By Katie Austin
In our last installment of The Jewelblog’s (Abridged) History of Jewelry, we explored the world of Victorian Era mourning jewelry and how the Industrial Revolution led to more widespread jewelry in synthetic materials, specifically Vulcanite. The first third of the 20th century also featured synthetic materials and mass production but the most interesting feature of this period was the quick succession (and overlapping) of art movements in just a few short decades. Let’s explore this intriguing group of fast-paced periods in jewelry history!
The Arts and Crafts Movement (1880-1920s)
No major socioeconomic change happens without push-back, so it’s no surprise that the mass production and the popping up of factories during the Industrial Revolution would create a counter-revolution known as the Arts and Crafts Movement. Inspired by a handful of artists from Britain, the movement began in the UK and spread quickly, inspiring both the UK and the US between 1880 and 1910, and Japan in the 1920s. The movement was a social statement against poor quality and inattention to detail that artists saw in factory-produced, machine-made jewelry and other art. The movement pushed for hand craftsmanship, sharp focus on detail and quality of materials, with classical Grecian, romantic and folk elements.
One of most famous jewelers and designers of the Arts and Crafts Movement was Charles Robert Ashbee (1863-1942), an English architect, interior designer, founder of the Guild and School of Handicraft, and self-taught silversmith who was known in the jewelry world for his gold wire-work and enamel butterfly pendants and brooches with unusual but intriguing color choices.
As with the Victorian Period, the Edwardian Period was named for English royalty, namely King Edward VII, son of Queen Victoria. Though known as a playboy with a long line of mistresses, Edward had a likable, sociable personality that made him the perfect candidate to make goodwill trips throughout Europe and the United States to strengthen other nations’ ties with the British Empire. Edward was also the poster boy for good taste in men’s fashion. He popularized tweed fabric, dinner jackets and the turned-down collars on men’s shirts. Because of his sophisticated tastes and worldliness, and its trickle-down effect, it comes as no surprise that Edwardian social culture influenced tastes in jewelry.
Edwardian jewelry is light, feminine, heavy on white metal and classy. Makers were dead-set on utilizing as many diamonds as possible while keeping the metalwork so fine and delicate that settings often look like lace rather than metal. While white diamonds were the quintessential Edwardian stones, popular colored stoned included sapphire, aquamarine and bright green Russian Demantoid Garnet. Edwardian jewelry was made unique by two new innovations. The oxyacetylene torch -a tool that made it much easier to work with platinum- was invented in 1903, leading to a wide use of platinum in jewelry like never before. Edwardian jewelry also adopted the use of milgrain, or tiny beads of metal on the edges of jewelry for added texture and visual appeal. The Edwardian era of airy, distinguished jewelry managed to last past the death of Edward VII in 1910 but sadly, it came to an abrupt end in 1914 due to the start of World War I. The war not only made platinum and other metals scarce and unavailable to jewelers, but it also caused jewelry buyers and owners alike to panic, sell off or hoard their jewelry and avoid purchasing luxury items.
The Parisian company, Cartier, founded by Louis-François Cartier in 1847, has been at the forefront of ever-changing jewelry fashion since the beginning and the company’s founding and was the first company to market wristwatches for men. Cartier is known to have embraced the delicate, flowing designs of Edwardian aesthetic, going so far as to encourage his jewelry designers to wander the streets of Paris in search of Edwardian-style inspiration by looking at the design work on old buildings.
Though already known by the German name, Jugendstil, the Art Nouveau period was given its more widely-used name by accident in 1895 when Samuel Bing, a Parisian art dealer specializing in Asian art, revamped his gallery and renamed it, “L’Art Nouveau.” There is, perhaps, no story more fitting since Art Nouveau style emerged largely due to the meeting of East and West. In 1858, Western interest in Eastern art was piqued when trade routes to and from Asia re-opened after centuries of isolationism. Then in 1862, representatives from Japan were invited to participate in London’s International Exhibition, a massive fair with representatives from 36 countries that featured marvels of technology, industry and the arts. It was there that many Westerners were first exposed to elegantly simple, nature-meets-geometry designs with free-flowing “whiplash” lines, bright colors, feminine figures, an air of fantasy and use of mixed metals that defined Japanese paintings, sculpture, glass work and jewelry.
Jewelers who had grown tired of Victorian-style jewelry embraced the newness in style that Japanese-style design offered, calling it the French, Japonisme. In the 1890s, as the Industrial Revolution and the resultant Arts and Crafts Movement were in full swing, an artistic movement erupted that combined the attention to detail in the Arts and Crafts Movement and the aesthetic juxtaposition of nature, fantasy and geometric shapes found in Japonisme into a new art, or Art Nouveau.
The best-known Art Nouveau jeweler and artist is Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848-1933). Tiffany was not only the creator of well-known Tiffany Glass and a pioneer in lava glass jewelry, but he was also the founder of and designer for the famed Tiffany & Co. on Fifth Avenue in New York City, one of the first American jewelry companies to manufacture its own high-end jewelry rather than importing it from Europe.
Art Deco (1914-1935)
The Art Deco period of art and jewelry history originated in France just before the onset of World War I. The period earned its name and really took off on a grand scale in 1925 when L’Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes, or The International Exhibition of Decorative Arts and Modern Industry, was held in Paris. Much like the aforementioned London Exhibition of 1862, the Paris exhibition featured the latest trends in visual, decorative and wearable art that could be witnessed by attendees from all over the world. As a result, jewelry hailing from the mid-1920s and early 1930s is often in Art Deco style.
But what is Art Deco style? The origins of this art period’s telltale characteristics are interesting ones. On one hand, the period derived its style from women’s rejection of strict Victorian social codes and in turn, fashion, with the dropping of organic, traditionally feminine forms popular in Victorian and Art Nouveau jewelry while embracing the geometric shapes and bold colors of the Art Nouveau and Cubist movements, using sharp, step-cut diamonds and colored stones. On the other hand, Art Deco was influenced by a man and a civilization that had long since passed from existence. The civilization? Ancient Egypt. The man? Tutankhamen, or King Tut.
In 1891, an English archaeologist named Howard Carter arrived in Egypt. The 19th century brought an influx of archaeologists into what is referred to as the Valley of the Kings, which left all of the ancient Egyptian pharoahs’ tombs opened, with many having been already robbed centuries before, or so it seemed. Over time, though, Carter became convinced that the tomb of the then little-known King Tut hadn’t yet been uncovered but could be found. By 1922, Carter had searched for five years with no success and was considering packing up and moving on but decided to give the search a couple more months. That last shred of tenacity paid off. In November of 1922, Carter discovered the entrance to King Tut’s tomb and entered it on February 16th, 1923. The untouched treasures within the tomb captivated the world and for jewelry lovers, it influenced the Art Deco period’s adoption of Egyptian Revival motifs, including Eyes of Horus, lotus blossoms, pyramid shapes and ornate winged scarabs.
A well-known Art Deco jeweler was Texan and Manhattan transplant Paul Flato (1900-1999). Until a 1943 scandal in which he illegally pawned clients’ jewels that had been in his care, Flato was well-known as a jeweler to the stars, designing pieces for movie stars Greta Garbo, Ginger Rogers, Rita Hayworth and Carmen Miranda, to name a few.
Just looking at the name of this American artistic movement in jewelry will tell you that Retro Modern jewelry is, like some earlier movements, a hodgepodge of inspiration, with “Retro” referring to the past and “Modern” referring to the present. Jewelry art, as well as other forms of art, tend to follow cyclic patterns. After decades of breaking away from the design tenets of Victorian jewelry, the Retro Modern Period brought many Victorian elements, but with a twist. Retro Modern jewelry came onto the scene in the thick of World War II, which restricted American access to French fashion houses and other European influences. The art of American jewelry was also affected by restricted access to traditional materials, with metals and factory operations being funneled into the war effort. As a result, American jewelers had to get creative, which they did by adopting the “retro” Victorian style that they could already produce without help from Europe, but with “modern” materials like colored glass, rhinestones and Bakelite, a type of plastic. Though Retro Modern jewelry was short on more traditional materials, the materials that were used were done so with abandon. Large, over-the-top cocktail rings that mimicked the style of actresses like Joan Crawford are the poster children of the Retro Modern Era.
Today, most people know Retro Modern jewelry as cocktail or costume jewelry, monikers that allude to cheap quality. Sometimes, those allusions are unwarranted. With yellow gold scarce during World War II, many jewelers turned to one of The Jewelbox’s favorite precious metals: Rose gold. Also, Retro Modern jewelry did exist with enormous faceted gemstones. Even Retro Modern jewelry without genuine stones or precious metal deserves some due credit for keeping jewelry affordable and attainable at a time when materials were rationed and paychecks were relegated mostly to needs rather than wants. What’s more, with women donning masculine uniforms and taking over men’s factory jobs while they were away at war, the birds, hearts, bows and other Victorian-inspired motifs of Retro Modern pieces gave women’s work clothes a touch of femininity and familiarity.
Check back for our final installment of The Jewelblog’s (Abridged) History of Jewelry, in which you’ll get familiarized with the evolution of jewelry from the 1950s right through to today!