NEW YORK - As thoroughly modern as ever, a wave of Gatsby-inspired 1920s style is hitting us this season. Recklessly glittering, divinely decadent and poignant with undercurrents of disillusionment and destiny, it is appropriate, too, that jewels, re-created by Tiffany from archival designs, are playing a starring role in this revival. These symbols of status, wealth and dreams feature large and lustrous in Baz Luhrmann’s lavish reinterpretation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s literary masterpiece.
Heiress and socialite Daisy Fellowes commissioned Van Cleef & Arpels to create a pair of Indian-inspired bracelets in 1926 and 1928 (below), which sold at Sotheby’s in 2005. PHOTO: COURTESY OF SOTHEBY'S CECIL BEATON STUDIO ARCHIVE.
The jewels of the 1920s totally encapsulate the spirit of their age; a manic moment in time that continues to mesmerise us with its dynamism, restless hedonism, social upheaval, outrageous opulence and most of all, its unrivalled sense of style. In the rarefied world of jewellery, the 1920s and 1930s were years of frenzied genius as well as startling innovation and ingenuity, when the great master jewellers – Cartier, Boucheron, Van Cleef & Arpels, Mauboussin and Lacloche, to name a few – drew on the pulsating creative energy and lust for novelty that characterised Paris between the wars. Breaking away from the quiet restraint of classical white Belle Époque jewels, they created new ornaments that exploded with colour, form and movement, defying jewellery conventions to explore unexpected materials. They mixed tones and textures, some vibrant and arresting, others startlingly monochrome. This liberation of jewellery design reflected the new freedom enjoyed by women after the end of the First World War. Along with their corsets, they had shed inhibitions and restrictions: now they worked, drove, drank and smoked. They travelled, played sports and danced the Charleston, and their clothes and jewels kept pace with the new beat of life.
Like a fizzing cocktail, jewellery of the 1920s was an intoxicating mixture of inspirations and influences. The colour, sultry sensuality and stylisation of the Ballets Russes that thrilled Paris in the 1910s mixed with the excitement of the Jazz Age: speed, travel, the rhythm of the machine, Cubism, African art, Eastern exoticism, the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922, the mysteries of China and the allure of Shanghai. These influences brewed a style of untempered luxury and adventurous design that was unprecedented in jewellery history. It came to be known as Art Deco, after the 1925 Paris Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes.
Heiress and socialite Daisy Fellowes commissioned Van Cleef & Arpels to create a pair of Indian-inspired bracelets in 1926 and 1928, which sold at Sotheby’s in 2005.
In fact, the style had been forming, certainly at Cartier, since around 1910, with subtle shifts towards stylisation, formalised floral and classical motifs, the urn, jardinière or bowl of flowers, overflowing with luscious small carved gems. Known as “tutti-frutti,” this riot of emeralds, rubies and sapphires – never previously used together and intricately carved as leaves, fruits or flowers – is one of the most sought-after, distinctive features of Cartier’s Art Deco jewels. The concept was influenced by Indian jewellery, shaped by Cartier’s dealings with the dazzlingly bejewelled Maharajahs, who came to Paris to have their traditional jewels re-set in the prevailing modern style. The cross-fertilisation of themes, including the juxtaposition of blue and green, taken from traditional Indian enamel work and techniques such as gem carving, played a vital role in the development of both Art Deco jewellery and the quintessential Cartier style.
Still popular today, a spectacular platinum, diamond, coloured stone and pearl “tutti-frutti” bracelet by Cartier (bottom right) sold for $1.4 million at Sotheby’s this April. The most famous example of “tutti-frutti” was the Collier Hindou, made by Cartier in 1936 for Daisy Fellowes, the Singer Sewing machine heiress and obsessive jewellery collector. From Van Cleef & Arpels, in 1926 and 1928 she commissioned her much-loved pair of Indian-inspired bracelets (or anklets). The bracelets, which could be linked together to form a necklace, were designed as a deep border of diamonds arranged in a geometric pattern, reminiscent of a Persian carpet, and hung with a lush fringe of emerald drops.
Socialite Paula Gellibrand epitomised the glitz and glamour of 1920s style. PHOTO: COURTESY OF SOTHEBY'S CECIL BEATON STUDIO ARCHIVE.
This pattern of diamonds, creating an effect of frozen movement seen on the superb diamond and emerald drop earrings by Cartier (above right) from the collection of Mrs. Charles Wrightsman, was made possible by the new geometric gemstone cuts, particularly the baguette. While specially cut, or calibre-cut, stones were often small squares or long oblongs, they could be pieced together for a sharp, chic design, and beautifully shaped, with rounded or buff-topped cabochons built-up as colourful, stylised pictorial jewels, as seen in Lacloche jewels. On Van Cleef & Arpels’ famous Egyptian frieze bracelets, Egyptian figures and scenes are “painted” in impeccably cut and set coloured gems.
Cartier’s diamond and emerald drop earrings, 1934, sold at Sotheby’s in 2012.
At Cartier, the Egyptian craze, part of the climate of exoticism embracing Persian, Chinese and Japanese inspirations, had been underway since 1910. Some Cartier jewels were created around Egyptian motifs while others incorporated genuine antiquities and fragments of the past, like faience scarabs or amulets. From this exoticism too came the dramatic, daring colour combinations that are such a striking feature of Art Deco jewellery: the mix of blues and greens, sapphires with emeralds, turquoise with lapis, the contrast of coral and onyx, or coral with emeralds, diamonds and onyx. Then in the mid-1920s came a change of pace; an alternative monochromatic mood of sharp black and white, perfected in the 1925 Tiffany ring, a dramatic composition of buff-topped black onyx segments with diamonds or later, in the 1930s, silvery white on white. It introduced ice cool yet sensuous rock crystal, carved and paired with platinum and diamonds, a scheme that was favoured by the hugely talented and influential designer Suzanne Belperron in her work for Herz, as in a pair of dress clips, circa 1935.
Belperron epitomised the new woman of the 1920s and 1930s: independent with innate, individual style. Her jewels, like all the finest Art Deco jewels, were way beyond fashion yet worked in perfect tandem with fashion and femininity. Shapes and forms adapted to the new female silhouette; gone was the exaggerated “S” curve of the Edwardian lady. Instead it was replaced by a racy, cylindrical outline of the new tubular, short, sleeveless dress. The costume of the flapper – fringed, beaded or sequined for dancing – captured light and attention while the garçonne, with her short haircut, allowed scope for dramatic long earrings.
Belperron’s diamond and platinum dress clips, circa 1935, sold at Sotheby’s in 2009.
The emphasis in jewellery design was generally on the vertical. Movement was key and even brooches were either long pins – the double-headed jabot or cliquet pin – or worn at a jaunty angle or in unexpected places, on belts and cloche hats or at the neckline. Necklaces hung long and loose, as beads or sautoirs, were often finished with a sensual tassel, a sultry echo of the Ballets Russes. For the great women of style of the era, heiresses and socialites like Daisy Fellowes, Mrs. Harrison Williams or Barbara Hutton, these fabulously modern and audacious jewels became part of their persona, an obsession and an inextricable part of their story and lifestyle.
Tiffany & Co.’s onyx and diamond ring, 1925, sold at Sotheby’s in 2010.
Yet what is fascinating is that the most avant-garde and dangerously daring designs of those years have proved to be the most enduring design classics, timelessly contemporary and celebrated by generation after generation, as relevant and resonant today as they were in the 1920s. Created as the essence of modernism while perfectly capturing their own moment in time, in my mind these jewelled masterpieces of the 1920s and 1930s remain the quintessential, unassailable expressions of modernity for all time.
Vivienne Becker is a jewellery historian, contributing editor for FT’s How to Spend It website and author of The Impossible Collection of Jewellery, published by Assouline.
[This article originally appeared in Sotheby's at Auction. To subscribe click here.]