A Guide to Art Deco Jewellery
Following the organic fluidity of Art Nouveau, the Art Deco style emerged around 1910 and continued until 1925, which signified both its climax and the start of its decline. In contrast to the pale colours and natural lines of Art Nouveau, Art Deco was characterised by vivid colours, formalised floral decoration, spiral motifs and a stronger, more precise use of sinuous curves, spreading into ovals, circles and octagonal panels. Other important elements of early Art Deco design lingered from the Edwardian concentration on graceful eighteenth century design, retaining such motifs as garlands and baskets of flowers.
In the 1920s, the style began to absorb new influences, principally from African American art and Cubism, which gradually guided designs further towards geometry and simplicity. It aimed at ornament for its own sake, perhaps intended to distract people from the unpleasant times of wartime, delivering an effect in the design that was contrived and unreal. This period marked the transition from Art Deco to Modernism, which finally took over after 1925. By the 1930s, encouraged by The Depression, curves became more austere or were converted into angles, and shapes were streamlined and exact.
The post-war era highlighted two major trends in society. On the one hand, a new class made its presence felt: known as the ‘Nouveau Riche’, these were the new rich that gathered enormous fortunes during the war. They strived to distance themselves from their humble origins, and so buy their way into society with glamour and fashion. In this way, a huge new market for luxury goods was created, with Paris as its artistic centre. Thus, jewellery from this period can be found using very expensive materials, such as platinum, diamonds and combination of precious stones, or the complete opposite, purely decorative costume jewels, including deliberate and effective fakes.
On the other hand, as well as a new class, there was a revolution amongst women who had taken on men’s jobs during the war, and who were eager to display their new-found freedom. It was by choosing fashions that demanded strong and basic designs and colour combination in their jewels. Colour is a very important factor in Art Deco which was linked to the use of certain materials. Apart from precious stones, there were imaginative experiments made with semi-precious stones to stretch the range of colours and create equally decorative but less expensive jewels. Favourite combinations were onyx, crystal, jade, coral and turquoise: these were mixed with even less valuable but effective materials, like lacquer, enamel and pastes. Semi-precious stones were often mixed with diamonds, especially to obtain the stark and stunning effect of black onyx and white diamonds, or crystal and diamonds used in the all-white vogue. Pearls are to be found through Art Deco jewellery, either as a contrast to coloured stones, or with diamonds, adding a textural interest to colourless jewels.
These combinations of materials were used to convey several cultural influences that prevailed in the 1920s and 1930s. Oriental motifs were recurrent in all areas of design, in jewellery they could be found as carved jade pendants, earrings or bracelets; exotic plants could determine the shape of diamond and platinum set jewels. The discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1923 spurred copies of Egyptian-inspired designs and forms. Exoticism thus became a firm feature of Art Deco design, leading to taking inspiration from Aztec temples, which suited the move towards geometry. In addition, traditional motifs such as nature and movement were controlled in regular curves for a contrived and stylish look.
The Art Deco period favoured items of jewellery that were both practical and represented the new freedoms of women. Relics from the Victorian era such as cameos were never worn, their place being taken by the French bronze medallions. Large heavy brooches were replaced with arrow pins so only the ends could be seen, as well as brooches with a gap in the middle. Decorative watches were worn at cocktail parties, which additionally saw the creation of the dress or ‘cocktail’ ring, traditionally in a geometrical, oblong or so-called tablet design, in any stark contrast in colours that was considered smart. Pendants were worn on very long chains, and necklaces comprised long strings of beads in amber, ivory, cornelian, coral or pearl. The sautoir, which was a long necklace of jewels or pearls ending in a tassel, was a popular choice. This tendency for long lines was maintained with long earring shapes, usually sleek and slim, sometimes with a design of linked circles, oblongs or triangles. Other usual items were flexible diamond bracelets, and bangles, which were worn high on the upper arm.
The finest jewellery of this period was the work of the large, well-established firms of jewellers, particularly in Paris. The names of the jewellers were important then, as now, adding to the value of a status symbol. Cartier, Boucheron, Mauboussin, Chaumet, Lacloche, and Van Cleef and Arpels are amongst them. Moreover, a small group of designers have survived the test of time and are considered within the most highly prized of the period. These include Georges Fouquet, and his son Jean Fouquet, Jean Desprès, Jean Dunand, Gérard Sandoz, Raymond Templier and Georg Jensen.
Extracts taken from BECKER, V. (1987) Antique and Twentieth Century Jewellery: A Guide for Collectors. London: N. A. G. Press.