The period between World Wars I and II is known by several names: the Roaring Twenties, the Jazz Age, the Machine Age. All conjure up a sense of industry, creativity and speed—of something exciting and new. This was the stage onto which the style known as Art Deco burst in the early 20th century. Architects, artists and designers embraced a powerful, streamlined aesthetic in everything from skyscrapers to advertising posters.
On a more intimate scale, new materials and styles liberated jewelers from the constraints of the 1800s and allowed them to create striking ornaments with clean lines and geometric shapes. Almost 100 years later, Art Deco jewelry is still highly prized.
Although the Art Deco era entered the international consciousness thanks to the 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris, it had actually started several years earlier. “It was a progression,” explains Michael Larsen, head of the Jewelry & Watches Department at Freeman’s in Philadelphia. “Victorian jewelry was gold, with a lot of embellished engraving. In the Edwardian period, you see openwork and negative space. Art Nouveau, which immediately preceded Art Deco, is very flowing, natural and organic. You’ll see a lot of dragonflies, butterflies, plants, the female form.
“Then you get into Art Deco, and it’s very geometric, with repetitive shapes, symmetry, clean, straight lines and ziggurats (ancient Mesopo-tamian pyramid-shaped towers). The inspiration was largely industrial.”
This design focus was perfectly in sync with the rapid technological development that was transforming the United States into a modern, urban society. It was a heady time. Everyday people were using electricity to light their homes. Cars, trains and planes were familiar to a large part of the population. The mood was confident and optimistic. “This is the period when America emerged prominently onto the world scene,” says Larsen. “We were modernizing our thoughts and making our mark. Jazz, the suffragette movement and technology accelerated the transition from Victorian influence to ‘The American Way.’”
As Larsen points out, major social forces were at work. Women had shouldered enormous responsibilities at home while men were overseas in World War I. As part of this independence and their new role in the work force, they demanded less constraining fashions. Hemlines zoomed up, necklines plunged, sleeves were frequently dispensed with. “You can see the transition to Art Deco in hair styles, too,” says Sandy DeMaio, owner of Sandy DeMaio Antique & Fine Jewelry in Bryn Mawr. “In the Art Nouveau period, women had long, flowing hair. In the 20s, women cut their hair and the bob was popular.”
Bare skin provided the ideal canvas for lavish ornamentation, and jewelers responded with necklaces, bracelets, ear clips and brooches. Their efforts were facilitated by improvements in materials and technology. The increased availability of platinum—strong yet flexible—allowed jewelers to craft settings that were delicate and minimalist. (The “mystery setting” or “invisible setting” developed by Van Cleef & Arpels used a system of grooves and rails, so that no metal was visible when gems were mounted.) New methods of gem cutting ushered in square, pear, trapeze, table and baguette stones, where the brilliant and rose cuts had once dominated.
Rich colors entered the jeweler’s palette during the Art Deco era, inspired in part by the Ballet Russes and a fascination with Egyptian and Asian motifs. Onyx, coral, jade, lapis lazuli and emerald contrasted beautifully with silver-gray platinum and sparkling diamonds. Often, jewelers would combine different cuts and colors to create dazzling geometric pieces.
Creative artists found ways to make jewelry more versatile. A pair of clips could be connected into a brooch or hung on a chain. Brooches could be pinned on charming little cloche hats, draped onto shoulders, or attached to waistbands.
France—particularly Paris—was the nexus for Art Deco jewelry in the 1920s and 1930s. “Without a doubt, the most influential Art Deco jeweler was Cartier,” says Michael Larsen.
Louis, Pierre and Jacques Cartier, grandsons of the founder of the House of Cartier, made the firm an international jewelry powerhouse. They opened shops in New York and London. Among Cartier’s most famous Art Deco creations, Tutti Frutti uses carved emeralds, rubies, sapphires and diamonds.
Others also made their mark, including Van Cleef & Arpels, Georges Fouquet and René Lalique. In the U.S., Tiffany & Co., Udall & Ballou, J.E. Caldwell & Company and Bailey Banks & Biddle represented the major centers of New York and Philadelphia. In addition to precious metals and gems, jewelry artists experimented with Bakelite and other plastics, and used glass, amber, lacquer and wood to expand their product lines.
The market for Art Deco jewelry today remains strong. Recent sales at Freeman’s include a stunning Lady’s Fine Art Deco bracelet made by Cartier in 1925, which sold for $80,500; a circa-1935 diamond and platinum strap bracelet that brought $31,250; and a platinum, diamond, emerald, ruby and onyx jabot pin from Cartier that went for $22,500.
The consistent, classic style of art deco jewelry has helped it hold its value. Items with platinum and diamonds have a simple elegance that can be worn with a variety of things. For anyone considering a purchase, Larsen has this advice: “Buy what you love—it’s just as simple as that. Quality and origin matter, but if the piece is well-constructed and you love it, you’ll be fine.”
1808 Chestnut St., Philadelphia, Pa. 19103
Sandy DeMaio Antique & Fine Jewelry
860 Lancaster Ave., Bryn Mawr, Pa. 19010