The Roaring Twenties was a brief period of carelessness between two wars. Women took control of a world that previously belonged to men. In just a decade, they found their long-awaited freedom. Ladies cut off their hair, exchanged tight corsets for short tunic dresses, began to work, play sports, drive cars, and even smoke. Simultaneously, the fashion world transformed Paris into the capital of art, luxury and entertainment. The Roaring Twenties marked the beginning of modernity.
An idle mood prevailed in Europe after the First World War. Money teemed, and jewelry looked like a good investment for a prosperous society. Art Deco’s strict geometry changed the flexible lines of Art Nouveau. The movement gained its final recognition at the International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts, organized in Paris in 1925.
Art Deco jewelry
Fashion sought a convenient simplicity in the conditions of modern life’s dynamic practical needs. Vertical lines on dresses with deep necklines and low waists promoted the popularization of sautoirs, which were long chains with large pendants, usually decorated with tassels. Ladies wore pearl necklaces throughout the day. They carelessly tied them in knots and threw them on the their back to draw extra attention to the deep cut of their dress.
Sautoirs, as well as flexible band bracelets, cuffs and long earrings, became an emblem of the Roaring Twenties. Women would often wear them down to the shoulders, perfectly complementing a short “a la garzon” hairstyle. Another “piece of the decade” was a bando, which, unlike a diadem, was dangled low on the forehead. Evening dress-tunics also revived the nineteenth century fashion for wearing more than one bracelet on each hand, often combining them with watches.
Art Deco inspirations
Wearers previously passed classical jewelry forms onto their inheritors. This is no longer relevant. Their mastery and technical excellence did not fill the urgent need for colored diversity. Quite familiar combinations of rubies, sapphires and emeralds required more. This theme was repeated by the refrain again and again, until the end of the 1920s. To the dominant harmony of white and black — diamonds and onyx — the masters added bright chords of coral, jade, lapis lazuli, lacquer and enamel. Transparent stones were contrasted with an opaque, sharply different from them in color and texture.
The far edges of the Earth, particularly Egypt, China and Japan, became an inexhaustible source of inspiration for designers and artists at the time. The eminent Houses mixed up all kinds of styles. Traveling made it possible to study the diversity of cultures. Also it allows us to realize the difference in the traditions of aesthetics and ways of thinking. At this point jewelers drew from many more influences. Jewelry became more diverse.
The “Egyptian” art theme started developing as early as the beginning of the 20th century. One only needs to mention a few events to show how it was relevant. We begin at the interest of Napoleon Bonaparte, who made several trips to Africa from 1798 to 1802. Then, in 1836, on the Place de la Concorde in Paris, the reigning French king established the Luxor obelisk. A little later, Frenchman Auguste Mariette received a monopoly of archaeological research in Egypt. Orientalist Jean-Francois Champollion deciphered the hieroglyphs, and in 1869 Egypt opened the Suez Canal. In 1912 the German Egyptologist Ludwig Borchardt found the portrait of the chief wife of Pharaoh Akhenaten — Nefertiti. And on November 4, 1922, the English archaeologist Howard Carter, with the financial support of Lord George Carnarvon, opened the tomb of Tutankhamun.
These and other serious discoveries contributed to the active formation of large collections of Egyptian art. At the same time, serious traders appeared in London and Paris, specializing in the sale of ancient artifacts of the Mediterranean basin. The young Louis Cartier was a usual suspect at their shops. There he acquired a variety of antiquities, including Egyptian ones. If the jeweler had questions about the attribution of purchased items, he turned to the custodians of the relevant divisions in the Louvre. While studying the monuments of history, Cartier had the idea of using ancient objects and their individual fragments in their products.
Geometric forms, flat images and bright colors made up the basis of ancient Egyptian art. The creators of the Art Deco art language actually wanted this to be the case. Jewelry decoration of this period often showed profiles of kneeling Pharaohs, ibis, scarabs, lotus flowers, eyes of Horus, obelisks, snakes, pyramids and the Sphinx, as well as scenes of offerings and fishing.
Japan and China
The fascination with the Far East brought elements of Japanese and Chinese cultures to jewelry design. Carved jade and lacque were such examples. Among the most popular motifs were Foo Dogs, Buddhas, dragons, as well as landscapes of the mountains and the Chinese pagoda, which were most often depicted on the roofs of vanity cases. Chinese miniature black lacquered panels decorated cigarette cases and evening handbags. Lacquer technology replaced the more complicated and laborious enamel one, which was so popular at the turn of the century. Carved jade rings were used in the decor of earrings, and buckles turned into brooches. Also, often the masters carved constructions of rock crystal and coral in their work.
Indian princes and their spouses were not uncommon guests of the French capital. Eastern guests followed the latest European fashion trends with genuine interest. They changed the usual turban and bloomers to the costumes sewn from a private tailor at the London Savile Row, and ordered the Art Deco-styled bibs at the Place Vendôme jewelers.
Indian decorative and applied arts influenced the House of Cartier the most. After Jacques Cartier’s trip to Delhi in 1911, the company created a new jewelry design that went down in history as a Tutti-Frutti style. They made the accent as a floral composition of carved, often collectible, sapphires, emeralds and rubies.
Art Deco Innovations
Art Deco was a period of innovation and discovery. Many new ideas appeared in the jewelry world. The new trend fascinated artists, but everyone interpreted the style in their own way. Architects, sculptors and a whole community of artists shared ideas, enriching each other and inspiring new achievements. Jewelers created original forms and techniques in their work, which led to a new artistic language of the era.
Use of platinum
Jewelers began to actively use platinum in the second half of the 19th century. But its dawn fell on the period of Art Deco. This solid metal made it possible to create ornaments in volume. It was also more refined and lighter than when working with white gold, which later became a budget novelty of the era.
The House of Van Cleef & Arpels calls transformable jewelry its invention. But similar works spread much earlier. Perhaps they were not as universal as the Passe-Partout work, presented by the French brand in 1939 in New York. However, in the mid-1920s, luxury sautoirs and bando could already be disassembled into many smaller pieces, including necklaces, bracelets, clips and brooches. Van Cleef & Arpels and Cartier just improved the idea.
A new type of decoration appeared among the serious inventions of the period. Connoisseurs knew it as the clip. Thanks to the new fastening system developed by Cartier, it could decorate any part of the dress, even the hair and face. Cartier patented his innovation as a “pince” in 1927 in France, as a “clip in London in 1934, and as a clip brooch a year later. The emergence of such a universal piece in the market had opened up new broad prospects for the creation of new-generation transformers. Each jewelry house offered its original design options for these ornaments and their use. Oftentimes, paired symmetrical clips connected with each other with the help of a special element, and then were transformed into a full-fledged brooch.
Kokichi Mikimoto received his first cultured spherical pearl in 1905. This invention gained its world fame only two decades later. This hitherto exceptional material ceased to be so rare from this point. Anyone can easily access it nowadays. Moreover, in beauty and size, it has outperformed its “wild” fellow. It is not surprising that Japanese sea beads were used in large quantities. They built up long sautoirs and multi-row bracelets, and many people used them to decorate their evening dress-tunics. Pearls definitely became one of the emblems of the era, popularized by Coco Chanel.
The art of cutting in the Art Deco period reached perfection. In addition to establishing new standards for the traditional diamond round cut, new ones were invented. Examples included trapezoidal and triangular, as well as baguette. The masters of the time used “mixed cuts” for small minerals, where the upper part of the diamond was simply smoothed and the lower part was faceted. In this case, each stone had its own shape, which corresponded to the pattern of the elements of the piece. Jewelers expressed the geometricity of the work more clearly and created a bold color contrast.
Mixing of materials
The combination of precious and semiprecious stones was another Art Deco innovation. Jewelers did not use this previously. For example, they combined green jade and diamonds with black onyx, or emeralds and rubies with lapis lazuli. Among the early unpopular minerals, the masters started using citrine, peridot, aquamarine and garnets, which were available in different cuts and sizes.
Some unknown masters used synthetic analogues instead of natural rubies, sapphires and emeralds quite often. The origin of these small inserts did not significantly affect the final cost of the piece, as platinum and diamonds were authentic.
The people demanded more precious accessories in accordance with the new approach to luxury goods and fashion. They often sought vanity cases for cosmetics, cigarette cases, lipstick cases, scent-bottles, and powder boxes. These miniature objects became just as significant as the jewelry itself. This was another distinctive feature of Art Deco.
In 1933, Charles Arpels invented a minaudière. The lady would store her necessary little things in this chest. It contained a powder box, a lighter, a lipstick holder, a cigarette case, a clock, a notebook, a tablet, a tortoiseshell, and a mirror on the inside of the lid. A client of the House Florence Jay Gould suggested the idea of such a much-needed accessory for secular women. She was the wife of the American railroad tycoon, who hid cigarettes, a lighter, a powder-box and lipstick in the ugly “Lucky Strike” metal case. Alfred Van Cleef called the novelty “minaudière” in honor of his wife, Estelle Arpels, a famous prude (the French for “behaving affectedly”). The oblong flat case easily fits in his hand. Soon enough it completely replaced the evening handbags made of fabric and leather.
The invisible setting of stones
One can also connect Van Cleef & Arpels’s success with the invention of a truly revolutionary method of precious stone setting. The idea went down in history as the Mystery Set ™ (invisible setting). They patented the technique in 1933 and perfected it in 1936. Thanks to the initiative, Alfred Van Cleef and Julien Arpels made the effect of “continuity of the precious canvas”. Small grooves were carved in the side faces of the stone, allowing rubies, sapphires, and later, emeralds, to completely hide it.
The stock market crash and the Great Depression
On the other side of the Atlantic, life became harder with the stock market crash in 1929. Money became tight. Buying was tough. Next, the Great Depression of the 1930s reared its ugly head. Jewelry began to be used as payment for loans, and very soon the banks were in distress. Gold and diamonds were more abundant than cash. As a result, the prices for jewelry crashed. This was especially true for natural pearls, which sold for a tenth of their previous price. Society returned to “eternal values” because of the economic crisis. Women tightened their dresses and they saw jewelry as more important. They pushed “White Art Deco” into fashion again. Monochrome combinations replaced color, but the forms became richer, bolder, and more curved. Curls, spirals, stylized leaves and flowers, were bordered with geomoetric frames, and appeared in the design.