One of the finest independent craftsmen working in the French style of Art Nouveau jewelry at the turn of the 20th century was actually Belgian. A breathtaking example of Wolfers’ “ex unique” jewels is up for auction next month.
Phillipe Wolfers (1858-1929) was born into a family business founded in 1812, with an atelier that produced jewels for several European royal courts.
While learning the trade, Phillipe Wolfers studied art at the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts in Brussels. In 1873, he visited the world fair in Vienna and was struck by the Japanese decorative arts on display. This led him, as it did so many others, to the Art Nouveau movement.
Wolfers dove in with a passion. In 1889, he set up an Art Nouveau-style villa in La Hulpe and, a few years later, opened his own workshop in the Square Marie Louise with a team of craftsmen.
It was a small operation compared to his more famous Parisian colleague, René Lalique, who had 30 men working in his atelier by 1890. Like Lalique, Wolfers employed skilled craftsmen to realize his designs, and produced amazing things with plique-à-jour enameling and carved semi-precious stone. He even looked a bit like Lalique.
Wolfers’ jewels are rare, and notable for their finely sculpted stone and ivory. Of the 152 Art Nouveau works he produced – including vases, fans, lamps, and sculptures – 109 were jewels from a series made between 1897 and 1905. They are marked “ex [exemplaire] unique” to distinguish them from jewelry made by his family’s firm.
A beautiful example is up for sale next month at Christie’s Geneva, a choker with leaves of plique à jour, that delicate and translucent style of enameling Art Nouveau jewelers made famous, perfectly integrated with carved colored gemstone. It’s expected to sell for $51,000-82,000.
Listed in the auction catalog as a tour-de-cou, this dog collar drips with wisteria composed of carved watermelon tourmaline and opal in pastel hues picked up in shaded enamel leaves. Holding it all together is a gold frame set with garnets and rubies, in that familiar Art Nouveau-style whiplash form. Wolfers created the choker in 1900, the year of the Exposition Universelle in Paris, the world’s fair that marked the peak of the Art Nouveau craze.
A brooch Wolfers designed around the same time sold at Sotheby’s last year for $51,000, with plique à jour, rubies and diamonds in the shape of an insect. While clearly influenced by Lalique, Wolfers appeared to be following his own muse, even while depicting similar themes. Wolfers’ moth was stiff and symmetrical compared to the lifelike insects Lalique was known for. So stylized, it’s almost abstract.
As the wisteria choker and this brooch/pendant (above) shows, he could summon the fluid forms that typified Art Nouveau but preferred symmetry. Like other jewelers of this movement, Wolfers was affected by the rebellious spirit of the Belle Epoque. All were challenging convention and redefining fine jewelry, replacing faceted gems with carved stone and glass, conventional goldsmithing with Japanese-style metalwork and enameling. Inspired by Japanese craftsmanship, their jewelry celebrated exoticism and experimentation.
Wolfers, in particular, helped popularize the use of carved ivory in jewelry, and several of his pieces feature carved opal as well. While he worked with similar imagery – winged goddesses, snakes and insects – his interpretations were heavier than Lalique’s and often unsettling: scowling Medusas and earthy nudes, nothing like the ethereal French versions.
Wolfers never achieved the fame of Lalique, but both contributed to that captivating chapter of jewelry design we know as Art Nouveau. Once that chapter ended, both men abandoned jewelry altogether. Lalique went on to art glass, and in 1908, Wolfers turned his attention to sculpture.