Twentieth-century jewelry styles show a fascinating evolution. We know these styles as Art Nouveau, Edwardian (or Garland), Art Deco, and Retro. Each was popular during a specific period and each has its unique style.
During the first decades of the twentieth century, the jewelry industry experienced a rebirth. This was due, in part, to the discovery of new supplies of gems and development of new manufacturing and gem-cutting techniques.
Social roles changed too, Jewelry prices were within reach of the ordinary citizen. The changing role in women in society and the rise of the middle class put new demands on the jewelry industry. In response, the industry experienced a revolution in jewelry style and design.
The first half of the twentieth century saw several distinct jewelry styles. Some were associated with are movements, others were a reaction to wartime shortages. All leave a brilliant legacy in the treasures that connoisseurs prize today.
Art Nouveau Jewelry
Introduced in the 1890s, the flowing style of Art Nouveau was a departure from the historic revival styles that had dominated nineteenth -century decorative arts. Art Nouveau, French for “new art,” was inspired by the vitality of the natural world and a new appreciation for Japanese art
Jewels in Art Nouveau style combine realistic interpretations of plants and animals with creatures of fantasy and myth. Raised to the level of fine art by such designers as Rene Lalique, this sinuous and sensual style disappeared completely with the onset of World War I in 1914.
Art Nouveau jewelry often includes one or more of these features:
- Curving lines
- Realistic portrayals of nature including butterflies, birds, and intertwining foliage
- Fantastic creatures such as dragons and other mythical beasts
- Gems such as pearls, opal, moonstone, aquamarine, tourmaline, rose quartz, chalcedony, chrysoprase, and amethyst
- Use of glass, either molded or as enamel
- Designs of women transformed into mermaids, winged sprites, or flowers
Between 1900 and 1915, during the reign of England’s King Edward VII, the upper class of Europe and the US wore jewelry as a way to demonstrate their wealth. They favored lavish jewelry inspired by the eighteenth-century French court. Their jewels were made of the finest, rarest, and most costly gems and precious metals. This jewelry style is known as Edwardian, but it’s sometimes called Garland because it typically featured garlands of flowers tied with ribbons and bows.
Edwardian or Garland style jewelry can include these features:
- Pearls and diamonds
- Delicate platinum mountings
- Colored gemstones including ruby, sapphire, emerald, opal, and cat’-eye chrysoberyl
- Motifs like garlands, ribbons, bows, crescents, starbursts, Greek keys, laurel wreaths, wings, feathers, crowns, oak leaves, swallows, and butterflies.
Art Deco Jewelry
The Art Deco style emerged after World War I and dominated the decorative arts and jewelry from 1920 through the 1930s. It was a strong reaction against the ethereal sensuality of Art Nouveau and the delicate elegance of the Garland style. Art Deco jewelry suggests post-war practicality through its strong geometric patterns in bold contrasting colors.
Art Deco features include:
- Bold, contrasting colors
- Strong, geometric patterns
- Sleek, streamlined look, emphasizing the vertical line
- Gemstones including diamonds, black onyx, lapis lazuli, rubies, emeralds, sapphires, jade, turquoise, and topaz
- Carved or cabochon-cut colored gemstones
- Primary colors in rich combinations and strong contrast
The outbreak of World War II in 1939 ended the Art Deco period. Gems were in short supply during the early 1940s, and platinum was reserved for military use. The jewelry produced during and immediately after the war used materials, such as gold and diamonds, that were still available during the lean years. Jewelry from the period is known as Retro.
The Retro style rounded Art Deco’s sharp angles and muted its bold colors. It features sculpted curves sparingly set with small diamonds and rubies. Jewelry of the late 1940s reflects post-war prosperity in a more opulent use of colored stones and increased femininity of design motifs.
Common themes and styles in Retro jewelry include:
- Floral and bow motifs in colored gems
- Animal figures of enameled gold and gems
- Jeweled brooches, lapel clips
- Bold, sculpted curves of rose gold set with small diamonds and rubies
- Designs inspired by mechanical objects such as bicycle chains, padlocks, and tank treads
- Stylized natural motifs
- Large motifs fabricated using thin gold sheets of conserve metal while giving a substantial look
- Gemstones like small diamonds, rubies (often synthetic), and light-colored sapphires.
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