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Style: Nouveau Riches

Jill Newman

Although it remains unclear whether the two men were ever acquainted, it’s easy to imagine architect Antonio Gaudí and jeweler Lluís Masriera meeting in a Barcelona café at the close of the 19th century to exchange ideas about art. After all, these two were forerunners of their country’s explosive Art Nouveau design movement, which was known at the time in Barcelona as Modernisme.

“Both artisans were inspired by the Art Nouveau era that originated in Paris,” explains Oriol Oliveras Bagués, managing director of Barcelona’s venerable Bagués jewelers, which acquired the Masriera jewelry house in 1985. “They brought the Art Nouveau aesthetic to Barcelona and gave it a distinctly Mediterranean flair by showing natural motifs in colorful forms and using innovative techniques with impeccable craftsmanship.” By the turn of the 20th century, Gaudí, whose imaginatively and colorfully designed buildings remain among the city’s most popular attractions, and Masriera were considered Barcelona’s leading artisans in their respective fields.

This year, as Barcelona celebrates the 150th anniversary of Gaudí’s birth, the Bagués family continues to restore the original luster of the Masriera jewelry house by re-creating its famous designs, handcrafting them exactly as they were made more than 100 years ago.

“Masriera is the link between art and jewelry,” explains Bagués, whose grandfather, Josep Bagués, founded the family jewelry business in 1917 and became a close friend of Masriera, thus establishing the first link between the two jewelry dynasties. “Masriera believed art was not for museums, but for people to wear, and he designed his jewelry like small, wearable sculptures.” Masriera’s designs appeal to people with a cultural and artistic sensibility, adds Bagués. “The jewelry tells a story. This is not simply about fashion or decoration.”

Masriera’s creations have long been prized collectibles among Barcelonans, some of whose families have been amassing the designs for four generations. “The name Masriera is inseparable from Barcelona’s artistic and cultural life in the late 19th and early 20th centuries,” notes Pilar Vélez, an art historian and the director of the Museu Frederic Marès in Barcelona. “Masriera represents integration with the arts in keeping with the globalizing concept that was forged in the late 19th century and so characteristic of Modernism.”

Masriera has often been compared to René Lalique for his impact on the Art Nouveau era, yet he never gained the same lasting notoriety. “If Masriera had been French, he would have been as famous as Lalique,” says Bagués, “but at the time, Spain went into a long period of turmoil [the economic strife and social unrest following defeat in the Spanish-American War, culminating in a coup d’état in 1923 and the Spanish Civil War in 1936 in which Francisco Franco assumed dictatorial power] thus closing off the country and its artisans to many outsiders.”

Still, Masriera holds a unique place in history as the only jewelry house to produce Art Nouveau designs uninterrupted for more than 100 years. While the house of Masriera dates back nearly 200 years, its greatest creative contributions were made around the turn of the 20th century, with Lluís’ colorful jewelry and objets d’art. In his heyday, he was recognized internationally and won prestigious awards at the Universal Exposition of Barcelona in 1888 and the Universal Exhibition in Paris in 1889. Today, Masriera’s pieces are on display at Barcelona’s Museu d’Art Modern and the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, as well as other traveling exhibitions that portray the best of Art Nouveau design.

One of Masriera’s most important legacies, however, was not made of precious metal and gems, but of paper and paint. Over the course of his life, he designed and meticulously archived more than 2,000 jewelry pieces in 100 leather-bound albums. For each design, Masriera created a hand-painted rendering and then carved a metal mold. The record of each design includes the date it was made, for whom it was made, the materials used, and the cost. With these archives, the Bagués family has the ability to re-create some of the finest examples of Art Nouveau designs in the precise scale, color, and form of the original pieces. “Exploring the archives was like uncovering a treasure,” says Bagués.

One American collector recently commissioned a sterling silver vase with elaborate gold, enamel, and gemstone detailing that was originally featured in the gold-prize showcase at the Universal Exposition of Barcelona in 1888. The client had seen the vase in a photo and simply had to have it. The original vase was lost, but serendipitously, the company discovered its terra-cotta prototype in a local antiques shop. It took more than a year to re-create the original, and for that effort, the client paid nearly $200,000.

Aside from creating specially commissioned pieces, each year the Bagués family turns to Masriera’s archives to select a collection of designs to reproduce. The pieces, which take a minimum of six weeks to make, will always be limited in quantity, Bagués explains, because so few craftspeople possess the skills required to create them. Each craftsperson at the Masriera workshop, which is situated on the top floor of the Bagués building for optimum sunlight, has completed five years of art school and served at least a four-year apprenticeship.

The first step in crafting an intricate Masriera piece is grinding crushed glass in an agate mortar and pestle to create the enamel appliqué, which is then painted within the openwork in a gold jewelry design. To crystallize the enamel, the piece is baked for a precise time at 800 degrees—too long and the piece will be burnt; too short and the enamel will not hold. The painting and firing process is repeated at least five times to enhance the vibrance of the colors as well as durability.

Masriera imbued his own spirit in traditional Art Nouveau themes such as flowers, dragonflies, and fairies by employing a variety of enameling methods to create unusual colors and textures. Among his signature techniques was plique-à-jour, an ancient enameling skill that produces a translucent finish. Other Masriera techniques that are still practiced today include painting enamel on gold, to create the look of softly draping silk fabric, and painting miniature portraits on gold pendants and brooches using a pinhead for the fine details.

“People have a great appreciation for beautiful designs and craftsmanship from a bygone era, especially pure design that has not been commercialized,” says Bagués. “Masriera epitomizes the return to tradition, femininity, and romance.” 

Masriera, 800.472.9872, www.masriera.com

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