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Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell in a scene from the movie, “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.” 
Photo by ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images. 


From the 1900s through the 1960s, jewelry designers took major creative leaps, shedding the traditions of one period for something radically different, only to return a decade later to address older styles with a fresh eye. Art Nouveau, Art Deco, Retro Modern and Mid-Century jewelry took their cues from the dramatic sea changes the world was going through in the twentieth century. The thematic through line was a reaction to the major upheavals caused by two World Wars and the blurring of boundaries both within and among countries as planes, trains and automobiles heralded in a modern age of limitless potential and societal restructuring. 





    The Art Nouveau movement was espoused by a group of French designers who wanted to take a more artful approach to design than the more traditional platinum and diamond jewelry popular at the time. According to Yvonne Markowitz, the Rita J. Kaplan and Susan B. Kaplan curator emerita of jewelry at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the seminal figure of this movement was René Lalique. After studying in Britain for two years in the 1880s, he came under the influence of John Ruskin and William Morris and other proponents of the Arts and Crafts movement. “And what he took from their philosophy was an appreciation for unique, one-of-a-kind objects, an interest in nature and an abandonment of the diamond.” 

   Along with the natural world, the female figure is another important subject of Art Nouveau jewelry, Markowitz points out. But whereas in England, women were working as jewelers and beginning their fight for the right to vote, in France, women were still playing a more traditional role in society. In the French Art Nouveau jewelry, the female form was objectified, with many examples presenting it as a hybrid, such as a mermaid or a half butterfly, half woman or even as a Medusa-type “monster.” 



   According to Markowitz, there is an element of surrealism in the Art Nouveau motifs. Lalique, for instance, didn’t just show a flower, but presented a grouping of peonies that included both young buds in full bloom and wilting, fading blossoms, which creates a sense of movement through time. 

   The Art Nouveau movement came in quickly and just as quickly was done. “A lot of people give World War I as the date of its swan song,” says Markowitz, “but by 1910, it’s on its way out. Lalique only spent a decade of his life making jewelry. It was a very, very small part of his career and a lot of the experiments that he did with glass were done during those jewelry years, where he worked primarily in gold and enamel, which is basically powdered glass.” Several other Art Nouveau designers, such as Gérard Sandoz and Henri Vever, transitioned into the Art Deco movement that followed, which had an entirely different aesthetic.

Stylistic Elements 

Whiplash curves, interest in the natural world, asymmetry and a dreamy, soft-hued palette.  

Images included flowers and birds as well as fantastical metamorphoses that combine a woman’s head with an insect’s body and a woman’s body with butterfly wings.  

Emphasis on artistry and complex construction, where backs of pieces are as aesthetically pleasing as the fronts. 



Major Influences

Arts and Crafts movement in Britain that eschewed mass-produced pieces in favor of unique, one-of-a-kind objects, with emphasis on the natural world.  

The beginnings of the concept of art jewelry sold in Parisian galleries, such as Siegfried Bing’s Maison de l’Art Nouveau, from which the movement takes its name. 

Strong tradition in France of training jewelers in goldsmithing techniques such as casting, plating, chasing, engraving and repoussé. 



Japanese art forms, including wood-block prints and mixed-metal sword guards. 

Resurgence of enameling techniques such as plique-a-jour, where the enamels have no metal backing and are open to light, and cloisonné enamel, where the design is outlined in compartments that can be filled with colored enamels.





   Art Deco’s geometric forms, sharp angles, bold colors and images of machine parts had replaced Art Nouveau’s organic, flowing designs by the mid-1920s. The term Art Deco is derived from the Exposition des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes that was held in Paris in 1925.  



 “They were interested in stones for their color and texture, and used moonstone and pale aquamarine, enamels and hard stones rather than rubies, sapphires and other precious gems. They often incorporated a touch of color for contrast, such as red enamel or coral or jade.” The black-and-white jewelry, she says, had no bright colors or surface decorations to distract the eye. “The black-and-white jewelry palette was not feminine in the traditional sense, but it found its audience with the new, modern and emancipated woman.” Precious materials were not really important — ” 

   There was another side of Art Deco jewelry, Friedman points out, full of “curves and set with colorful stones, often carved and embellished with colored enamels in motifs that reflected the exotic influences.” Much of this jewelry, created by the great jewelry houses like Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels and others, borrowed motifs from “Eastern and other exotic influences,” she says, “and featured extravagant use of diamonds and colored stones.” 



   The eye-catching costumes and sets of the Ballet Russes were another source of inspiration. The vibrant hues appeared in jewelry set with coral, amethyst, jade, turquoise, lapis lazuli and “a host of colorful stones that were often carved or fluted for a richer effect,” says Friedman. 



During the 1930s, the look of jewelry changed, points out Friedman. “The angular stylizations of Art Deco became chunkier and more dimensional and the proportions of jewelry were generally heavier and more massive. White polished geometric surfaces were giving way to the sensual curves and volutes of polished yellow gold that would characterize Modernist jewelry, and yellow gold and colored stones, especially citrine, aquamarine and amethyst, were the new fashion.”



Stylistic Elements

Stepped designs of concentric circles or squares provided dramatic dimension. Domes, circles, baguettes, triangles, squares and other geometric shapes were juxtaposed to create strikingly powerful designs. 

Major Influences

Cubist movement, which began in 1907, and its geometric elements provided the starting point for the Art Deco jewelers, who took it to their own levels.  

The inherently sculptural qualities of Machine Age images of cogs and wheels and gears led to a new jewelry vocabulary that was whittled down to the very pure and minimalist images. In the style’s most avant-garde form, color was rejected in favor of the stark drama of black-and-white combinations.



The colorful sets and costumes of the Ballets Russes presented bold combinations of reds and purples, greens and oranges to the public eye, a departure from the softness of Art Nouveau jewelry and the whiteness of Edwardian and Belle Epoque pieces, inspiring a more colorful side of Art Deco jewelry. 



World travel opened up new imagery for designers, from the exotic red and black Chinese lacquer work and the motifs of Islamic art to the sarpech, the feathered and jeweled piece worn by Indian noblemen on their turbans and the Egyptian hieroglyphics found in the tomb of Tutankhamun. Stylized representations were worked in precious gemstones and diamonds. 



The black-and-white jewelry focused on onyx, black enamel, pale chalcedony, rock crystal and diamonds set in silver, white gold or platinum.  

Precious stones such as rubies, emeralds and sapphires were used in new and startling combinations with less costly amethyst, citrine, aquamarine and tourmaline, valued for their translucency and delicate colors. 



Strongly hued opaque hard stones such as coral, jade, turquoise and lapis lazuli created large areas of color and texture. 

Enamels in red, blue and green provided contrast or echoed the colors of stones used in the jewelry. Black enamel was especially important.



  The Retro Modern style was an evolution of Art Deco, says Patricia Faber, co-owner of the Aaron Faber Gallery in New York City, “It’s very geometric but voluminous, curving. In jewelry, what we see most of the time dates from the mid-1940s. You do see a little bit of diamond-set Retro jewelry in the 1930s, but when I think of this style, it is the ornate, three-dimensional, ribbon-like designs in yellow and especially rose gold jewelry. Semiprecious gems were available in the mid- to late-1940s. You still saw this style into the mid-1950s, although by then it’s at the end of its peak.” 


Bracelets, too, were part of women’s Retro jewelry wardrobes. 



Hollywood gave this jewelry its stamp of approval. “The original Retro Modern art and graphic style came from Europe and was here in the 1930s,” explains Faber, “but the jewelry that evolved from or was inspired by it was very Hollywood.” Film dictated what people would wear. Cut off from the usual European influences, America looked to the movies for its fashion cues. “It was movie style,” says Faber, “It was exaggerated. It was large, colorful brooches and large-scale pieces.” It was what Joan Crawford and Greta Garbo were wearing in films.  

Major Influences 

Hollywood was in its heyday and the glamourous jewelry worn on film became the look women wanted to wear.


Less costly stones — aquamarine, citrine, amethyst and tourmaline — were used to compensate for the scarcity of precious ones. Gold was the metal of choice, with rose and pink gold especially popular. Tricolor — green, yellow and rose — gold also could be seen in Retro jewelry, especially bracelets. 



Some designs were geometric and modern, while others were more romantic in style, featuring bold reinterpretations of the floral motifs of the Victorian era.




   Another older style that came back into the fashion spotlight was parures of matching necklace, earrings and bracelet, notes Zapata. “I think the conservativism of the 1950s is reflected in a looking back to what had been in the past. In the late nineteenth century, women had parures and suites of jewelry, and so in the 1950s, women were offered parures and suites of jewelry by the leading jewelers of the day. Makers like Pierre Sterlé — necklace, bracelet, brooch — and Boucheron — bracelet, earrings, brooch and a ring — offered their takes on the older forms. It wasn’t something you saw in the 1920s, 1930s or 1940s.”  




   The 1950s were a break in style from what had gone before, Zapata points out. “It’s after World War II and I think people wanted to feel secure, have a sense of normalcy after the war.” This is also the time when actress Grace Kelly married Prince Rainier III of Monaco, bringing a fairy tale come true sense of glamour to the era. 

   In 1960, Jacqueline Kennedy came to the White House, bringing with her a new stylish elegance after the Eisenhower years. This was a period of affluence, Zapata points out, and “fine jewelry was no longer only worn by the rich.” There was a growing middle class who could afford to buy precious gemstone pieces, “so they could be in step with the trendsetters of the day.

Excerpt from the Rapaport Magazine - By Phyllis Schiller - June 2016 


“As you have probably noticed: I have incorporated my designs that have a similarity to the art forms discussed above along with some originals from that time period.”  Suzanne


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