Thursday, 5 February 2009

Masriera – master jeweller

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Fly to the Costa Brava for a penny? You must be kidding! I wasn't, and we did, thanks to a last-minute flight out of Liverpool's John Lennon Airport courtesy of one of the low-cost airlines operating there.

It was a great way of setting ourselves up for the twin Christmas excesses of too much turkey and television.

In contrast, we raced around in the glorious winter sunshine seeing cities and seaside resorts, eating paella in two-hour lunches and even managing to fit in visits to a museum and an antiques fair - all without the crush of summer tourists.

The first of many revelations was Antoni Gaudi's Temple de la Sagrada Familia - Barcelona's astonishing "jewelled" cathedral to the Sacred Family still being built more than 120 years after it was started in 1882.

The following day, we enjoyed tapas at a pavement cafe outside one of the most striking Art Nouveau buildings in Girona, and in the same city we saw an exhibition featuring the

breathtakingly beautiful jewels illustrated here. Our low-Costa break had turned into a fascinating excursion that I would recommend to anyone interested in antiques and fine art.

The 1890s saw a renaissance in Barcelona, the Catalonian city becoming a centre for avant-garde art with its own version of Art Nouveau, which was turned Modernisme.

At around the same time, a jeweller named Lluis Masriera - the creator of these jewels - was about to burst onto the scene. The third generation of a family of jewellers - his grandfather, Josep, had founded the business in 1839 - Masriera was truly gifted.

He joined the firm as an apprentice aged 15 and began a regime of extensive training in the arts including a period at the School of Fine Arts in Geneva. There he studied the specialised skill of enamel painting, used extensively in jewelled miniature portraits which were popular keepsakes among the rich.

One of the boy's first recorded works is an enamelled vase, presented to the President of the Exposition Universelle in Paris by the Spanish artists exhibiting there.

More importantly, the exhibition introduced Masriera to the extraordinary jewellery of René Lalique, which was receiving wide acclaim.

The experience had a dramatic affect on the young artist craftsmen who returned to Barcelona, his imagination fired by the Art Nouveau motifs of Nature and the sinuous sensual lines of the femme fleur.

Name was on everyone’s lips

Masriera's style was transformed and still only in his late twenties, he was on the verge of huge success.

The turning point followed Masriera's second visit to Paris to see the Centennial Exhibition of 1900.

The French Art Nouveau movement was at its climax by then and legend has it that Masriera decided to close his shop, melt down his entire stock and start again.

After working frantically on his new designs, the shop reopened a few days before Christmas in 1901 and within the week, the showcases were virtually empty. The name "Masriera" was on everyone's lips.

Soon he was the toast of Europe and notably South America. In 1906, he was commissioned to make a tiara for Queen Victoria, which is seen as one of the major achievements of Spanish Art Nouveau, and in 1915, he joined forces with the oldest family of jewellers in Spain, the Carreras.

Founded in 1766, Carreras were top in their field but producing jewellery of more conservative design.

The merger was a boost for both companies and they moved to a new location in one of Barcelona's finest streets.

By 1924, the new company was trading under the name Masriera y Carreras.

However, fashion is fickle and the romantic natural forms of Modernisme were seen as outdated. "Art Deco", a term derived from the title of an international exhibition in Paris in 1925 called the Exposition des Artes Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes, had arrived.

In Catalonia, this new 20th century spirit was called Noucentisme and Masriera responded accordingly, producing a range of striking "Jazz Age" pieces which won a gold medal at the Paris exhibition.

A gifted painter, it is interesting to note that Masriera won a second gold medal for his decoration of the huge curving canvas hung in the circular space that his company used to mount their display. It was an indication that Masriera was preparing to move on.

Four years earlier he had founded a company to promote Catalan theatre and by the 1930s, he had pulled out of jewellery manufacture to concentrate on this other branch of the arts.

The Masriera y Carreras company continues today under the control of the Bagués family who acquired it in 1985. Production continues using many of the original moulds and meticulous methods that made the jewellery unique.

Aside from the fabulous designs and precious materials used by Masriera, his tour de force is the use of a technique known as plique à jour.

Brushstrokes of an Impressionist painting

Creating an effect like a stained-glass window, this requires the jeweller to fill a tiny skeleton made from platinum, gold or silver with coloured enamels which are held in place either by their own surface tension or a mica backplate which melts away in the firing process.

Being open backed, this allows light to pass through the enamel in varying shades and with natural striations producing effects like the brushstrokes of an Impressionist painting.

Today, such techniques have been largely forgotten. In Masriera's day the work required incredible skill, a great deal of time and patience and because levels of wastage were high, a group of customers for whom money was no object.

The Masriera family comprised painters, musicians, sculptors, and art critics. The jewellery business was founded in 1839 by Josep Masriera following a six-year apprenticeship.

Josep had five children and his three sons, Josep, Francesc and Frederic all entered the family business, becoming apprentices at the age of 13.

By the time the father died in 1875, the firm had become well-established and successful, but hugely traditional.

In addition to fine jewellery made for Spain's rich bankers and industrialists, the company also produced ornate religious works of art for the country's churches.

In 1884, the brothers opened what they called a "temple of art" which was both a studio and a retreat intended to inspire them to produce new designs to replace attired product list.

Instead, Frederic found the inspiration to quit jewellery design to establish a metal foundry for the production of bronzes and monumental sculpture.

The two remaining continued alone, registering their business in 1886 as "Masriera Hermanos” - Masriera Brothers.

Josep had four sons, two of whom - Josep and Lluis - joined the family business, but it was the latter who quickly made his mark.

The first piece Lluis designed was a tiara for the bride of a marquis. He was 15.

Pictures show:

Top:  The dragonfly and the bee were favourite Art Nouveau motifs. Both insects have plique à jour enamelled wings, while the head of the dragonfly is a human face carved from ivory

Above: A diamond, sapphire, cultured pearl and enamel peacock brooch

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