What is Art Deco?

By Devon Caraher

At its most elemental, the Art Deco design movement is a study in contrasts. It is often angular and geometric, but sometimes soft and curved. It is opaque but also transparent; shiny yet matte; monochrome and polychrome; Western and non-Western; an echo of the past while being fully in the present. When considering the style through my particular lens as a jewelry historian and gemologist, Art Deco is synonymous with baguette-cut diamonds, carved gemstones, frosted rock crystal, and brushed chromium. Such distinct materials and diverse techniques hark back to a style that evolved considerably, and broadly, throughout the 1920s and 1930s, and continues to remain relevant and fashionable today.

 

The global debut of the Art Deco style at the 1925 Exposition internationale des arts décoratifs et industriels modernes introduced a form of ornamentation shaped by early twentieth-century cultural events. Most notably, World War I set in motion permanent and profound changes in the role—and dress—of women. As women’s sartorial styles became more masculine (i.e., practical and functional), adornment became an indispensable accoutrement that helped soften and feminize an increasing androgynous “La Garçonne” look. Flexible strap bracelets, for instance, were worn in profusion on bare arms. Double-clip brooches were affixed to loosely worn frocks. Sautoir necklaces casually dangled down necks and otherwise bare backs. Elegant pendant earrings punctuated short haircuts. The play between jewelry (feminine) and costume (masculine) embodies the harmonious combination of opposing elements inherent in Art Deco. I find these elements, and the movement’s cultural significance, cemented by its enduring modernity, best illustrated—and celebrated—in jewelry from that timeless period in design.

 

The chromatic contrasts for which the Deco style is arguably best known evolved from variations of black and white (frequently rendered in diamond, onyx, and platinum), to more unexpected color combinations, such as black (onyx) with orange (coral) and green (jade). Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, which debuted in Europe in 1908, quite literally set the stage for these shocking and striking color combinations. It also paved the way for infusing Western and non-Western sources as inspiration for original works of art. Cartier sourced colored, carved gemstones from India, mounted them in platinum, and introduced the pieces into eighteenth-century French design. These creations became known as Tutti Frutti jewelry, which is considered Cartier’s most significant contribution to the Art Deco era. While the vibrant and polychromatic color combinations of Tutti Frutti pieces fit well within the Art Deco vernacular, the forms of the designs departed from the precise and angular geometry for which the movement is traditionally known. But Cartier did more than combine decorative styles and precious gemstones when crafting Tutti Frutti; the jeweler blended Eastern and Western influences—the exotic with the modern—to create extraordinary works of art. The result was radically innovative at the time, and the technique of creating a striking surface remains modern to this day. The same is true of the Egyptian Revival strap bracelets Van Cleef & Arpels helped popularize in the mid-1920s. Using brilliantly colored and cut gemstones, Van Cleef & Arpels rendered—and simultaneously de-contextualized—ancient Egyptian iconography and hieroglyphics onto new jewelry forms. Likewise, Boucheron used African materials, and the influence of African ornamentation, to compose arresting motifs. Not only did Boucheron’s designs deviate from Art Deco’s characteristically straight line and precise geometry, but they also provided commentary on the richness of culture and materials found in former French colonies.

 

While precision is unquestionably characteristic of the Art Deco style, a single characteristic is simply not enough to define an enduring style. Angularity does not equate with eternal modernity. As such, the elongated baguette-cut is not Art Deco alone. But when applied to a surface in an unexpected way and done so in contrast to other stones (i.e., paired with its polar opposite, the circular cut), there you have it. The play of light it achieves is sublime. It is another example of the design movement’s study in contrasts and striking surface effects achieved through color, line, and texture, that not only capture the eye but surprise and delight it as well. In the end, Art Deco isn’t any one design or designer. More than any singular style, technique or form, Art Deco is a modern spirit that persists.

About the Author:

Devon Caraher holds a BA in History and Italian Studies, an MA in the History of Decorative Arts and Design from the Parsons School of Design (in conjunction with the Cooper-Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum) and a Graduate Diamond and Colored Gemstones Degree from the Gemology Institute of America. She is currently a lecturer at the Parsons School of Design where she teaches classes on the history of jewelry. She also serves on the Board of the Art Deco Society of New York and is an active member of the American Society of Jewelry Historians and the Association for the Study of Jewelry and Related Arts. She is the founder of dbc.nyc.