One of my favourite historical styles is 1920s Art Deco jewellery, also known as “Style Moderne” or simply “Deco”. The movement became a major force in European and US design until the late 1930s, responding to people’s need for a new way to express themselves.
Today, this fascinating time is remembered mostly for its flashy Jazz music and flappers who wore short skirts, bobbed their hair, and flaunted their disdain for what was then considered acceptable behaviour. But it’s also known for its dazzlingly bold jewellery styles, a nod to the novelty and glamour of the Roaring Twenties.
Art Deco antique jewellery is highly prized to this day for its elegance, craftsmanship, and historical significance.
Let’s take a trip back in time and explore the extraordinary beauty of this vintage art period, which has remained a favourite amongst collectors and enthusiasts for nearly a century.
Art Deco Jewellery History
The Art Deco design movement was officially exhibited for the first time at the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris in 1925. Europe was living in the devastating aftermath of WWI, which had taken numerous lives, ravaged cultural centres, and decreased the nobility’s wealth. It’s safe to assume that everyone’s spirits could use a bit of lifting.
The Art Deco era blew in like an intoxicating wave, summed up with a cocktail-sipping, jazz-listening, Great Gatsby-esque hedonistic lifestyle. Refusing to look back, people embraced the new way of life prompted by technological triumphs of the very-much-here machine age. But aside from technological changes, Art Deco also responded to the changing role of women at the time.
With most men off to war, women had stepped in to fill the vacant industrial roles and learned a thing or two about business in the meantime. As they increasingly entered the workforce and participated in public life, they wanted jewellery that reflected their newfound independence and modern role in society. Art Deco jewellery provided a perfect match for this, as it was bold, modern, and unapologetically luxurious.
Women’s new hands-on roles also required practical yet elegant styles (think Coco Chanel) that allowed them to participate in previously men-only activities. Impractical things of the past disappeared, hemlines grew shorter, and the Edwardians’ restricting formality was cast away. Women embarked on their journey of liberation, leaving behind elaborate figure-hugging corsets and full-coverage clothing for more free-flowing dresses that exposed their arms.
One of the most emblematic woman-centric Art Deco paintings is the 1929 “Autoportrait (Tamara in a Green Bugatti)” by Polish artist Tamara De Lempicka. The vintage art piece was commissioned by a German fashion magazine as a celebration of women’s strength and independence.
Art Deco Jewellery Style & Characteristics
The turn of the century brought an end to the overlapping Victorian and Art Nouveau styles — the first for being excessively ornamental and outdated and the latter for being too inaccessible and impractical. Thoughtful design with a focus on simplicity and elegance came into vogue instead.
Art Deco style reflected the era’s aesthetic, which called for clean lines and geometric shapes. The inspiration came from several Fine Art movements of the time: Cubism, Constructivism, Abstract Art, Expressionism, and Futurism — easily identified in the works of Picasso and Georges Braque.
Art Deco jewellery designers left behind the excess of La Belle Époque and the naturalistic forms of Art Nouveau. Instead, they celebrated the march of progress in science and industry with a new genre of bold yet harmonious designs. This balance was achieved by using repeated motifs and patterns featuring symmetrical, streamlined forms. Bold domes, sculptural motifs, and flat geometry are ways to identify jewellery from that period.
One of the hallmarks of Art Deco jewellery is its use of experimental materials and unusual diamond cuts, including the trapeze, half-moon, and triangle cuts. The machine age had brought new materials and manufacturing techniques, which allowed designers to create complex pieces.
Jewellery was often built around large, angular central stones, with emerald cuts being preferred for Art Deco ring centrepieces.
Creative gem-cutting techniques were used to create splendid mosaic designs, which involved setting small gemstones of different shapes and colours in intricate patterns.
Another important characteristic of Art Deco jewellery is its use of contrasting materials. Designers often paired precious and semi-precious stones with materials like onyx, enamel, and mother-of-pearl. Platinum, which had recently become available again, was used to achieve a bright, white sheen.
Contrasting colours were also popular, with bold, bright hues such as red, green, and blue often set against a backdrop of black or white to really stand out.
Invisible or mystery settings were another common feature. This technique involves setting stones in a way that hides the metal prongs or bezels holding them in place, making the stones look like they’re floating in the setting.
Popular Art Deco necklace styles included long-strand necklaces with chunky pendants or tassels (Sautoirs). Similarly, Art Deco earrings were usually dangling at shoulder length and complemented the layers upon layers of chunky diamond bracelets.
But another unexpected form of jewellery came to complete Art Deco styles. The flappers’ outgoing lifestyle and intense nightlife had created a small problem. They struggled to find the perfect-sized purse that would fit their cigarettes, lighter, lipstick, and perfume — all the city-life essentials of the time.
Vanity cases were then introduced, combining an evening bag’s form and functionality. They became part of the overall jewellery look as they were adorned with gorgeous gemstones and other colourful elements, making them true pieces of wearable art.
Statement vanity and cigarette cases with precious coloured stones and built-in compartments for a lady’s essentials became a fashion must.
International Influence On Common Motifs
The history of Eastern cultures heavily influenced Art Deco jewellery. The discovery of King Tut’s tomb in Egypt in 1922 created an obsession with Ancient Egyptian history. This aptly called Egyptomania translated into iconic jewels, clocks, and accessories crafted with lapis lazuli, turquoise, carnelian, and coral — typical gems and colours used by the early Egyptians.
Egyptian symbols, such as the scarab or the eye of Horus, offered a truly striking effect. Lotus blossoms were also a popular motif inspired by Egyptian jewellery and art. They were seen as a symbol of rebirth and regeneration and were often depicted as stylised, geometric designs with sharp angles and bold colours. Other jewellery motifs stemmed from Chinese or Japanese culture and Far East Asian themes such as dragons and pagodas.
Likewise, the Indian gem-carving tradition was highly regarded during the Art Deco movement. Many jewellery pieces from this era feature Indian-carved gemstones in bold colour combinations. A famous Art Deco jewellery piece featuring Indian gemstone carving is the “Hindu Necklace” by Cartier. The Maharaja of Patiala commissioned this necklace in 1936, featuring carved emeralds, rubies, and diamonds in a floral design.
But international exposure to other art forms also influenced Art Deco styles. The Russian Ballet’s groundbreaking production in Paris in 1909 was an immediate sensation!
The ballet’s productions featured bold colours, exotic costumes, and feathered headpieces, which excited the public and became a major source of inspiration.
With the austerity of wartime fading away, this exuberance would be welcomed once more.
Art Deco Jewellery Materials & Gemstones
The age of the machine introduced new techniques and materials, which in turn sparked some unorthodox, at the time, combinations. Many Art Deco jewels combined natural materials like onyx and ivory with manufactured ones such as camphor glass and plastic. Bakelite and other synthetic materials also became widely available. These were used to imitate wood, amber, sapphire or other precious gemstones.
Another common combination in Art Deco jewellery was diamond and rock crystal. Whether carved, frosted, or clear, the contrast of the similar-colour-palette crystal enhanced the diamond’s brilliance.
Exotic, colourful stones such as lapis lazuli, turquoise, and agate were favoured as much as emeralds, mother-of-pearl, and rubies. Jade and bone were often carved in Asian-inspired designs, while aquamarine, topaz, and coral were used for their contrasting properties and opacities. Invisible pavé settings, the signature look for the time, were imitated in costume jewellery with rhinestones and glass.
However, the most iconic gems of the 1920s have to be cultured pearls, which were now produced and, therefore, used in abundance. Long-strand (up to a metre and a half long!) pearl necklaces adorned and swung freely from the necks of Charleston-dancing flappers to Hollywood stars like Gloria Swanson.
Thanks to their “indestructible” properties, imitation pearls were often preferred to genuine ones, even among the wealthier classes, and fetched high prices.
Following the end of the war, yellow gold was seen as old-fashioned, and platinum was back in play, even though in limited quantities. Silver and the newly-introduced white gold were popular alternatives, along with a new, more affordable white material known as osmior, plator or platinor. These durable materials allowed for light, airy gemstone designs with less use of metal, leading to more minimalist styles.
Enamelling was another time-consuming, limiting, and labour-intensive process of the past that needed updating. Lacquering, on the other hand, was less manual and much more time-efficient while still achieving that vibrant coating with a smooth and glossy finish. This technique allowed for unprecedented flexibility and an endless variety of hues and shades in Art Deco jewellery design.
Notable Art Deco Jewellery Designers
Within the Art Deco movement, there were two main schools of design. One group was known as the bijoutiers-artistes, who were not necessarily ‘jewellers’ by trade, but rather painters, sculptors, architects or other artists. They inspired each other’s disciplines and focused more on design than carat value. The other group were the bijoutiers-joailliers of the prestigious Parisian jewellery houses. They preferred more geometric designs, usually made with tightly-packed coloured precious stones surrounding a large centrepiece.
In either case, the collaboration between the different arts largely contributed to the period’s design elements. As Art Deco historian Laurence Mouillefarine says, ‘While designers came from diverse backgrounds, they all held the same ideal: to make a clean break from the past, draw inspiration from everyday life, and rid the decorative arts of useless ornamentation.’
Some of the most notable Art Deco jewellery designers include:
The French luxury brand was founded in 1847 by Louis-François Cartier but became a global enterprise thanks to his grandsons Louis, Pierre, and Jacques. The latter was particularly famous for introducing the stone-carving techniques of the Indian jewellery tradition to Art Deco. While bejeweling royalty, film stars, and business tycoons, Cartier came up with the Tank watch in 1917 and later with the ‘Hindu’ or, as it was renamed in the 1970s, ‘Tutti Frutti’ style that was often seen in Art Deco bracelets.
Cartier’s most famous Art Deco jewellery piece is, perhaps, this 1928 gem-set, diamond and enamel Tutti Frutti bracelet from Evelyn H. Lauder’s collection. The iconic jewel sold for $2.17 million in 2014 at Sotheby’s in New York, becoming the most expensive Tutti Frutti bracelet ever sold at an auction.
Van Cleef & Arpels
French luxury house Van Cleef & Arpels was founded in 1906 by Alfred Van Cleef and his brother-in-law, Charles Arpels. Alfred and his wife, Estelle, shared a mutual passion for precious stones and innovation. Following in their footsteps, their daughter Renée Puissant became the Maison’s Artistic Director in 1926. With audacity and imagination, she forged a distinctive, recognisable style for Van Cleef & Arpels, favoured by icons like Liz Taylor and Grace Kelly.
Some of the brand’s signature contributions to Art Deco jewellery include the Minaudière vanity case (right), the mystery setting, and the Passe-Partout line.
Maison Templier was founded in 1849 by Charles Templier, and it gathered an elite clientele thanks to his son, Paul. Third-generation jeweller Raymond Templier joined the firm in 1922 with a fresh outlook on design. Being the artist of the family, Raymond found inspiration in all the things he observed around him: cars, gears, components, buildings, etc. His work usually contained some form of contrast; his unique enamel and diamond jewellery was especially praised at the 1925 International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts in Paris.
His creative sketches were translated into fascinating jewellery, such as transformable pieces — dress clips that joined to form a brooch or bracelets with detachable elements for switching from daywear to evening elegance in a jiffy.
The French jewellery house was founded in the 1890s by René Boivin and quickly established a reputation for creating unconventional pieces for a select few. The firm produced several chunky Egyptian, Syrian, and Persian-inspired designs in 1900, well before the influence of Art Deco. But, as they were somewhat ahead of their time, they didn’t sell. When René died in 1917, his wife Jeanne took over production and employed designers who favoured abstract and innovative concepts. The brand’s new style incorporated unusual materials and closely set gems in bold designs worn by notable figures like Marlene Dietrich and the Duchess of Windsor.
During this time, Boivin helped pioneer the use of rock crystal, chalcedony, and carved wood in jewellery.
Remember Jeanne Boivin? One of the first people she hired in 1919 after taking over her husband’s firm was Suzanne Vuillarme, a then-unknown graduate of the Besançon School of Fine Arts in Paris. Under her married name of Belperron, Suzanne established herself as one of the era’s most talented jewellery designers. Large stones, undulating forms, and unusual combinations of precious and semi-precious materials marked her signature style. She moved on to design exclusively for Bernard Hertz (Paris’ premier stone and natural pearl dealer) in 1932. Together, they created some of the most avant-garde jewellery of the 20th century.
A true créatrice-joaillière, Suzanne Belperron engineered her own pieces using inspiration from anywhere she could. Brutalist architecture, Japanese cherry blossoms, and African tribal jewellery translated into provocative designs. Belperron never signed her jewellery, stating, “My style is my signature.”
From The Roaring Twenties To Today
Art Deco jewellery is still highly valued to this day for its exquisite design, craftsmanship, and historical significance. Depending on factors like the materials used, the design’s complexity, and the piece’s condition, the price of genuine Art Deco antique jewellery can range from several hundred to several thousand dollars. Rare and exceptional pieces can fetch even higher prices at auctions. However, there is a lot of reproduction Art Deco jewellery on the market, so you should always check if the piece is authentic or Art Deco-inspired.
Overall, the Art Deco style significantly impacted jewellery design, not only during its time but also in the decades that followed. Many of its characteristics, such as the use of geometric shapes, bold colours, and unconventional materials, continue to influence designers to this day — particularly when it comes to custom Art Deco engagement rings or wedding bands.
If you’re looking to embrace the beauty of Art Deco jewellery, remember that it’s all about expressing your individual style and making a statement with your accessories.
So don’t be afraid to incorporate striking elements like bold shapes, contrasting colours, and elaborate details. Take inspiration from the past, experiment with different materials, and don’t hesitate to mix and match with contemporary styles.
Welcome the nostalgia and imagine yourself as a modern-day flapper or Hollywood starlet!
Don’t forget to visit YazJewels and explore my curated collection of time-honoured jewels carrying stories from eras past.
Until the next jewellery period, stay brooksy (1920s flapper slang for a classy dresser)!