Leslie Jordan Clary
In the aftermath of World War I, the Western world’s artistic temperament took a decidedly modern turn. The earlier Art Nouveau movement had dissipated and with it went a kind of innocence. Art Nouveau celebrated a return to nature conveyed in organic, free-flowing lines and forms. This new art, which today we call Art Deco, was sleek, fragmented and inspired by Cubism, Fauvism and the Avant Garde which brought a new iconography, color and designs into the 20th century.
In spite Art Deco’s deliberate stand against the earlier flowery styles of Edwardian and Art Nouveau, it shares some of the values of these earlier works. Both movements celebrated handicrafts and artistic excellence. But rather than reject industry and mechanization, Art Deco embraced technology and progress for the prosperity it symbolized.
Some art historians consider Art Deco the golden age of design. It came into its own during the Roaring 20s, the age of jazz and flappers. F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway were penning their classic works and city skylines were filling up with skyscrapers and modern, new architecture. Charles Lindberg made his historical flight around the world. After the horrors of World War I, a tentative hopefulness had begun to sweep across the Western world, and it found expression in a new approach to art and jewelry design. Art Deco, with its bright, geometric shapes that celebrated the mechanical world was an eclectic, global movement that drew on many sources for inspiration: modernism, architecture, archeology and global cultures. Circles, squares, triangles and rectangles were woven together into complex patterns, and often adhered to a grid. Colors were vivid. Popular gems include diamonds, emeralds, sapphires and rubies, although the defining look of the period is black onyx with white diamonds or rock crystal. New modern materials like plastic and aluminum were introduced, and costume jewelry imitated the luxury style with imitation stones, plastic and enamel.
Art Deco jewelry peaked during the 1920s and 1930s, but it continued throughout the 1950s and has experienced many revivals since then. One notable example is during the 1980s when jewelry suddenly went large and bold with bright colors and unusual juxtapositions of geometric objects.
Paris was the center of the movement, although other countries added their unique interpretations to their creations. Nearly every French jeweler of the time was swept up in the Art Deco tradition. One significant designer that embodied the spirit was Jean Després (1889 — 1980). Trained in industrial design during WWI, Després turned to goldsmithing after the war. His work is emblematic of the times. Strong and modernistic, his pieces reflect the progressive mindset of the times. Today, his work is among the most collectible in the realm of vintage jewelry.
The 1925 Paris Exhibition (the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes) hurtled Art Deco onto the world’s stage. World War I had devastated nearly everyone who personally experienced it, and a cynical edge had crept into the global consciousness. The Paris Exhibition was initiated, in part, as an attempt to re-establish France as a forerunner of luxury and good taste, while Paris claimed its place as the urban icon for fashion. The Paris Exhibit became the epitome of the new, contemporary age with aisle upon aisle of boutiques, artists and department stores all with the mission of promoting modern art and design. Reports from the time say that at night the Paris skyline was transformed into an opulent display of modernism and glittering light. The ripple effects reverberated around the world and before long highly stylized jewelry became the standard for fashionable good taste. The term “Art Deco” is derived from The Paris Exhibit, although it wouldn’t be commonly used until the 1960s when a British historian used the phrase to describe the modernistic style.
Far-flung cultures and exotic locales had a major influence in the development of Art Deco. The discovery of King Tutankhamen’s tomb in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings rocked the world as a treasure trove of amazing objects that hadn’t seen the light of day for 3,000 years were unearthed. Suddenly Egyptian motifs like scarabs, pyramids, lotus flowers and hieroglyphics became ubiquitous. These new patterns and forms served as inspiration for designers seeking to break away from traditional European art and design. Louis Cartier was particularly enthralled by the discovery and the Cartier House developed a number of unique pieces using ancient Egyptian faience beads and fragments.
Mesoamerican themes were also popular as archeological finds shed light on Mayan and Aztec art. Mexican silver from the mountain town of Taxco became popular as well. An American architect designer named William Spratling settled there in 1929 and began a school to train local artisans in silver and other materials. He also opened a shop of native craftsmanship and a thriving arts community grew up around it.
The Ballets Russes was another motivating factor in the new art movement. Led by Sergei Diaghilev from 1909 until his death in 1929, the Ballets Russes pushed the boundaries of art and dance. Diaghilev took the most innovative aspects of design, choreography and costume and incorporated them into productions that sparked the imaginations of some the leading artists and designers of the day such as Pablo Picasso, Coco Chanel and Natalia Goncharova.
Several luxury brands came into their own during the age of Art Deco. It’s fascinating to see how each jewelry house interpreted the times and the designs. All were immersed in the Art Deco movement, but each emphasized different themes and motifs. Many jewelry designers collaborated with teams of craftsmen, artists and architects to bring their vision to fruition.
Louis Comfort Tiffany, who earlier brought touches of Art Nouveau to Tiffany’s creations, became even more renowned for the Art Deco innovations he introduced. One of the most famous Tiffany jewelers from that time is Jean Schlumberger who became renowned particularly for his interpretation of the natural world, fish, flowers and seashells with whimsy and bright colors.
Cartier created some of their most iconic designs during the Art Deco period. Their work has a marked connection to India, Persia and the Far East. Many of these pieces from the 20s and 30s used mother-of-pearl from China, handcrafted beads from India and rubies from Burma. Diamonds, sapphires and emeralds were also common in their designs. The panther is the image most closely linked to Cartier. Jean Toussaint, sometimes called “La panthére” by Louis Cartier, was Cartier’s creative director of jewelry from 1933 to 1970 and inspiration for the panther, which has become emblematic of both Art Deco and for the fierce, determined women of the 20th century. Cartier was also known for exciting and new combinations of diamond, ruby bangles and coral. In the 1930s ornate clips and brooches that featured blackamoor heads became the rage.
Van Cleef & Arpels credit Art Deco and the Paris Exhibition with exalting them to international fame. Their Roses bracelet and brooch was created specifically for the 1925 exhibition and won Grand Prize in the show. The bracelet is themed on nature and consists of 463 round brilliants, 293 rubies and 108 emeralds mounted on platinum. Van Cleef & Arpels drew strongly on Eqgyptian and pharaonic motifs for their work during this era. They are also responsible for the “serti invisible,” one of the most innovative jewelry developments in the realm of jewelry. Known as the mystery or invisible setting, this technique allows gems to be mounted in such a way that no metal is visible.
Contemporary jewelry owes much to Art Deco innovations. Gem cutters made major strides in creating new cuts to better show off the brilliance of gemstones. Lacquering techniques from the Far East replaced expensive enameling. Even today, Art Deco’s influence makes itself known in many contemporary designs such as our fascination with ancient symbols reinterpreted through jewelry.