Art Deco Jewelry: Part 1 the 1920s

by Dani Chavez

Art Deco is considered one of the last original design eras and is still highly collectible today. It emerged after World War I and embodied the youthful “devil may care” attitude that prevailed at the time. In 1920, the 19th Amendment was passed, giving women the right to vote, which led to freeing women from strict etiquette and attire conventions. This resulted in the popularity of bobbed hair, flapper dresses, and public drinking and smoking. Also, in 1920, prohibition was passed in the United States, banning alcohol, which led to a new era of bootlegging and speakeasies. Drinking illegally became commonplace and added a little excitement to an already thrilling decade.

Decorative artists experienced a revival in the late 19th century and became recognized as skilled artists. In 1875, the term “arts décoratifs” was coined, giving designers an official title and status. Small groups, known as Société des artistes décorateurs (SAD), were formed around Europe to advocate for artists’ rights. In 1925, the Exposition International des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes took place in Paris, which changed the world of design forever. The World’s Fair ran from April to October and featured over 15,000 exhibitors from 20 countries. More than 16 million people attended the French government’s effort to showcase the new style of decorative arts in Europe.

Various factors influenced the Art Deco style. Among these, Cubism, introduced by Picasso and Braque, was a revolutionary art style that relied heavily on geometric patterns and three-dimensional representation. Another significant design element was inspired by the Vienna Secession and Klimt’s linear forms, while the use of brilliant colors was derived from Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes.

Cubist Painter Jean Metzinger, 1915

Art Deco goods and jewelry that are genuinely authentic were produced during the period between the two world wars. Anything made after that period can only be considered a revived version of the Art Deco style. The jewelry from the 1920s, 30s, and 40s bears similar characteristics, but each decade had specific motifs and elements that were popular then.

Early 1920s silver choker necklace. c/o The Gemmary

During the 1920s, established jewelry houses such as Cartier, Boucheron, Mauboussin, Van Cleef, and Arpels played a significant role in pioneering manufacturing techniques and solidifying the quintessential Art Deco style. These jewelry houses paved the way for some of the most technically skilled and gorgeous examples of Art Deco jewels.

Image result for boucheron art deco 1920s

Boucheron, 1925.

Jewelers often used high-value gems of various colors, such as red, green, black, and blue, along with colorless diamonds or rhinestones to create a beautiful contrast that defined the era. Tassel jewelry was particularly popular, with long necklaces dominating the trend.

“Costume jewelry is not made to give women an aura of wealth but to make them beautiful.” – Coco Chanel.

Significant fashion changes occurred during the 1920s, such as the shortening of hemlines and haircuts. Long earrings with elegant vertical lines became trendy again, and sleeveless dresses replaced Edwardian-era evening gowns with relaxed waists. This change led to the popularity of bare arms, highlighting significant jewel-encrusted bracelets and bakelite bangles. Brooches were small and usually worn on the shoulder or pinned on a hat, belt, or bag. Black and white was a widely popular and dramatic contrast among jewelers, with black onyx, diamonds, or rock crystal being the most commonly used materials.

1920s Onyx, Diamond, and Enamel 18K Ring. c/o The Gemmary

During the mid-1920s, designers were influenced by various cultures, including those from the Far East, Africa, and India. Josephine Baker’s Revue Nègre and the Colonial Exhibitions in Marseilles and Paris sparked a craze for African jewelry and ivory. Interest in Chinese cultures resulted in the creation of intricately carved jade pendants. Inspired by India’s Mogul empire, Cartier crafted large beads of ruby, emerald, and sapphire into leaves and flowers to symbolize the “tree of life.”

Cartier ‘Tutti Fruitti’ Bracelet. Image Source: Christie’s

The discovery of King Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922 fueled a widespread fascination with Ancient Egyptian culture, profoundly influencing jewelry design in the 1920s. The treasures found, characterized by intricate gold pieces adorned with colorful gemstones and symbolic motifs, sparked an Art Deco revival of Egyptian themes. Jewelers began incorporating geometric patterns, lotus flowers, scarabs, and hieroglyphic inscriptions into their creations, epitomizing the luxury and modernity of the Roaring Twenties. King Tut’s tomb enriched historical understanding and left an enduring mark on fashion and design during that era.

Collection of vintage Egyptian Revival jewelry. Image Credit: The Gemmary, LLC

Bakelite jewelry, an early form of plastic, was an affordable alternative to pricier pieces and offered wearers bright colors. This thermoset plastic came in opaque colors and was typically more durable and less expensive than other plastics. Pro tip: If unsure whether a piece is Bakelite, rub it roughly with your finger until you feel the heat, and then smell it. If it’s Bakelite, it will smell like formaldehyde!

In the late 1920s, Coco Chanel popularized the use of costume jewelry. The trend allowed people to wear lots of flashy jewelry during the day in Paris, with long strands of imitation and glass bead necklaces being the favorite. The focus shifted back to bold and extravagant pieces, which were not meant to be subtle. This era, known as the “Roaring Twenties,” encouraged women to break free and express themselves as vibrant and energetic individuals.

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