From the earliest civilisations to the present day, jewellery has been a timeless form of self-expression, reflecting the beauty and aspirations of each generation. In this last part of the Jewellery Periods series, we embark on a sparkling journey through the era of Contemporary Jewellery design.
The 1980s to the 1990s were quite a transformative period, with trends now changing every five years compared to the previous cycles of seven or ten years. This accelerated rhythm of change signalled a shift in the dynamics of modern jewellery trends, resulting in a much wider range of designs per decade.
Yet with some of us having spent our early childhood sometime during those years, a great level of familiarity and nostalgia is to be expected!
1980s Jewellery — Bold Statements and Excess
Welcome to the era of power dressing, neon colours, and excess! The 1980s brought a burst of extravagance and self-expression to the world of Contemporary jewellery. As fashion trends embraced larger-than-life aesthetics, edgy jewellery brands responded with gusto. This decade also saw the rise of independent jewellery designers such as Yurman, Verdura, and Elizabeth Locke. Collaborations between fashion houses and jewellers, like Chanel and Gripoix and Paloma Picasso for Tiffany & Co., birthed iconic creations adorned with oversized gemstones, pearls, and dazzling crystals.
For the most part, 1980s jewellery trends continued the loud and bold theme of the previous decade. As women gained more prominence in the workplace, their style evolved accordingly. They embraced boxy and dramatic suits to convey a strong sense of professionalism. Modern-style jewellery became a way to celebrate women’s success and combat workplace sexism. Consequently, designs grew in size, with large necklaces and oversized hoop earrings becoming the norm. Maximalism was the reigning motto, and self-purchased jewellery became increasingly common compared to earlier periods. This era also witnessed the rise of unisex jewellery, such as cross or stud earrings and jelly bangles.
Flashy costume jewellery became a massive trend, perfectly complementing the period’s iconic shoulder pads and bouffant hairstyles. It allowed people to achieve the desired glamorous look at a more affordable price while also attracting a younger clientele unable to afford genuine materials. The launch of MTV and the influence of pop artists like Madonna, Cyndi Lauper, Michael Jackson, and Prince further shaped the styles of youngsters. Stars of the time often wore clothes adorned with sequins, diamonds, and shiny plastic-based fabrics, giving rise to the bold and sparkling 1980s jewellery. Meanwhile, the luxury goods trade expanded, with jewellery emerging as one of the world’s wealthiest forms of trade.
1980s Jewellery Characteristics
Contemporary jewellery of the 1980s remained large, distinctive, and layered. People embraced individuality, which influenced both fashion and jewellery choices. As power dressing and highlighting one’s wealth and status were crucial, designer jewellery remained highly sought-after. Statement pieces adorned with diamonds and pearls were top favourites as they symbolised a woman’s affluence. Princess Diana, a prominent style and jewellery influencer of the era, frequently wore pearls, sparking a craze for faux pearl earrings.
Yellow gold and gold-plated jewels dominated until the 1987 stock market crash, when a shift towards conservatism gradually emerged. That said, faux gold became an essential addition to every jewellery box, be it in the form of chains, hoops, belts, or rings. Colourful beaded necklaces maintained their popularity, while large gold-plated pendants on chains and disc earrings were also in vogue. Due to their affordable price, crystal and cut glass, along with imitation gems and faux pearls in any colour possible, were preferred to real gemstones. Bold neon bangles became the epitome of fashion, particularly for young girls, with a few thick or multiple thin bangles worn on each arm. This decade also witnessed the resurgence of brooches and clip-on earrings, as some designs offered a larger size without the weight associated with pierced styles.
Cocktail rings also enjoyed popularity until more modern minimalist jewellery styles gained favour, particularly with the introduction of the tension setting pioneered by the German jewellery brand Niessing. This innovative technique enabled gemstones to be set elegantly, usually in a spiral design, without any visible prongs. But one cannot forget the ultimate fashion statement of the 1980s: oversized earrings. I recall donning a pair myself, feeling like a glamorous disco queen! From shoulder dusters to neon-hued hoops, large earrings epitomised the decades’ bold and daring nature. This trend was further reinforced by the emergence of streetwear and sneaker culture, which were linked to the rising rap and hip-hop scene.
Emblematic 1980s Jewellery
During the 1980s, a new jewellery design trend emerged – slender neon “jelly” bracelets crafted from plastic. Similarly, intricately woven friendship bracelets also gained popularity.
The demand for cross necklaces soared in response to Madonna’s influential Like a Virgin music video. Serving as a powerful inspiration for young women worldwide, the video symbolised both their empowerment and expression of sexual freedom.
In the mid-1980s, numismatic jewellery was revived, with Bulgari’s ‘Monete’ range of coin-set necklaces, bracelets, and earrings leading the trend. The collection quickly became one of the Maison’s most beloved and enduring lines.
Spanish jewellery brand Carrera y Carrera‘s line of panther jewellery gained significant popularity in the 1980s as it captured the essence of the era’s bold and opulent jewellery styles. The panther, symbolising power and grace, became an iconic motif for the brand and was prominently featured in their designs.
In 1986, Lady Di created another sensation when she transformed a velvet choker into a headpiece while visiting the Imperial Palace in Tokyo — a daring fashion choice that sparked immense excitement. The choker itself was a remarkable creation, repurposed from a precious ring and a watch she had received as a wedding present from the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia. Her innovative styling started the popular gemstone-encrusted headband style, combining both chicness and functionality.
After extensive research and engineering practice, Chinese jewellery creator Wallace Chan invented The Wallace Cut in 1987. This groundbreaking technique combines faceting and 3D internal carving, creating an enchanting illusionary effect. Celebrated as the carving prodigy from Asia, Chan showcased his creation in his first solo exhibition at Germany’s Gemstone Museum in Idar-Oberstein. Even after 30 years, the intricate process of crafting The Wallace Cut remains a mystery to many.
1990s Jewellery — Minimalism Meets Technology
The 1990s is a decade remembered for its multiculturalism, technological advancements, and the dot-com bubble. In terms of Contemporary jewellery fashion, there was a striking departure from the 1980s flamboyance. The rise of the grunge movement resulted in darker and more understated jewellery styles, adopting a minimalist approach. Precious staples of the past, like platinum bands and diamonds, were reserved for special occasions, eschewing decadence. The vibrant neon statement pieces of recent history were deemed kitsch and outdated. As the latter half of the decade grappled with unemployment and financial decline, the belief that less is more guided jewellery choices.
The internet’s rise to stardom and the wider circulation of trends and photos made fashion more homogenous. Yet, the 1980s self-purchase trend continued, resulting in more individualistic styles. But make no mistake; supermodels very much dominated the fashion world. With the advent of tabloid culture and the evolution of editorial fashion photography, it suddenly became essential for young men and women to don the latest modern jewellery trends, often seen on these models. The mid to late 1990s also witnessed the emergence of the “Valley Girl” stereotype — a frivolous woman who indulges in excessive clothing consumption and luxurious lifestyles — through chick flicks like Clueless and media fixation on heiresses like Paris Hilton. This image led to the popularity of flashy rhinestones and Swarovski crystal costume jewellery. Cheesy butterfly clips, barrettes, and tiaras became go-to accessories for those aspiring to be someone.
Culturally, the 1990s witnessed the emergence of rave, hip-hop, grunge, and other counterculture movements. The grunge trend brought back chokers, Doc Martens, chunky sterling silver jewellery, cross pendants, and fishnet tights. Traditional fashion norms were challenged, giving rise to slouchy casual styles as a form of rebellion. With the popularity of athleisure, semi-precious metals became preferred choices for contemporary-design jewellery — or sometimes no jewellery at all! Another iconic style synonymous with the 1990s is Y2K, featuring tighter, shorter, metallic, and futuristic designs, reflecting the anticipation of the new millennium.
1990s Jewellery Characteristics
As the world embraced a more streamlined and modern aesthetic, 1990s jewellery design followed suit. Innovations in technology allowed for the creation of sleek and minimalist pieces that embraced simplicity and clean lines. In the spirit of individualism, the period saw a surge in body piercing, a revival of the 1970s mood rings, and the comeback of SLAP bracelets, all influenced by TV shows like Friends and MTV video clips. People favoured slouchy minimal necklaces like snake and curb link chains, opting for understated rather than extravagant designs. Choker and collar necklaces became omnipresent, along with bow necklaces and charm bracelets.
Despite the leaning towards grunge and casual attire, the 1990s retained a touch of glamour. High-shine fabrics such as silk, satin, and sequins were popular choices for clubwear. Evening jewellery, including fringe necklaces, tennis bracelets, diamante collars, and hair barrettes, was worn to complement such outfits. In 1993, the marquise-cut diamond engagement ring emerged as a significant trend. Available in any size, colour, and clarity, this single shape dominated the market until the rise of Princess cuts toward the end of the decade. As the new millennium approached, white gold and platinum made a comeback. The appeal of these white metals stemmed from their distinctive look compared to the saturated yellow gold, with the popularity of the two-tone Rolex Datejust watch further contributing to their resurgence.
As in previous eras, subcultures greatly influenced the world of Contemporary jewellery. With the rise of gangsta rap and R&B, people sought that glitzy and oversized look, embracing huge chains, large hoop earrings, nameplate jewellery, and “iced out” (heavily embellished with rhinestones) medallions. Big favourites toward the end of the decade were the “Huggie” style and drop earrings, often made entirely of gold without any stones, which complemented the statement chokers. Overall, 1990s jewellery was cheap, sassy, and cheerful, crafted from readily available materials. Modern jewellery designers like JAR and Elsa Peretti challenged conventions by experimenting with unconventional materials. This trend extended to both high-end and high-street fashion, with brands like Chanel and Versace leading the way in 1990s fine jewellery styles.
Emblematic 1990s Jewellery
The Spice Girls ignited a strong sense of “girl power” among young women, empowering them to embrace their personal style and express themselves freely. This was reflected in the popularity of choker necklaces, which transcended various fashion styles and gained widespread appeal among influential figures like Reese Witherspoon and Katie Holmes.
The emergence of country music and well-liked TV shows like “Seinfeld” and “Friends” reinforced the choker’s popularity. But they also sparked the rise of classic Contemporary jewellery pieces such as the Tiffany toggle necklace and bracelet, which became widely recognised and coveted.
The ‘less is more’ Contemporary jewellery trend took off with herringbone necklaces, which could be found in various lengths and sizes. Cartier and other esteemed jewellery brands offered exquisitely sleek chains for the decade’s fashion-forward individuals like Tupac Shakur.
Paris-based jeweller Joel Arthur Rosenthal, generally known as JAR, is a major Contemporary jewellery designer. He crafted this ring for Elizabeth Taylor’s 70th birthday in 2002, and although created a bit after the decade’s end, it embodies the distinct minimalist style of the 1990s. The platinum ring showcases a heart pendant adorned with a diamond ‘E’ on one side and an infinity sign on the other. JAR’s signature use of single-cut diamonds pays homage to the rich heritage of antique jewellery and diamond-cutting techniques. The ring was sold for $158,500 in 2011 at Christie’s in New York.
Since establishing his Mumbai boutique in 1991, celebrated Contemporary jewellery artist Viren Bhagat has captured the admiration of global audiences. Over the course of three decades, his exquisite creations have been widely exhibited and highly coveted for their refined and understated aesthetic. In a Christie’s auction in 2019, three of Bhagat’s jewels fetched prices three times higher than their estimated values — a testament to the enduring inspiration that Bhagat’s jewellery continues to evoke among collectors.
Contemporary Jewellery - A Journey Through Timeless Beauty
As we bid farewell to our sparkling journey through Contemporary jewellery creation, it’s clear that each era left an indelible mark on the world of design. From the rebellious and experimental 1980s to the minimalist and tech-savvy 1990s, jewellery designers have consistently pushed the boundaries of creativity and self-expression.
As a jewellery collector and enthusiast, I relish any opportunity to explore the depths of its history, immersing myself in the stories and craftsmanship of each era. The evolution of Contemporary jewellery mirrors the ever-changing world around us, a testament to the endless possibilities of humankind.
So, whether you’re an avid collector or a curious soul seeking inspiration, join me on this sparkling adventure! Let us celebrate the artists, the innovators, and the trailblazers who turned jewellery into wearable art, reminding us all to break free from the ordinary and redefine our individual styles. Embrace the sparkle, dare to be bold, and let time-honoured jewellery tell your unique story.
Ready to discover your own little piece of history?
Visit YazJewels to explore my stunning antique, vintage, and contemporary jewellery collection and find the perfect piece for your signature style.
Until our next rendezvous in the world of all things divine,