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The Final Frontier: The Retro Modern Period

Retro Modern Period Diamond and Sapphire "Sputnik" Ring
Retro Modern Diamond and Sapphire “Sputnik” Ring

It is often said, “Necessity is the mother of invention.” And in our next historical jewelry manufacturing period, that couldn’t ring more true. We left off last with the Art Deco period and its grand geometric shapes, where the diamond was king of the hill. But as has so often been the case, the period known for its flamboyance and frivolity was cut short by the return of war. WWII was a major blow to the jewelry arts. Platinum again became impossible to come by and gold somewhat scarce. In some instances, if you were to request a newly created piece of jewelry, you’d be expected to provide your own precious metals and even then you’d be required to “share” some with God and country.

The Final Frontier: The Retro Modern Period

As a result, many earlier pieces were often re-worked into more modern designs. Older estate jewelry, considered vintage at that time, was also seeing a resurgence. Bonds, bank notes and currency were often viewed as unstable, but gold and diamonds? Consumers were increasingly confident they would hold their value.

Retro Modern Period Earrings 14kt 1940s amethyst
14kt pinkish gold Retro earrings with bezel amethyst earrings with threaded screw on posts 7/8″ wide each one
Photo credit: The Antique Guild

New methods were being created (that very same innovation and invention we spoke of earlier) to work with the gold on hand and stretch its use out a bit. Thinner sheets of gold backed by base metals were common and many jewelry pieces served multiple purposes through conversion – a necklace could be taken apart and worn as five separate brooches or maybe earrings and a bracelet. Gold was also being mixed with other alloys, reducing its carat weight and producing rose, green and other new “colors” of gold. Gemstones could be hard to come by, especially those of any significant size. In turn, smaller stones were used, but often set together in invisible settings (notably, a new setting technique created in the mid-30’s by Van Cleef and Arpels) to appear, when viewed from a distance, as one large stone.

retro modern period ring with a diamond, rubies and set in rose gold
Handsome 1940’s retro modern ring with a big, beautiful rectangular step cut diamond and ruby accents set in rose gold.
Photo credit: Erie Basin Blog

Synthetic stones were also heavily used during this period. Women still wanted the look and color of their rubies, emeralds and sapphires and the bigger the better. You’ll also find large, more readily available semi-precious stones like aquamarine, topaz and tourmalines being used, as well as enamels to help accentuate (0r even replace) vivid stones.

Retro Modern Cartier_Bird_in_a_Cage
Cartier Protested the German Occupation During World War II by Creating Small Pins Depicting Caged Birds. c.1942.
Photo Courtesy of Christie’s

Displaying you patriotism through your jewelry was incredibly popular. Folks like Cartier, Mauboussin and Van Cleef and Arpels used their designs as a method of war protest (Cartier’s caged bird pins) and celebration (Mauboussin’s Jeep de la Libération (liberation jeep) and Van Cleef and Arpels’ “Hawaii Collection” made up of red, white and blue flowers on brooches, necklaces, earrings and rings.

Retro Modern Period Cartier_Duchess_of_Windsor_Panther_Brooch
Cartier Duchess of Windsor Panther Brooch c.1949.
Photo Courtesy of Cartier Collection.

But it wasn’t all about the war. Common themes we’d previously seen again and again remained, like bows, ribbons, and the standards: flowers and animals. Birds were a specialty of many jewelers, created with extreme bursts of color and flourish. Lions, tigers and the iconic Cartier panther came to be during this time. The Duke and Duchess of Windsor acquired quite the specimen perched menacingly on top of a 152.35 carat cabochon sapphire (seen above). It was one of several that the Duchess owned. Along with the flora and fauna, a new theme emerged: movement. Both in the visual and in the literal. Flowing lines were back and we now have the jingle of charm bracelets and waterfall rings.

Retro Modern Period Kunzite_Ring
Retro 70 Carat Kunzite Ring with Bold Gold Mount.
Photo Courtesy of Lang Antiques.

Speaking of rings, the bigger and bolder the better – that was the name of the game. Bombé or boule or paved rings, chalk full of brightly colored gemstones, were everywhere and enormous citrines and aquamarines were, as well. Earrings, or rather earclips, were also large and filled with fans, flowers, ribbons and bow themes. Large cut gemstones were also popular ear adornment, just as they were with the rings.

Retro Modern Period Van_Cleef_&_Arpels_Retro_Ballerina_Brooch
Van Cleef-&-Arpels Ballerina Brooch c.1944. Signed and numbered.
Photo Courtesy of Christie’s.

Gold was the powerhouse metal of the day, and brooches were often molded and worked to resemble the flow of fabric and then accentuated with calibré and cabochon cut, brightly colored gemstones. And then there was the ballerina brooch by VCA (a sample is above). It was extremely popular and repeatedly imitated well into the 1950’s and beyond, both in fine jewelry and as a costume piece. Bracelets were following suit with the rings and earclips – big, chunky, wide and gold. Charms were often applied to cuffs or large semi-precious stones were set “en-bezel” with accents of tiny diamonds for sparkle. A link called the “Snake Link” showed up on the necklace scene (and to some extent with bracelets) and the tassels of the Art Deco period hung around (yes, pun intended) but were modified to seem a bit bolder.

Retro Modern Period Cartier Art Deco Lighter
Retro Cartier Art Deco Lighter
Photo credit: Foundwell on 1st Dibs

And remember the accessories of the Art Deco period? Those compacts, cigarette cases, minaudières, evening bags, lighters, lipstick cases and cigarette holders? They stuck around, although now were found mostly in gold, mixed with other metals (remember, precious metals were hard to come by). They were often engraved, pierced or woven and with only tiny gemstone embellishments. These pieces were possibly the most innovative of the entire era.

Retro Modern Period 14kt Yellow Gold Bear with a Pine Cone Charm (Vintage)
Retro Modern 14kt Yellow Gold Bear With A Pinecone Charm

Are you wanting more info on the Retro Modern period? If so, we love Jewelry by Chanel , Cartier in the 20th Century and Van Cleef & ArpelsAll great resources with information on their specific designs of the time, as well as totally swoon-worthy photographs. And with that, we close out our series covering all of the various antique and vintage jewelry manufacturing periods. Which period was/is your favorite? Drop us a line in the comments and let us know. We always love to hear from you.


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