Jewelry Hair Comb "Mistletoe"
Design Firm: Vever Frères, Paris
Date: ca. 1899 - 1900.
Medium: Horn, gold, mother of pearl, enamel, bronze
Period/Style: Art Nouveau
Dimensions: Height: 16.8 cm; Width: 9.1 cm
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Mistletoe is one of the Christmas symbols in the Western culture. The luxurious hair comb, authored by Maison Vever, attracted my attention during this Christmas time, so I decided to write about this fine piece of jewelry. This time it is not just a story about Christmas traditions in the Western world, but also a story about botanical sources of inspiration of Art Nouveau era and the neo-romantic orientation of style aesthetics.
Botanical World Of Art Nouveau
The Art Nouveau style arrived by storm and left just as abruptly, with a clearly delineated time period between 1890 and the start of World War I in 1910. It was a “total art” meaning that it influenced all media, from painting to architecture, music, literature and, of course, jewelry. It even inspired street furniture, with fine examples of Art Nouveau ironwork still gracing every Metro entrance in Paris.
Art Nouveau was a break from a series of different revivalist styles, ushered in by the boldness and purity of the recently popular Japonisme.
Flowing lines and curves marked the Art Nouveau style, with women and nature as its primary subjects. Along with nymph-like maidens, botanical themes, peacocks and insects such as dragonflies and butterflies are some of the recurrent motifs in Art Nouveau jewels. The influence of Darwin’s Origin of the Species is evident in realistic botanical and anatomical detail.
Impressionism was also largely influential during the Art Nouveau period, encouraging artists to focus on conveying nature in a sensual and emotionally charged way, as opposed to merely creating a literal interpretation of a flower or animal. But most influential to the Art Nouveau movement was “Japonisme,“ the European fascination with Japanese art and design that first developed in the 1860s following the International Exhibition of 1862. It became a pervading theme in Art Nouveau jewelry in the form of brightly colored enamel, asymmetry and simple, yet elegant motifs. That's why the hair combs became so popular in the Art Nouveau style.
And what was the symbolism and role of the mistletoe? Perhaps it was just the aesthetics of the natural forms that inspired the artist?
In the broader sense the evergreen mistletoe symbolizes immortality and new birth at the winter solstice. Druids believed that mistletoe was sacred and associated it with protection, fertility, love, and health. The Mistletoe is widely associated with mystery, magic, and wisdom. People kiss under the mistletoe because it is neither tree nor shrub and so is equated with freedom from restrictions.
Mistletoe is the most common name for most obligate hemiparasitic plants in the order Santalales. They are attached to their host tree or shrub by a structure called the haustorium, through which they absorb water and nutrients from the host plant.
Mistletoe, from the Old English misteltãn, is a parasitic plant that grows on various trees, particularly the apple tree and it is held in great veneration when found on Oak trees.
The ancient Druids believed mistletoe to be an indicator of great sacredness. The winter solstice, called 'Alban Arthan' by the Druids, was according to Bardic Tradition, the time when the Chief Druid would cut the sacred mistletoe from the Oak. The mistletoe is cut using a golden sickle on the sixth night of the new moon after the winter solstice. A cloth held below the tree by other members of the order to catch the spigs of mistletoe as they fell, as it was believed that it would have profaned the mistletoe to fall upon the ground. He would then divide the branches into many sprigs and distributed them to the people, who hung them over doorways as protection against thunder, lightning and other evils.
The Druids are thought to have believed that the berries of the mistletoe represented the sperm of the Gods. When pressed, a semen like substance issues from the white berries. Mistletoe was considered a magic aphrodisiac. Girls standing under a sprig of mistletoe were asking for a bit more than a kiss...
Mistletoe was also a plant of peace in antiquity. If enemies met by chance beneath it in a forest, they laid down their arms and maintained a truce until the next day. This is thought to be the origin of the ancient custom of hanging a ball of mistletoe from the ceiling and exchanging kisses under it as a sign of friendship and goodwill.
According to the Anglo-Saxons, kissing under the mistletoe was connected to the legend of Freya, goddess of love, beauty and fertility. According to legend, a man had to kiss any young girl who, without realizing it, found herself accidentally under a sprig of mistletoe hanging from the ceiling.
If a couple in love exchanges a kiss under the mistletoe, it is interpreted as a promise to marry, as well as a prediction of happiness and long life. In France, the custom linked to mistletoe was reserved for New Year's Day: "Au gui l'An neuf" (Mistletoe for the New Year).
Interestingly enough that the Kissing-Bough, which was popular before the introduction of Xmas Trees, was a garland of greenery, shaped like a double hooped May-garland or crown, which was hung from the middle of the ceiling in the main room. It was adorned with candles, red apples rosettes of colored paper and a bunch of mistletoe suspended from the center. The bough itself also is called "the mistletoe". The candles were ceremoniously lit on Xmas Eve and then every evening throughout the 12 days of Xmas...
As you can see, this nice tradition has been widely interpreted during the Art Nouveau era with its orientation to all things neo-romantic.
And now it's time to look into the history of Maison Vever!
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My name is Edīte Parute and I am a fashion historian and researcher from Latvia, association member at "The Association of Dress Historians" (UK) and author of the book "Stila un modes enciklopēdija"/"Encyclopedia of Style and Fashion" (2010) as well as author of many publications.