the Colorful art of art deco jewelry
The term Art Deco generally refers to a decorative style that spanned the Roaring Twenties and the Great Depression of the early 1930s. One of the most popular vintage periods in decorative arts, the Art Deco style influenced architecture, fashion, jewelry, cars, furniture, art, movie theaters, trains and even everyday objects, such as radios and vacuum cleaners.
By Ioannis Alexandris
By Ioannis Alexandris
Interestingly, the term "Art Deco" was not used much during the time in which the style was popular, which has led to a great deal of discussion about its origins. One of the difficulties in defining what constitutes Art Deco can be attributed to the many varied influences that came together to produce this style. The Russian Ballet, Cubism, King Tutankhamen, German Bauhaus and the Paris Exposition all contributed to the collage of styles that ultimately became known as Art Deco.
This period was the era of the flapper, jazz and machines. It was sandwiched between the decades of war and evoked a carefree attitude, yet one that also combined conservatism. The jewelers of the Art Deco epoch, 1920-1939, produced some of the most dazzling pieces ever created.
The designs were daring, flamboyant, pristine, playful and often quite colorful. Unlike the "Art Nouveau" and "Arts & Crafts" periods, when noted designers held prime positions and exerted strong influences on other individuals and firms, the Art Deco years were heavy on design itself, and produced many quintessential pieces, anonymously designed, unsigned (except for perhaps a retailer’s mark) and often devoid of national origin.
The catastrophic events of World War I had a fairly devastating effect on art and artistic design in general. Jewelry was certainly no exception. After 1918, it seemed singularly inappropriate to wear delicate diamond garland sprays or Art Nouveau naturalistic enamels that were firmly rooted in a time that was obliterated in the trenches of the Western Front.
The new motto became “Live now and forget the past.” A sense of restlessness and change was quickly spreading throughout Europe and America. Inevitably, this would be articulated in new and daring artistic forms and shapes that contrasted with the established formula of the past. Women were also gaining a sense of freedom and independence in society. During the war, women worked alongside men and, for the first time ever, many became the principal breadwinners while their husbands were fighting at the Front.
It was soon apparent that the values and attitudes of life before the war—when helpless and fluttering ladies were adorned from head to foot in formal jewels to reinforce the concept of feminine perfection—were truly over. A more mature and businesslike woman now emerged and she favored simple, straight-lined clothes and jewelry. She also smoked and drank alcohol, learned to drive a car, play tennis and spend her evenings in nightclubs.
The very first influences of the Art Deco Era came a bit earlier. In 1910, Diaghilev’s Russian Ballet Company made its debut performance. The bold colors in the scenery and costumes designed by Leon Bakst signaled a liberation of color for the “pastel” world. By the 1920s, his bright emerald greens, vivid reds and shimmering blues (along with his stenciled patterns and luxurious fabrics) had become incorporated into all fields of fashion and design.
In 1925, the “Exposition Internationale des Art Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes” opened in Paris, attracting several million visitors who came to admire furniture, sculpture, glass, ceramics, silverware and jewelry. The common thread of all these forms was new inspiration and real originality. The exhibition made a huge cultural impact, and became synonymous with the elegance and chic that, today, is called Art Deco.
In November 1922, Howard Carter discovered the tomb of King Tutankhamen. When the discovery was officially announced, it was publicized throughout the world as perhaps the most important archaeological find of the 20th century. Newspapers were filled with the descriptions of the many ancient objects and riches of the young king that were almost beyond belief. They also had an influence on fashion and design of the epoch.
King Tut hats and jewelry were now en vogue. Egyptian motifs, including the falcon, cat, pyramids, lotus flower and scarab, were incorporated into many kinds of jewelry. Gemstones such as lapis lazuli, cornelian and chalcedony became very popular. At first, these unusual materials and designs were used in re-creations of the ancient objects, but soon they were assimilated into the Art Deco style. This kind of jewelry is extremely rare today.
The new style was perhaps foreshadowed by the delicate linearity of the Garland style, and was influenced by the chromatic contrasts popularized by the Ballets Russes, while inspired by the exotic forms of Oriental, African and South American art, as well as the contemporary Cubist and Fauve movements.
The Vienna Secessionists, Cubism, Fauvism and the German Bauhaus all influenced the Art Deco movement. Geometric contours, the elimination of all superfluous decorative ornamentation, formal concepts and aesthetic ideals combined with functionalism.
This minimal, linear expression was consequently adopted by fashionable couturiers such as Paul Poiret, Elsa Schiaparelli, Jeanne Paquin and Coco Chanel, who created smart and comfortable suits for the androgynous, yet sexy, woman of the 1920s.
Jewels became an accessory to match the shape and color of the dress, rather than a valuable ornament to display the wearer’s wealth, as had been the case in the pre-war years.
The Asian inspiration came from Persian carpets, plants, flowers, leaves, lines, arabesques and geometric forms of Islamic Art as well as the use of bright combinations of primary colors found in pottery and mosaic tiles. In the 1920s, numerous pieces of Indian jewelry found their way to Europe together with carved emeralds, rubies and sapphires along with beads. Inspired by the Indian style, jewelers used these gems to create authentic Art Deco pieces. The sarpesh became a motif for pins and brooches. These tasseled turban ornaments were then transferred to necklaces and sautoirs.
From the Far East. Art Deco jewelry designs were inspired by exotic motifs such as pagodas, dragons, Chinese characters and symbols. From Central and South America, Mayan and pre-Colombian civilizations came concentric squares, pyramids, steps and rectangular motifs—all a perfect match to the geometrical forms of Art Deco.
African art became another source of inspiration. Large necklaces and bangles from wood and metal came into fashion along with the use of African mask motifs.
At this time, too, for the first time in history, people began wearing wristwatches. They were simple and sportive for daytime wear, but were partly or entirely set with diamonds or precious stones for the evening. Art Deco watches were some of the most beloved pieces of jewelry for both men and women.
Evolution from the 1920s to the 1930s
Jewelry created in the 1920s was somewhat different than jewelry made in the 1930s. The 1920s styles were flat, two-dimensional and geometric. Long sautoir necklaces often worn with a tassel or geometric pendant, bandeaus and long linear earrings were the characteristic designs of the day. After the market crash in 1929, you might expect a decline in jewelry production, but just the opposite happened.
From the beginning of the 1930s, jewelry became bolder and bigger, characterized by massive constructions of ribbons, straps, plaques and buckles. By the mid-1930s, jewelry was chunkier, three-dimensional and adorned with bows and curves. The simple geometric links of 1920s’ bracelets became wider and were worn in large numbers often set with big diamonds or colored gemstones, sometimes of extraordinary quality. Clips were worn in pairs and the pendant earrings were replaced by large clips of scrolls, flowers or leaf patterns.
Along with the very skillful and famous jewelers of this era, another group, mainly artist-jewelers, made a dramatic appearance. Primarily influenced by the contemporary artistic movements and the machine age, these artist-jewelers created designs that were reduced to the bare minimum. Nearly devoid of ornamentation, their pieces were simple, angular, geometric, flat and linear, yet they also created three-dimensional sculptural pieces.
Large metallic surfaces, carved gemstones, such as jade, coral, onyx and rock crystal gave an original and amazing feel to the piece. Lapis lazuli was also used, although the favorite gems at the time were aquamarine, citrine, topaz and amethyst. Diamonds were used as accents, while sapphire, ruby and emerald were not so much in favor. The best known artist-jewelers of the Art Deco epoch were George and Jean Fouquet, Gérard Sandoz, Raymond Templier, Jean Deprés and Jean Dunand.
In terms of metals, the very strong platinum was perfect to hold the gemstones, without using much metal. This made the jewelry very light and placed the importance on gemstones rather than the metal. A less expensive substitute for platinum was platinor.
In gemstones, new cuts were introduced to suit the geometric motifs. Baguettes, calibrated stones, trapezes, half-moons, barrettes, triangles and prisms all gave a totally new dimension to the design, even in simple and repeatedly used forms and motifs from other decades.
During the 1930s, in addition to the gemstones mentioned above, other favorite gems were malachite, turquoise, dyed chalcedony, amber, chrysoprase and the new cultured pearls, which appeared in the market around 1921. Mother-of-pearl, plastic and other synthetic materials, mostly bakelite, were also popular. Lacquer in jewelry and accessories, such as cigarette cases, replaced the enameling of the Art Nouveau period.
The most famous jewelers, apart from the artist-jewelers mentioned above, were Chaumet, Cartier, Boucheron, Mellerio, Lacloche, Mauboussin and Van Cleef & Arpels (around 1934, VCA created the famous Ludo Hexagone bracelet and the revolutionary Invisible Setting). Others included René Boivin, Louis Aucoc, Suzanne Belperron, Walfers, Ostertag, Janesich, Wolfers, Jensen, Tiffany & Co, Black Star & Frost, Shreve & Co, Oscar Heyman & Bros, Maison Birks, Charlton & Co, William Scheer Inc. and Udall & Ballou.
Prized and often imitated today, Art Deco jewelry is indeed a wonderful addition to any woman’s jewelry wardrobe.
Ioannis Alexandris is a gemologist and an expert on vintage, antique and period jewelry. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. (www.gemolithos.com).