major component of the art nouveau style, an unmarked bracelets and brooches featured scarabs with interlocking legs set with amethysts and citrines, cicadas and a frog with outstretched leg reaching to swallow a gem set fly. There are several pieces by the little known firm of Plisson et Arts who specialised in animal jewellery,

It is an injustice that today Vever is remembered more for his writing than for his highly creative jewellery designs. This exhibition should redress that balance and reveal him as the fully rounded creator, both designer and craftsman.

“French jewellery of the 19th century” (13-23 June), Wartski, 14 Grafton Street, London W1X 4DE, Tel: +44 (0)20 7493 1141 Henri Vever, translated by Katherine Purcell, French jewellery of the 19th century (Thames and Hudson, London, 2001), £195 (until 31 December, thereafter, £225) (hb) ISBN 0500237840

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'The Bible of French jewellery studies'