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Prohibition, Flappers and King Tut: The Art Deco Period

Ceylon Sapphire And Diamond Ring
Ceylon Sapphire And Diamond Ring (33.06cts). The sapphire was originally featured in a fabulous Art Deco necklace from the 1920s-30s by the renowned French jeweler – La Cloche Freres.
Photo credit: Lang Antiques

So, let’s see where we are in our series about the different historical periods in jewelry manufacturing. We left off with the French stepping out from the watchful eye of the Edwardian period with the curvy lines, soft colors and the Art Nouveau aesthetic. But just like all of the eras previous, Art Nouveau was fated not to last. Times change. Fashions change. And change they did. As WWI began, jewelry making all but stopped. Women had been required to go to work while their men were off at battle. Gone were the corsets of the days past, and the long hair that required fussy daily maintenance. And now the war was over. Prohibition was in full swing, as were cocktail parties, women getting the vote, Asian trade routes. Fashions had changed dramatically too and short hair worn with equally short hemlines and plunging necklines were the all the rage for the newly liberated female. The Russian Ballet was in town, stirring things up with their avant-garde sets, which were bold, colorful and infused with oriental (as we called it back then) influence. King Tut’s tomb had ben discovered and opened and hints of Egyptian design could be seen sneaking into all of the fashions of the day. And with that, the Art Deco period began.

Poster for the Exposition International des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes, Paris 1925 by Robert Bonfils (1886-1972)
Poster for the Exposition International des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes, Paris 1925 by Robert Bonfils (1886-1972)

Prohibition, Flappers and King Tut: The Art Deco Period

The time frame here is roughly the 1920’s through 1935. In 1925 there had been the Exposition International des Arts Décoratifs et Industrial Modernes (Exposition of Decorative Arts and Modern Manufacturers). Out of that exposition a fresh, new style was born and named. Women (and men) were anxious to slough off the stuffy Victorian and Edwardian accouterments. They ditched the fancy and intricate cameos, chatelaines, tiaras and diadems of their parents. And opted instead for an aesthetic influenced somewhat by the Art Nouveau period, but one that at the same time was altogether different. The flowy lines from the Art Nouveau movement had been replaced with its more austere characteristics that were much more highly stylized and full of symmetry, bold color and geometric forms. Diamonds ruled the roost now, although, rubies, emeralds and sapphires were style very much in vogue.

Art Deco Period Platinum And Diamond Dinner Watch
Art Deco Platinum And Diamond Dinner Watch
Photo credit: Levys Fine Jewelry

Not everything was completely turned upside down on its head. There were slivers of the older periods that remained. For example, the bow, basket of flowers and garland themes were still present, albeit expressed and viewed through a very new and different lens. The Edwardian period had introduced the world to the use of platinum and the various setting techniques the metal was well suited for, like knife-wire and millegrain mountings. New technologies, like seri invisible (invisible setting) created by Van Cleef and Arpels (VCA) built on the old methods and offered an element of mystery and magic to brightly colored pieces made from precious stones. And the stones themselves were experiencing a renaissance. New cuts like the calibré, bullet and the like were being fueled by the drive towards clean lines and geometry. Jewelers named Tiffany, Cartier, VCA, Harry Winston, Lalique and Mauboussin, among others, would forevermore become household names as a result of their new modern creations.

1.26 Carat Art Deco Engagement Ring
Photo credit: Erstwhile Jewelry

The Diamond Rules the Roost

Beyond the precious four (diamonds, rubies, emeralds and sapphires), the era saw great use of onyx, rock crystal, jade, turquoise, coral and mother of pearl. Both natural and cultured pearls were in abundance, as was “flame fashion” synthetic corundum (sapphires and rubies) gemstones. Coco Chanel had made it not only acceptable but chic to wear costume jewelry. It was not frowned on at all, but instead often referred to as “Frankly Fake” and viewed as just as valuable as its real counterparts. Until the costume pieces became direct imitations, that is, and then they quickly fell out of favor. Center stones were usually of great quality and the star of the show – often faceted to shine brightly. The side stones, on the other hand, were subdued in their cut, usually showing up as cabochon cuts, carved leaf patters or the above mentioned new geometric cuts.

An Art Deco Seed Pearl And Diamond Sautoir, By Raymond Yard
Photo credit: Christie’s

With the drastic changes in garment fashions, so did we see the same in their complimentary accessories. Plunging necklines now called for a new kind of necklace. The sautoir, a long necklace made of strands of pearls or beads, ending in one or two tassels, were all the rage. With newly shortened sleeves (or no sleeves at all), we now saw bracelets stacked up both arms en mass. Possibly the most popular piece of the day was the double clip brooch. Convertible in nature, in that the two pieces could be worn to appear to be as one, or separated and found at the end of a lapels, the belt of a dress or on the newly popular cloche hat. Wristwatches were a new fad and Cartier was known to make the best. With cocktail parties came cocktail rings – big, bold, sparkly and colorful. Accessories that had at one time been mundane – the necessary compacts, minaudières (small jeweled clutches containing cosmetic and other small necessities), cigarette holders and cigarette cases were now emblazoned and encrusted with jewels, enamel, lacquer or all of the above and glamourous. Frivolity and flamboyance was the name of the game.

1920s Art Deco Carnelian Onyx Diamond Platinum Brooch
1920s Art Deco Carnelian Onyx Diamond Platinum Brooch
Photo credit: Nigel Milne

Art Deco Period: A Crowd Favorite

While the styles of the Art Deco Period only lasted a handful of years, we can see their influence well into the 1950s and 1960s. And today, it’s one of the most sought-after periods for collectors of antique and vintage jewelry. We have to admit it’s one of our very favorites. Is it one of yours? Tell us in the comments what you think about the era. And if you’d like to read up a little further, we recommend Art Deco Jewelry Designs in Full Color or Art Deco JewelryBoth are great resources. Next up later this week: Retro Modern Jewelry – the final piece of our history puzzle.


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