By  on August 6, 2008

BOSTON — Starting in his teens, René Lalique created masterpieces of Art Nouveau jewelry for about a decade before turning exclusively to glass.

“Imperishable Beauty: Art Nouveau Jewelry,” running through Nov. 9 at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, has as its backbone many Laliques from the private holdings of an anonymous Philadelphia couple who have collected them for five decades. More than half the pieces exhibited have never been shown publicly.

The show includes works created all over Europe, Russia and the U.S. during the period that spans from about 1880 through 1910, but the finest designs came out of France by Lalique, Louis Aucoc, Charles Desrosiers, and their Belgian contemporary, Philippe Wolfers. The show’s few Louis Comfort Tiffany pieces, made for a more conservative U.S. audience, look clunky by comparison.

“France had the full-blown expression of the period,” said Yvonne Markowitz, the MFA’s curator of jewelry. “These pieces weren’t just for the elite, but really for the avant-garde elite. A lot of actresses were patrons of these jewelers.”

Breaking with an Edwardian preference for diamonds and platinum, Art Nouveau masters used translucent slices of horn, enamels, colored gems such as rubies and peridots and all kinds of irregular pearls. Desrosiers used natural Baroque, mabe and dogtooth pearls, commonly discarded as junk in the era, in his Orchid Brooch from 1901. If Art Nouveau designers used diamonds at all, it was as accents to create the suggestion of dew on a dragonfly’s wings, for example.

Enamel was used in a painterly way that swirled colors together to create iridescent surfaces. Plique-à-jour, a specialty of the period, was fired without metal backing, making it translucent like stained glass. Wolfers used the technique to create the brittle, ethereal wings of his Dragonfly Pendant-Brooch (1904).

Art Nouveau also had a lesser-known Goth side. Amid the familiar motifs of lily pads, lotus blossoms and maidens, there are plenty of creepy-crawlies twined in sinuous curves. Lucien Gaillard’s Beetle Necklace (1900) features a large beetle with an enameled green shell strung on an oxidized silver chain with faceted segments that recall the jointed legs and pincers. Lalique created brooches with wasps and necklaces out of enameled thorns set with orange topaz.

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