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Jazz-age jewels

The enduring appeal and surprising variety of Art Deco designs is still apparent a century later.

By Benjamin Macklowe


During the decade between the end of World War I and the dawn of the Great Depression, America and the Western world experienced prosperity on a scale previously unthinkable. This era marked the birth of globalism and was celebrated with joyful music, witty and occasionally scandalous theater, and fine art, all disseminated through the new media of magazines, radio and motion pictures.

But what do we make of the jewelry of this era? When assessing an Art Deco piece, one should look beyond the surface of the gems and figure out where it fits into the social and aesthetic currents of that historical moment. The Macklowe Gallery collection includes a number of jewels that tell such stories. Many of them are currently on loan to the Nassau County Museum of Art for its exhibition “Anything Goes: The Jazz Age,” which runs through July 8.

A liberated wardrobe

The iconic Art Deco jewel is a sautoir, a long necklace meant to be worn over a deconstructed dress — one without the traditional corset. Prior to 1914, a “proper woman” would never have dressed without a corset, and the radical change in women’s clothing silhouettes liberated jewelers to create new forms.

The advent of the clip-on earring tells a similar story. The short-cropped pixie haircut fashionable in the 1920s exposed women’s ears and popularized a smaller look than the chandelier design that had dominated earrings since antiquity.

Pretty in platinum

Changes in clothing were only one factor in the look of Art Deco jewelry. The most important one was globalism. The far-reaching effects of empire, technology and international trade exposed the jewelers of the West to new possibilities.

Take platinum, for example. While it had been discovered in the 18th century and used sparingly by Italian metalsmiths as early as 1780, it wasn’t until the early 1900s that metallurgists brought down its melting point and alloyed platinum into the strong and ductile material we know today. The tensile strength of this metal enabled jewelers such as Parisian designer Okrant et Davidonniez to create pieces with open spaces. This type of design simply would not have been practical with the softer materials of gold and silver.

The 1924 discovery of the Merensky Reef platinum deposits in South Africa helped bring down its price, confirming platinum as the white metal of choice for luxury jewelry. At the same time, the extraordinary diamond mines of southern Africa were starting to develop, facilitating an all-white look of diamonds and platinum that became de rigeur for Art Deco jewelry. Whereas colored stones and enamel appeared in early Deco pieces — such as in a giardinetti (“little garden”) brooch by American jeweler Kohn — the advances in diamond cutting by Tolkowsky and Asscher made it possible for houses like Gattle to create an all-white giardinetti with more varied cuts of diamonds forming the brooch’s design.

Eastern influences

In addition to gems, Africa provided aesthetic inspiration, particularly in the more avant-garde jewelry by the likes of Jean Després. On a purely visual level, however, influences from Egypt and China outstripped those of Africa. “Egyptian revival” jewelry began to be made in the West almost immediately after archaeological discoveries in the Valley of Kings as far back as 1850. The discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamen in 1922 set off the third wave of Egyptomania — as seen in a Van Cleef & Arpels bracelet depicting the goddess Isis, based on a 1360 BCE image from the Tomb of Seti.

It was also during the Art Deco period that China’s sense of symmetry and color found its way into Western jewelers’ work. Cartier, for instance, modeled a brooch on a Chinese window grille, benefiting from the Chinese understanding of negative space and the use of red lacquer as the main color. The Chinese penchant for red, black and white in design was often apparent in Art Deco jewelry. This color palette stood in marked contrast to the naturalistic tones of the Art Nouveau period, which ended with the advent of World War I.

Lasting excitement

With the confluence of changing fashions, technological innovation and rapid globalization that came together during the Art Deco period, it’s no surprise that this era brought forth some of the most exciting, enduring art and jewelry in history. Understanding these influences helps us recognize the great master jewelers of that time and how they shaped — and were shaped by — this period in design.

Benjamin Macklowe is president of Macklowe Gallery in New York. macklowegallery.com

Image: Macklowe gallery

Article from the Rapaport Magazine - June 2018. To subscribe click here.

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