“Art Deco” as a term was coined in 1960 by art historian Bevis Hillier to describe the movement known as Style Moderne. The distinctive style of the 1920’s and 30’s borrowed heavily from other Modernism movements of the time and was established as a distinct style by members of the French artist collective known as La Société des artistes décorateurs, following the 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels held in Paris. Though birthed in France, Art Deco was almost entirely an American phenomenon, fueled by the decadence of “The Roaring Twenties.” The movement affected the decorative arts most profoundly, the commercial fields of architecture, graphic arts, industrial design, and jewelry design. The style is easily recognizable by the use of clean lines, trapezoidal shapes, stepped edges, and arched corners. Unlike the sinuous lines of Art Nouveau, Art Deco emphasized linearity and geometric form.
Artisans of Art Deco used symmetrical arrangements and repeated designs, often incorporating pyramids and stepped ziggurats. The movement was influenced by primitive motifs from ancient Aztec and Egyptian culture and tribal Africa. The discovery of King Tut’s tomb in 1922 sparked a new craze for Egyptian design, reinterpreting earlier Egyptian revival pieces from the late 19th century following the opening of the Suez Canal. Artifacts discovered in the tomb were reproduced in jewelry form, notably glazed ceramic pieces depicting scarabs, amulets, and the face mask of King Tut. Large jewelry firms, such as Van Cleef & Arpels and Cartier, imitated the Egyptian style with great success. Increased travel abroad and the visits of maharajahs to European cities fueled the interest in exotic motifs.
Jewelry of the period reflected the “architectural” and “industrial” influences. New Technology was referenced and employed in the making of jewelry. The movement sought to combine the relentless proliferation of mass production with the style and sensitivity of art and design. In 1927 Cartier introduced its “Mystery Clocks” which hid the mechanical movements of the gears and the hands of the clock appeared to float on top of the face. Gemstones were cut in geometric shapes, and paired with contrasting colors to form a bold statement. Light colored gemstones were set with dark materials such as black onyx and Bakelite, a type of early plastic. “White jewelry”, similar to the platinum and diamond designs of Edwardian jewelry, debuted at the 1929 Exhibition at the Palais Galliera in Paris and was hugely popular throughout the 1930’s. Metals such as platinum, white gold, and silver were used for their white appearance and set with diamonds.
Like the dramatic change in female clothing and hairstyles, jewelry pieces also changed in form and function. The elaborate matching sets and tiaras of Victorian times were out of style. Women wore long pendants, bold cocktail rings, multiple bangle bracelets, elaborately decorated accessories such as cigarette cases, and the double-clip brooch which could be worn together or taken apart and worn on lapels or belts.
The crash of 1929 greatly affected the progress of Art Deco. Jewelers innovatively incorporated less expensive materials such as Bakelite and coral or turquoise to create affordable jewelry for the mass market. As the Depression worsened and World War II broke out, Art Deco came to an end. An attempt was made to revive the style following the end of the war, but it never succeeded in producing the excitement or innovation Art Deco had inspired in the earlier decades. The Art Deco style has experienced multiple revivals in the past few decades and high quality pieces of jewelry from the original period remain highly prized as collectables.