Rapaport Magazine

Jewelry By The Decades

By Phyllis Schiller
Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell in a scene from the movie, “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.”
Photo by ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images. 

From the 1900s through the 1960s, jewelry designers took major creative leaps, shedding the traditions of one period for something radically different, only to return a decade later to address older styles with a fresh eye. Art Nouveau, Art Deco, Retro Modern and Mid-Century jewelry took their cues from the dramatic sea changes the world was going through in the twentieth century. The thematic through line was a reaction to the major upheavals caused by two World Wars and the blurring of boundaries both within and among countries as planes, trains and automobiles heralded in a modern age of limitless potential and societal restructuring.
Art Nouveau
   The Art Nouveau movement was espoused by a group of French designers who wanted to take a more artful approach to design than the more traditional platinum and diamond jewelry popular at the time. According to Yvonne Markowitz, the Rita J. Kaplan and Susan B. Kaplan curator emerita of jewelry at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the seminal figure of this movement was René Lalique. After studying in Britain for two years in the 1880s, he came under the influence of John Ruskin and William Morris and other proponents of the Arts and Crafts movement. “And what he took from their philosophy was an appreciation for unique, one-of-a-kind objects, an interest in nature and an abandonment of the diamond.”
   Along with the natural world, the female figure is another important subject of Art Nouveau jewelry, Markowitz points out. But whereas in England, women were working as jewelers and beginning their fight for the right to vote, in France, women were still playing a more traditional role in society. In the French Art Nouveau jewelry, the female form was objectified, with many examples presenting it as a hybrid, such as a mermaid or a half butterfly, half woman or even as a Medusa-type “monster.”
   According to Markowitz, there is an element of surrealism in the Art Nouveau motifs. Lalique, for instance, didn’t just show a flower, but presented a grouping of peonies that included both young buds in full bloom and wilting, fading blossoms, which creates a sense of movement through time.
   The Art Nouveau movement came in quickly and just as quickly was done. “A lot of people give World War I as the date of its swan song,” says Markowitz, “but by 1910, it’s on its way out. Lalique only spent a decade of his life making jewelry. It was a very, very small part of his career and a lot of the experiments that he did with glass were done during those jewelry years, where he worked primarily in gold and enamel, which is basically powdered glass.” Several other Art Nouveau designers, such as Gérard Sandoz and Henri Vever, transitioned into the Art Deco movement that followed, which had an entirely different aesthetic.

Stylistic Elements
  • Whiplash curves, interest in the natural world, asymmetry and a dreamy, soft-hued palette. 
  • Images included flowers and birds as well as fantastical metamorphoses that combine a woman’s head with an insect’s body and a woman’s body with butterfly wings. 
  • Emphasis on artistry and complex construction, where backs of pieces are as aesthetically pleasing as the fronts. 
Major Influences
  • Arts and Crafts movement in Britain that eschewed mass-produced pieces in favor of unique, one-of-a-kind objects, with emphasis on the natural world. 
  • The beginnings of the concept of art jewelry sold in Parisian galleries, such as Siegfried Bing’s Maison de l’Art Nouveau, from which the movement takes its name.
  • Strong tradition in France of training jewelers in goldsmithing techniques such as casting, plating, chasing, engraving and repoussé. 
  • Japanese art forms, including wood-block prints and mixed-metal sword guards.
  • Resurgence of enameling techniques such as plique-a-jour, where the enamels have no metal backing and are open to light, and cloisonné enamel, where the design is outlined in compartments that can be filled with colored enamels.
  • Emphasis on colored gemstones in soft pastel hues, chosen for their coloration and transparency rather than value, mostly cabochons with some rose cuts and old Euro diamonds used as accents. 
  • The use of unusual objects such as horn and wood and nonprecious opals and enamel. 
  • Gold rather than platinum.
Key Makers
  • Georges Fouquet, Lucien Gaillard, René Lalique, Louis Comfort Tiffany, Henri Vever.

Art Deco
   Art Deco’s geometric forms, sharp angles, bold colors and images of machine parts had replaced Art Nouveau’s organic, flowing designs by the mid-1920s. The term Art Deco is derived from the Exposition des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes that was held in Paris in 1925.
   The boldest of the designers adopting this new philosophy that embraced the geometric forms of Cubist artwork became known as the “Bijoutiers-Artistes” and included Jean Després, Jean Fouquet, Gérard Sandoz and Raymond Templier. They found their inspiration in the geometric purism of the Cubist movement and in the sculptural qualities of wheels, cogs, gears and the sleek, polished surfaces of the new technologies, says Audrey Friedman, co-owner with husband Haim Manishevitz of Primavera Gallery in New York City. “They were interested in stones for their color and texture, and used moonstone and pale aquamarine, enamels and hard stones rather than rubies, sapphires and other precious gems. They often incorporated a touch of color for contrast, such as red enamel or coral or jade.” The black-and-white jewelry, she says, had no bright colors or surface decorations to distract the eye. “The black-and-white jewelry palette was not feminine in the traditional sense, but it found its audience with the new, modern and emancipated woman.” The “artistic” jewelry of Després, Fouquet, Sandoz, Templier and others “is striking in its strong geometric design and purity of line. Precious materials were not really important — many of the great pieces are in silver, with no stones.”
   There was another side of Art Deco jewelry, Friedman points out, full of “curves and set with colorful stones, often carved and embellished with colored enamels in motifs that reflected the exotic influences.” Much of this jewelry, created by the great jewelry houses like Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels and others, borrowed motifs from “Eastern and other exotic influences,” she says, “and featured extravagant use of diamonds and colored stones.”
   The eye-catching costumes and sets of the Ballet Russes were another source of inspiration. The vibrant hues appeared in jewelry set with coral, amethyst, jade, turquoise, lapis lazuli and “a host of colorful stones that were often carved or fluted for a richer effect,” says Friedman.
   During the 1930s, the look of jewelry changed, points out Friedman. “The angular stylizations of Art Deco became chunkier and more dimensional and the proportions of jewelry were generally heavier and more massive. White polished geometric surfaces were giving way to the sensual curves and volutes of polished yellow gold that would characterize Modernist jewelry, and yellow gold and colored stones, especially citrine, aquamarine and amethyst, were the new fashion.”

Stylistic Elements
  • Stepped designs of concentric circles or squares provided dramatic dimension. Domes, circles, baguettes, triangles, squares and other geometric shapes were juxtaposed to create strikingly powerful designs. 
  • Naturalistic-themed Art Deco jewelry depicted birds, flowers and animals in geometrically stylized versions. 
  • Long pendant earrings in black enamel, onyx and diamonds were fashionable as were rings with a round diamond set on an onyx plaque. Long chains or sautoirs of pearls or rock crystal had black-enameled borders that accentuated the design.
  • Pavé-set and calibré-cut colored stones and diamonds set in platinum turned up in ribbon bracelets, the flat links of which were seamlessly integrated to appear as one surface so that pictorial images inspired by exotic influences could be depicted. 
Major Influences
  • Cubist movement, which began in 1907, and its geometric elements provided the starting point for the Art Deco jewelers, who took it to their own levels. 
  • Silhouettes of post-World War I cars, trains, planes and automobiles were presented as streamlined geometric forms expressed in highly polished white surfaces. 
  • The inherently sculptural qualities of Machine Age images of cogs and wheels and gears led to a new jewelry vocabulary that was whittled down to the very pure and minimalist images. In the style’s most avant-garde form, color was rejected in favor of the stark drama of black-and-white combinations.
  • The colorful sets and costumes of the Ballets Russes presented bold combinations of reds and purples, greens and oranges to the public eye, a departure from the softness of Art Nouveau jewelry and the whiteness of Edwardian and Belle Epoque pieces, inspiring a more colorful side of Art Deco jewelry. 
  • World travel opened up new imagery for designers, from the exotic red and black Chinese lacquer work and the motifs of Islamic art to the sarpech, the feathered and jeweled piece worn by Indian noblemen on their turbans and the Egyptian hieroglyphics found in the tomb of Tutankhamun. Stylized representations were worked in precious gemstones and diamonds, as shown opposite. 
  • The black-and-white jewelry focused on onyx, black enamel, pale chalcedony, rock crystal and diamonds set in silver, white gold or platinum. 
  • White metals — both silver and white gold — were used to provide metallic sheen. 
  • New diamond cutting techniques created baguettes, squares, rectangles, triangles and half-rounds that worked into the various geometric configurations and could be contrasted with black onyx. 
  • Precious stones such as rubies, emeralds and sapphires were used in new and startling combinations with less costly amethyst, citrine, aquamarine and tourmaline, valued for their translucency and delicate colors. Diamonds were used as accents to add light and sparkle and texture without adding color.
  • Strongly hued opaque hard stones such as coral, jade, turquoise and lapis lazuli created large areas of color and texture.
  • Enamels in red, blue and green provided contrast or echoed the colors of stones used in the jewelry. Black enamel was especially important.
Key Makers
  • Cartier, Jean Després, Jean Fouquet, Gérard Sandoz and Raymond Templier.

Retro Modern
   The Retro Modern style was an evolution of Art Deco, says Patricia Faber, co-owner of the Aaron Faber Gallery in New York City, “It’s very geometric but voluminous, curving. In jewelry, what we see most of the time dates from the mid-1940s. You do see a little bit of diamond-set Retro jewelry in the 1930s, but when I think of this style, it is the ornate, three-dimensional, ribbon-like designs in yellow and especially rose gold jewelry. Semiprecious gems were available in the mid- to late-1940s. You still saw this style into the mid-1950s, although by then it’s at the end of its peak.” The main theme of this jewelry, Faber says, was expressed as “ribbons and bows. We have a brooch by Gübelin, shown left, that’s just these curved, heavy pieces of gold wrapped with a sapphire and diamond accent. We have a Tiffany & Co. clip brooch that shows the industrial curved form. It’s less heavy than Mauboussin and Gübelin pieces, with tendrils added to make it a little more feminine. During this period, many pieces that had a European brand were being made in the U.S.” Faber also points out an example by Mauboussin of an exaggerated scallop form with sapphires “that you see very often.”
   Brooches were the signature Retro Modern pieces. The suits that were fashionable during the war years, with their broad shoulders and heavy fabrics, were the perfect platform to showcase that jewelry. “Many of the brands made brooches because it allowed the style to be seen to best advantage.” The other prime category was rings, which curled and rose off the hand. Rings with scrolls and geometric funnel shapes, elaborate rubies and baguette diamonds were very popular, Faber says, in the 1940s and 1950s. “The rings sat up high on the hand.” Bracelets, too, were part of women’s Retro jewelry wardrobes. Watches as well, to some extent, but Faber says she doesn’t see many necklaces.
   Hollywood gave this jewelry its stamp of approval. “The original Retro Modern art and graphic style came from Europe and was here in the 1930s,” explains Faber, “but the jewelry that evolved from or was inspired by it was very Hollywood.” Film dictated what people would wear. Cut off from the usual European influences, America looked to the movies for its fashion cues. “It was movie style,” says Faber, “It was exaggerated. It was large, colorful brooches and large-scale pieces.” It was what Joan Crawford and Greta Garbo were wearing in films.
   In the 1950s, though, that all changes. “The scale diminishes. I see it particularly in women’s watches. Retro watches had ornate covers with diamonds and rubies. They’re very dimensional and curvy. In the 1950s, these watches became deflated. They were still rose gold and had rubies and diamonds, but they were much thinner and understated, and that’s really the end of Retro.”
   In the 1980s and 1990s, Faber says, Retro jewelry became very popular again, especially newer pieces made with Italian gold. But, she says, “it was a watered-down, tamer version, not true to the original period’s over-the-top styling.”

Stylistic Elements
  • Big, bold look.
  • Curved forms that look like ribbons.
  • Prominent brooches, rings that sit high on the finger.
  • Highly polished scroll motifs. 
Major Influences
  • During World War II, platinum was declared a strategic material to be used by the military. But gold was available and a lot of copper, which led to the mixing of alloys of rose and pink and other shadings of gold. 
  • Wartime fashions were more masculine, broad-shouldered with wide lapels, which was perfect for wearing brooches. Women wore heavier fabrics that could be softened with more feminine Retro motifs of ribbons and bows. 
  • The Reflection series, an innovative design concept introduced by Trabert & Hoeffer-Mauboussin in the 1930s, offered women a personalized line of jewelry at a reasonable price by allowing them to choose from premanufactured elements. The Reflection line remained popular until the 1950s. 
  • “Going to Rio” was depicted in the movies and fashion picked up on what was fashionable in the Americas during that period. Colored stones became popular, not just rubies, sapphires and diamonds, but topaz, a lot of citrine and a lot of the gems in South America, which was what was available at the time. 
  • Hollywood was in its heyday and the glamourous jewelry worn on film became the look women wanted to wear.
  • Less costly stones — aquamarine, citrine, amethyst and tourmaline — were used to compensate for the scarcity of precious ones. 
  • Gold was the metal of choice, with rose and pink gold especially popular. Tricolor — green, yellow and rose — gold also could be seen in Retro jewelry, especially bracelets. 
  • Some designs were geometric and modern, while others were more romantic in style, featuring bold reinterpretations of the floral motifs of the Victorian era.
Key Makers
  • Boucheron, Cartier, Paul Flato, Gübelin, Tiffany & Co., Trabert & Hoeffer-Mauboussin, Van Cleef & Arpels, Fulco di Verdura, Raymond Yard.

   The 1950s was a conservative decade. There was a looking back to styles from the 1880s and 1890s. Flowers were reintroduced and reinterpreted by important jewelry houses like Van Cleef & Arpels and Cartier, who were doing more elegant versions with diamonds and emeralds. “At the end of the nineteenth century, new plants like orchids served as inspiration for jewelers, whereas in the 1950s, and into the 1960s, the flowers became a way to show off big diamonds and other stones. It was reflective of the fifties — looking backwards and reinterpreting the past,” says jewelry historian Janet Zapata.
   Another older style that came back into the fashion spotlight was parures of matching necklace, earrings and bracelet, notes Zapata. “I think the conservativism of the 1950s is reflected in a looking back to what had been in the past. In the late nineteenth century, women had parures and suites of jewelry, and so in the 1950s, women were offered parures and suites of jewelry by the leading jewelers of the day. Makers like Pierre Sterlé — necklace, bracelet, brooch — and Boucheron — bracelet, earrings, brooch and a ring — offered their takes on the older forms. It wasn’t something you saw in the 1920s, 1930s or 1940s.”
   The 1950s were a break in style from what had gone before, Zapata points out. “It’s after World War II and I think people wanted to feel secure, have a sense of normalcy after the war.” This is also the time when actress Grace Kelly married Prince Rainier III of Monaco, bringing a fairy tale come true sense of glamour to the era.
   People began to entertain again, and a whole new brand of jewelry came into play. Cocktail rings become popular. “When you’re sitting at a table at a dinner party, you wear smaller pieces of jewelry, but when you’re standing around in someone’s living room, the big rings would show when holding a glass,” points out Zapata. These rings became big, splashy mainstays of women’s jewelry wardrobes.
   In 1960, Jacqueline Kennedy came to the White House, bringing with her a new stylish elegance after the Eisenhower years. This was a period of affluence, Zapata points out, and “fine jewelry was no longer only worn by the rich.” There was a growing middle class who could afford to buy precious gemstone pieces, “so they could be in step with the trendsetters of the day.”
   Glamour was in and diamonds adorned a variety of stylish creatures from butterflies with wings set with diamonds or colored gemstones to Pierre Sterlé’s glorious bird brooches that seem about to soar into the skies at any moment. Their heads and bodies were diamond set or molded out of faceted colored gemstones, while wings and tail feathers were formed from engraved gold or gold loop chains. The flip side of this enhanced naturalism is the whimsy of diamond-adorned poodles or Fulco di Verdura’s dodo bird with a baroque pearl body, coral beak and feathers of pavé diamonds.

Stylistic Elements
  • Floral styles from the nineteenth century are reinterpreted for the 1950s, as are jewelry parures and suites.
  • Big, bold looks from brooches to cocktail rings.
  • 1960s showcased mini skirts and big, in-your-face jewelry. 
  • Diamonds adorned everything from cocktail rings to dress watches.
Major Influences
  • The war ended and the soldiers were home. There was a sense of returning to “normal.”
  • Fun, gem-encrusted animal jewelry was popular. 
  • Cocktail parties were the era’s “in” social gatherings and women wanted jewelry they could show off while entertaining.
  • Marquise diamonds were back in fashion; ballerina rings featured diamond baguette skirts.
  • Yellow gold in textured and hammered variations.
  • Aquamarine, citrine, turquoise showed up in cocktail rings, as accents for diamonds or as big center stones on their own. 
Key Makers
  • Bulgari, Cartier, Paul Flato, Jean Schlumberger, Pierre Sterlé, Van Cleef & Arpels, Fulco di Verdura, David Webb, Harry Winston.

Article from the Rapaport Magazine - June 2016. To subscribe click here.

Comment Comment Email Email Print Print Facebook Facebook Twitter Twitter Share Share