Fine Jewelry from the Age of Art Deco

By Benjamin Macklowe & Zoe Groomes-Klotz

As a wearable piece of art, a jewel can be a platform for storytelling written in metal and stones. What sets Art Deco jewelry apart is that, although it is now historical, when it was created, it represented newness. New global influences, new technologies, new art, and new materials all came together to define this crucial moment in jewelry design. By examining one exceptional piece of Art Deco jewelry under the microscope, the pair of rock crystal, jadeite, diamond, and platinum earrings shown below, we can begin to understand how a wearable piece of art can transcend its function and come to represent the social confluences of the Art Deco period.

 

In Art Deco jewelry, perhaps more than in the designs of any earlier movement, material informs meaning. The woman who wore these earrings adorned herself with all of the socially constructed meanings imbued in the piece.  The earrings are a symbol of global awareness, industrial innovation, technology, and modern art, framing the face of the new woman of the world after World War I.

 

In the 1920s, the world was coping with the cold, metallic ruins of war while also enjoying the joy and prosperity that followed it. New forms and concepts were being explored by Pablo Picasso, René Magritte, and Marcel Duchamp in art, Louis Armstrong in music, and James Joyce and F. Scott Fitzgerald in literature. Jewelry emerged from the ashes of World War I as changed as any other creative medium. Art Deco jewelers took a decided step away from the Art Nouveau style that had defined modernity at the turn of the century and turned instead to sharp lines, innovative materials and techniques, and clean design.

Mauboussin Art Deco diamond, aquamarine, rock crystal, and platinum brooch. This French Art Deco brooch combines a rectangular cut aquamarine and fifty-five round-cut diamonds with curved rock crystal added at a later date.

Jean Després ring with forms inspired by the novel shapes and new arrangements introduced by avant-garde art movements.

Jean Després ring with avant-garde inspired forms featuring a bezel-set turquoise stone with dimensional arched side elements.

For jewelry designers, the most important social transformation of the era was the changing role of women during and after the war. For the first time in Western history, women had played key roles on and off the battlefields of Europe, and their aesthetic style shifted in response to their lifestyles. Paul Poiret’s daring harem pants and Coco Chanel’s even more daring “little black dress” were designed for a clientele seeking practicality and versatility in their clothing. With new independence and a new style to match, women appropriated elements of masculinity in order to demand respect and autonomy in the workplace and in their social lives. With celebrities such as Josephine Baker and Joan Crawford leading the way, hemlines and haircuts became shorter than ever before. Jewelry was evolving to fit into this contemporary look. Stacked bracelets adorned exposed wrists, necklaces drew attention to plunging necklines, and earrings clung to the edge of bobs to elongate the neck.

The earrings that we will examine are emblematic of the dynamic zeitgeist of the Art Deco period. The discs of jadeite, a type of jade commonly found in Burma, are framed by diamonds, which are surrounded by clear, clean rock crystal. This translucent quartz is set with larger diamonds that gradually diminish in size as they curve upwards. The diamonds are bezel-set into the rock crystal with platinum, and examination of the backs of the earrings reveals that platinum is the primary material used in their construction. The clusters at the tops of the earrings emulate the design of the suspended drops, with rock crystal petals and a band of jade framing a shimmering diamond in the center.

Pair of Art Deco jade, diamond and rock crystal earrings,

ca. 1930s.

Marsh & Co. mid-twentieth century jadeite, diamond, steel, and platinum ring. The San Francisco jewelry company that created the ring was known for blending traditional Asian materials, such as this jadeite cabochon, with oxidized steel.

Pair of Art Deco diamond, onyx, and carved coral earrings, ca. 1920s. These earrings are in a classical Chinese Art Deco articulated motif.

Art Deco enamel, diamond, onyx, and coral brooch, ca. 1920s. The brooch was made in a classic Chinese Art Deco design, the diamond lantern being an iconic Chinese motif.

Although the earrings are studded with almost seven carats of diamonds, the precious gems are set into very humble materials, transparent quartz and jadeite cut from its host rock, with imperfections stylistically carved into a floral motif. Both rock crystal and jade have been used in jewelry and decorative arts for hundreds (if not thousands) of years, but the Art Deco period saw a resurgence in the use of these materials, which had been eschewed for decades in favor of diamonds and natural pearls. Avant-garde jewelers of the Art Deco era privileged industrial design and non-Western aesthetics over gems for gems’ sake.

Vitreous and ephemeral, rock crystal was a material traditionally used in Rococo chandeliers. However, by the mid-1920s, jewelers who employed rock crystal as a constructive element were totally reinventing the material. Rather than being used solely for its form, rock crystal took on metal’s functional role. Among the most striking elements of this pair of earrings are the diamonds that decorate the rock crystal.  They pierce entirely through the stone. The careful drilling and setting techniques used here show Art Deco jewelry at its technological finest.

Rock crystal became hugely popular during the Art Deco period for two primary reasons. First, inspired by the novel shapes and new arrangements introduced by the Cubists, Fauvists, and Dadaists, jewelers took a liking to the transparent quartz because it allowed them to play with new dimensions of negative and positive space. Second, rock crystal surged in popularity after the 1924 discovery of large deposits of platinum at the Merensky Reef. Unlike silver, the predominant white metal used in jewelry making for centuries before, platinum does not tarnish or darken over time, which was crucial in the popularization of the industrial “all white” look of the period.  The massive amount of platinum found in this South African deposit effectively redefined the jewelry field. Jewelers were able to use the extremely strong and malleable material to achieve new shapes and dimensions in their work and to take advantage of platinum’s ability to disappear.  In creating the rock crystal sections of these earrings, the jeweler bezel-set the diamonds in platinum, making the precious stones appear to float in midair.

The use of jadeite in these earrings also reflects the fascination with Chinese culture during the Art Deco era.  The geometric forms of Chinese art, architecture, and design greatly influenced Art Deco artists, and Art Deco jewelers found new ways to incorporate Chinese materials into their works. The most notable of these materials were lacquer and jade, both of which had been a part of the Chinese visual lexicon for thousands of years. The strange green glow of jade offered a new texture to jewelers, and once Louis Cartier became entranced by the exotic new stone, jade became common in European jewelry design. By incorporating jade into their works, jewelers were able to create wearable pieces that symbolized curiosity about the world beyond the West. 

If “material informs meaning” in Art Deco jewelry, then the choice to wear these materials implies that the owner is fully aware of what the earrings represent. The woman who wears these earrings is artistic, technological, and global. In the Art Deco period, rather than merely representing her wealth, a woman’s jewelry symbolized her cultural and intellectual prowess. With undulating rock crystal, slabs of green jade, and staccato diamonds, the woman who wears these earrings can use a piece of the past to construct her personal, powerful, contemporary identity.

About the Author:

Benjamin Macklowe is the President of Macklowe Gallery in New York (macklowegallery.com), which specializes in antique jewelry and decorative arts.

All photos provided by Macklowe Gallery.

Article originally published in the Art Deco New York journal, Vol. 1, Issue 2, Winter 2016. View a digital version of the full journal here.

© 2020 Copyright Art Deco Society of New York, Inc. 

  • Email
  • Instagram - White Circle
  • Facebook - White Circle
  • Twitter - White Circle