Art Deco Jewelry: Part 3 the 1940s

by Dani Chavez

Retro jewelry, or cocktail jewelry, was popular in the late 1930s and 1940s. Large and colorful statement pieces characterize it.

Retro spinel and ruby cocktail ring. c/o The Gemmary

The 1940s began with a significant event – the world was engulfed in war, which significantly impacted the jewelry industry. Skilled artisans were lost to battle, manufacturing plants were converted to bomb-making, trade routes were disrupted, metal was rationed, and additional taxes were levied on jewelry. As a result, the European industry faced numerous challenges. However, the Americans managed to advance towards innovation in jewelry manufacturing.

During the Nazi occupation of Paris, most jewelry houses were forced to shut down. However, a few well-established places, like Cartier, continued their operations. Cartier created a unique brooch that featured a caged bird to symbolize the oppressive occupation. After the Liberation, the brand opened the cage and set the bird free, symbolizing hope and freedom.

    Cartier Bird Brooch c. 1942. c/o Cartier

In the early 1940s, most jewelry was made of yellow gold and silver. White metals such as platinum, nickel, and white gold were restricted due to their use in weapon making. Unlike the ornate and encrusted style of the 1930s, jewelers focused on using one or two large gemstones in the 1940s. The demand for synthetic rubies increased rapidly as the gem trade in Burma came to a halt.

Hélène Arpels in 1939 wearing the Passe-Partout Necklace and Bracelet.

The trend in jewelry design during the 1930s was curved minimalism. However, in the 1940s, a new era of ultra-modern, futuristic designs emerged. The style progressed from flat, geometric patterns to textural 3D pieces. At the 1939 World’s Fair in New York, Van Cleef and Arpels were at the forefront of this new trend with their “ultra-modern” jewelry designs, which won the public over with their innovative and captivating style.

Elizabeth Taylor’s Bulgari Diamonds and Emeralds

Designers found inspiration in nature, which led to incorporating floral motifs, exotic animals, and birds into their collections. As a result, jewelry began to incorporate asymmetry, unusual gemstone cuts, and a sense of movement and spontaneity. Bouquets of gemstones in random clusters became a significant trend in jewelry design.

During World War II, the participation of many women in the workforce led to the adoption of stern and masculine fashion trends. Designers such as Chanel and Schiaparelli incorporated military-style designs into their clothing lines. To balance masculinity, jewelers created large and feminine pieces. Jewelry companies in America that were not affected by the war catered to their wealthy clientele by producing large and asymmetrical jewelry.

1940s Women Heading to Work

In the post-war period, new materials and metals gained popularity. Green and rose gold became fashionable, and palladium was introduced. Palladium belongs to the platinum group and is known for its excellent durability and anti-corrosion properties. Moreover, less valuable gemstones like aquamarine, citrine, and amethyst, as well as lab-grown synthetics, were commonly found in larger sizes and clusters.

Retro Lab-Grown Color Change Sapphire Ring. c/o The Gemmary

American costume jewelry companies had an edge during the war, and Providence, Rhode Island, was the hub of the industry’s most significant movement. Companies like Eisenberg, Trifari, and Miriam Haskell thrived with the emergence of a new female consumer; women could finally afford to spend on themselves thanks to their jobs and disposable income. Necklines became deeper when Dior introduced the New Look in 1947, which was accompanied by the invention of the pencil skirt.

One of the changes in engagement rings is the rise in popularity of the “illusion” setting. This setting also called the “fishtail” setting, involves placing a round diamond in a square setting to create the illusion of a larger stone. It’s a bit like an angler telling the story of a fish that’s “this big” when, in reality, it’s much smaller.

1940s Illusion Wedding Set. c/o The Gemmary

In Scandinavia, a new sculptural style led by sculptor Henning Koppel emerged. This style was characterized by a clean, minimalist design, with silver being the preferred medium. The jewelry created during this period had a robust and abstract form with rounded lines and soft corners. Georg Jensen was the most famous jeweler from this period and played a significant role in this movement.

Georg Jensen brooch. c/o Etsy

In the post-war recovery period in Europe, a new trend of modernism emerged. The final phase of Art Deco design was characterized by focusing on the beauty and fancifulness of nature, as opposed to the harsh realities of life. Unfortunately, many of these exquisite pieces of art were melted down for their scrap value, making them rare to find. Although the retro period only lasted for a decade, the innovations made during this time had a lasting impact on the jewelry industry. They paved the way for the mid-century modern movement of the 1950s and 1960s.


Bell, C Jeanenne. (2009) Answers to Questions About Old Jewelry. Lola, WI: Krause Publications.

Philips, Clare. (1996) Jewelry: From Antiquity to Present. New York, NY: Thames & Hudson.

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