Fontenay was one of the outstanding French goldsmiths of the 19th century, described by his contemporary Henri Vever as “a man of distinction and rare intelligence, of great discernment and impeccable taste.”
He was born in 1823 in Paris, the third generation of a family of jewellers, and his skill as a draughtsman was evident from childhood. After finishing his education he informed his parents of his desire to enter the trade and so they arranged his apprenticeship with the renowned craftsman Marchand. After completing his training he joined the firm of Dutreih (famous for the meticulous nature of their work) and many years later Fontenay would describe the jewellery made by his mentor as “exquisite, delicate and original.” In 1847 Fontenay made the decision to set up his own business and he founded his workshop at 2 rue Favart, north of the Palais Royal in Paris’s 2nd arrondissement. Within just a few years he was supplying many esteemed jewellers, including Louis François Cartier, with a variety of jewels many of which were inspired by antiquity. In 1855 he participated in the Paris Exposition Universelle where he exhibited a stunning diamond tiara of naturalistic form designed as a branch of wild brambles which was covered with both flowers and fruit. Three years later he produced a tiara of quite different appearance for the Empress Eugénie. It was a formal circlet style with large stylised fleurons set with emeralds which could be detached and replaced with drop shaped pearls.
In 1861 the Louvre exhibited pieces from the Campana collection which Napoleon III had acquired for the French nation. Fontenay was very influenced by the jewellery on display and his production of antiquity inspired jewels increased. During the 1860s and 70s he created a huge quantity of necklaces, bracelets, earrings, brooches, lockets and demi-parures which interpreted archaeological-style motifs in myriad different ways. He favoured a soft matt gold and embellished his designs with pearls, lapis, pale pink coral and pastel coloured enamels. As Vever notes “the quantity and variety of jewels that emerged from his workshop is unimaginable.” He was recognised for his wonderful archaeological jewels in 1867 when he was awarded a gold medal at the Paris Exposition.
Fontenay’s clients were drawn to his work from all over the world and during the 1860s in particular he made many lavish gold and gem-set jewels for the Far East, India and Siam. As well as jewels he created a huge variety of lavish precious objet such as boxes, pipes, sabres, clocks and tableware. For the King of Siam he made a complete set of horse tack, every piece of which was embellished with large gemstones. For the Shah of Persia he remounted family heirlooms and for the Viceroy of Egypt he created pieces that “surpassed the wildest dreams of extravagance”. These included a spectacular solid gold dinner service decorated with enamel and set with thousands of diamonds, pearls, rubies and emeralds that Fontenay considered one of the most remarkable commissions he ever received.
In addition to running his highly successful workshop, Fontenay was also a founding member of the Chambre Syndicale de la Bijouterie-Joaillerie-Orfèvrerie along with a group of fellow jewellers such as Frédéric Boucheron and Antoine Mellerio. He was interested in the academic side of the trade and in creating supportive networks for his fellow craftsmen as well as setting up a school in which all aspects of the trade could be passed on to future generations. He regularly wrote articles on subjects relating to goldsmithing and jewellery which were published in magazines and journals such as the Revue des Art Décoratifs. In 1873 he was awarded the Légion d’Honneur in recognition of the masterly report he wrote on the goldsmiths’ and silversmiths’ work shown at the Vienna International Exhibition.
After his retirement in 1882 (when his business was taken over by Henri Smets) he devoted his time entirely to writing articles as well as working on his book ‘Les Bijoux Anciens et Modernes’ which was published just after his death in 1887. Today jewellery by Fontenay is greatly sought after by connoisseurs and collectors. It has been identified in original fitted cases by companies as diverse as Tiffany & Co. and Boucheron and is in the jewellery collections of great museums throughout the world.