Rapaport Magazine

An Expert’s Eye

Henri Vever literally wrote the book on nineteenth-century French jewelry.

By Phyllis Schiller

La Bretonne diamond, amethyst, opal and enamel Art Nouveau pendant, mounted in gold, by Henri Vever, circa 1900. Photo courtesy Christie’s Images Ltd. 2014.
A latter-day artistic Renaissance man, Henri Vever (1854-1942) was a prominent Parisian jeweler, designer, art collector and historian. His encompassing three-volume La Bijouterie Française au XIXe Siècle (French Jewelry of the Nineteenth Century), published in France from 1906 to 1908, is still used as reference today.
   Born into the business of fine jewelry, Henri was the third generation of a family that had been making and selling jewelry for more than three decades before he was born. His grandfather, Pierre Vever, owned a successful jewelry shop established in 1821 in Metz, France, which boasted a prominent clientele. In1848, the flourishing business was passed down to Pierre’s son, Henri’s father Ernest. A talented jewelry designer, he ran the Metz shop until 1870, when, as a result of the Franco-Prussian War, the area was annexed to the German Empire.
   Starting anew, in 1871 Ernest relocated his family to Paris. He reestablished the family jewelry business, buying the firm of well-known Paris jeweler Gustave Baugrand. Henri and his older brother Paul (1851-1915) began a course of studies that would help prepare them when they took their turns at the helm of Maison Vever.
   As well as training with his father and other jewelers, Henri honed his design and drawing skills at the École Arts Décoratif and the École des Beaux-Arts. In 1881, Ernest retired, leaving his sons in charge.

Building a Reputation
   While Paul handled the business side of the firm, Henri was in charge of the artistic end. Together, the brothers set about fostering the firm’s reputation for producing fine gem-set jewelry. Their exhibition at the 1889 International Exposition in Paris won them one of two Grand Prix awards for gem-set jewelry. The firm’s reputation was further bolstered over the years by exhibiting at other international expositions in Moscow, Chicago and Brussels, and by employing some of the leading jewelry artists of the day, including designer Eugéne Grasset and enamelist Etienne Tourette. Paul passed away in 1915. In 1921, at the age of 67, Henri turned the business over to Paul’s sons, André and Pierre. Henri died in 1942 and in 1982 the firm closed.

An Artistic Legacy
   As a successful jewelry establishment, Maison Vever embraced the popular artistic movements of the times, such as Renaissance Revival and the Oriental Style. But it was Art Nouveau jewelry, expressing the signature themes of flora, fauna and the female form in exquisite gemstones and gold, created during Henri and Paul’s tenure for which the firm is remembered. At the 1900 Paris Exposition Universelle, these efforts were rewarded with a Grand Prix for Art Nouveau jewelry. Included in their presentation was the iconic Art Nouveau ruby, diamond, agate, enamel and gold pendant, titled “Sylvia,” which featured a female form with the wings of a butterfly. It is part of the permanent collection of the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris. Also included in the firm’s exhibition was the well-known La Bretonne, a sculpted gold pendant of a young Breton girl in traditional costume enhanced by old European and rose-cut diamonds, amethyst and enamel (shown above).
   One of Henri’s pieces from this period, a belt buckle with lily pads and blossoms, circa 1900, featuring gold, enamel and diamonds, was lent to Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), as part of the exhibition “Imperishable Beauty: Art Nouveau Jewelry.” It illustrates many distinguishing Art Nouveau elements, points out Yvonne Markowitz, MFA’s Rita J. Kaplan and Susan B. Kaplan curator of jewelry. “These include whiplash curves, an interest in the natural world, asymmetry and soft-hued enamels. Many Vever ornaments show the influence of the arts of Japan. He was, in fact, an important collector of Japanese wood block prints. Vever leaves an impressive body of work and was one of the first to recognize the considerable talent of René Lalique.”
   “All of the jewelers in the Art Nouveau period were following in Lalique’s wake,” notes Benjamin Macklowe, vice president of the Macklowe Gallery in New York City. “The challenge was how to not be a poor imitation. Vever did really wonderful things in the Art Nouveau period, taking it to his own natural conclusion.”
   Diamonds and gemstones were part of Henri’s design vocabulary, says Macklowe, pointing out as an example a French Art Nouveau platinum and 18-karat-gold pendant/brooch Henri created circa 1900. It has old European and rose-cut diamonds and marquise-cut pink topaz. “It expresses the Art Nouveau aesthetic of an elegant, but slightly menacing, orchid in platinum and diamond. This was a piece that was much more about the taste of the maker and discernment of the owner who would purchase it.
   “Vever broke away from the nineteenth-century jewelry expression of lovely pieces without distinctive design characteristics, so that they could have been made in 1820 or 1960,” sums up Macklowe. “He made some very beautiful things.”
   Vever’s firm was successful over the course of a very long period of time, continues Macklowe. “They were a firm that was very, very good in incorporating the Art Nouveau aesthetic into jewelry and at the same time were continuing to make classic late-nineteenth to early-twentieth-century diamond designs.”
   Along with the stellar jewelry associated with the Vever name, Henri’s place in jewelry history is further enhanced by his scholarly tome on French jewelry. “Vever really does distinguish himself by his work on the three-volume history of French jewelry in the nineteenth century,” says Macklowe. “It was truly the first real effort by anyone to codify the jewelry of that period, recognizing that it wasn’t just about commerce but artistry that deserved to be recognized and classified and compared, one piece to the next.”

Article from the Rapaport Magazine - May 2014. To subscribe click here.

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