Art Deco Jewellery Guide
Artistic movements often reflect the changing times, and this is definitely the case when it comes to Art Deco.
The style first emerged just after the First World War, and was a direct reaction against the hardship that the UK had previously gone through. It also offered a welcome note of opulence and glamour – and a chance to have some fun.
Art Deco jewellery is as desirable now as it was back then. This guide explains exactly what Art Deco is, how it grew into a fashion craze, and how to wear jewellery from this era today. Read on to discover more.
Bold, bright and hedonistic – the history of Art Deco
Before the war
In order to appreciate Art Deco, it’s important to understand what came before it.
At the start of the 1910s, the UK’s fashion scene was still Edwardian in style. Women wore long fluted skirts, oversized sleeves and frills, and were modestly covered. Put simply, it was an era of elegance and refinement.
The First World War put an abrupt end to this. With men away fighting, women had to work in factories or in farms. Long skirts and puffy sleeves were no longer appropriate, and practical clothing became the fashion.
When the war ended in 1918, the country was in a state of recovery and restraint. However, by the 1920s, people were ready to party once more.
A glamorous new epoch
The war had challenged perceptions of women’s role in society. They’d taken on jobs traditionally done by men, and this was reflected in the new fashions emerging at the time. Waistlines, which were previously higher on the body to enhance feminine curves, now dropped. This presented a much more androgenous look. Women also started to wear their hair far shorter.
The emphasis was on light-heartedness and liberty, and artists, clothes designers and jewellers started to become more playful with their designs. That’s when Art Deco was born.
Art Deco – a modern style
The name originates from a design exhibition held in Paris, back in the mid-1920s – the Exposition International des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes. The purpose of this exhibition was to demonstrate how art was interlinked with industry – and jewellery took centre-stage. Advancement in industrial jewellery-making techniques meant that designers could create forward-thinking pieces, which soon became a fashion sensation.
What makes jewellery ‘Art Deco’?
Art Deco jewellery is highly distinctive, and can usually be identified by the following features:
In 1922, Tutankhamun’s tomb was discovered, along with all the treasures inside it. These bold, colourful items captured the imagination of designers around the world – including jewellery-makers. In many Art Deco pieces, you can see the nod to Ancient Egypt, in the sharp lines, rich colours and luxurious materials used. Many of the motifs are borrowed from Egyptian history too, such as scarabs, pyramids and the eye of Horus.
Designers at this time weren’t only looking to Northern Africa for inspiration; they were also captivated by Far Eastern art – particularly from Japan and China. Many Art Deco jewellery features motifs commonly associated with these countries, such as plants, flowers, mythical creatures and even pagodas.
In contrast to Art Nouveau (which is all about flowing lines and replicating nature), Art Deco is sharp, geometric and perfectly proportioned. The jewellery often uses straight lines and ‘mathematical’ shapes, such as circles, squares, hexagons and triangles. Contrasting colours are also used to emphasise the linear nature of the design.
Advances in jewellery-making meant that gemstone settings could be easily hidden, creating the illusion of a solid, unbroken line of stones. Sometimes, this is referred to as a ‘mystery setting’.
Calibre cut stones
Art Deco pieces are well-known for their intricate ‘mosaic’ gemstone designs. This effect was down to the development of calibre cut gemstones, which could be placed closely together in a variety of different patterns.
Filigree was popular before the Art Deco era. However, in the 1920s, jewellers pushed filigree work to its limits, with greater complexity and precision than ever before. This was often teamed up with milgrain – a term that refers to a series of small metal beads inserted into a piece of jewellery, which form a border for the design.
Although Art Deco was incredibly progressive, it often harked back to the past. For example, most diamonds used in Art Deco jewellery are antique cut, not modern brilliant cut. While they might not have sparkled quite so radiantly under light, they had a vintage elegance that offered a more subtle gleam. Smaller gemstones were also the preferred choice, rather than huge precious stones.
Enamelling was already a common feature in jewellery, but was time-consuming and expensive. Lacquering created much the same effect, only much more quickly. As such, it was often used in Art Deco pieces, to create a pleasingly smooth backdrop for gemstones or filigree.
What materials were used in Art Deco jewellery?
The freedom of the era was reflected in jewellery-makers’ choice of materials; with expensive gemstones sitting alongside cheaper manufactured materials, such as glass and plastic. Likewise, precious stones were often used alongside semi-precious ones, creating bold colour combinations.
Here are a few of the key materials associated with Art Deco pieces:
Although gold was sometimes used in Art Deco jewellery, white metals were much more popular. Platinum was particularly favoured by jewellery-makers, as it was strong and durable. This meant it could accommodate complex gemstone placement, and that less metal was required to hold the stones in place. Platinor was also used as a cheaper alternative.
This era saw the rise of Bakelite, which was commonly used in Art Deco jewellery to mimic natural materials, such as polished bone, wood and gemstones. Synthetic sparking stones were often difficult to distinguish from their expensive genuine counterparts, and made the jewellery more appealing to a mass market.
Around this time, technology enabled the creation of ‘cultured’ pearls, which meant that pearls could be produced in vast quantities. They became widely used in jewellery, as they were barely discernible from natural pearls.
Rock crystal with diamonds
It was fairly common for rock crystal to accompany diamonds in Art Deco pieces. Both are the same colour, and the duller surface of the crystal serves to highlight the natural shine of the diamond. Larger pieces of rock crystal could also easily be cut into dynamic geometric shapes.
A wealth of brightly coloured gemstones
In the 1920s, a wide range of gemstones were incorporated into jewellery design. This wasn’t limited to precious stones like diamond and sapphire; semi-precious stones were also widely used, such as lapis lazuli, jade, onyx, amethyst and much more.
Jewellery styles in the 1920s
Flapper dresses were often short, and to counterbalance this, jewellery-makers started creating necklaces that were extremely long, often hanging almost to the navel. Sometimes, these long necklaces would be beaded and strung around the neck several times over. Other necklaces might have a dangling pendant at the bottom, with tassels that moved freely.
Art Deco necklaces weren’t always long, though. Short necklaces usually featured a bold, eye-catching geometric pendant, which mixed precious and semi-precious stones. Pearls and gemstone beads were also commonly used.
Some Art Deco rings were strikingly simple, and featured geometric forms like squares and hexagons. Others were incredibly intricate, with filigree detailing, calibre-cut gemstones clustered tightly together, and invisible settings, creating the illusion of a stone without a metal border.
Classic Art Deco earrings were long and mobile, moving when the wearer shook their head. This was ideal for the era, as increasing numbers of women were favouring shorter hairstyles. Diamonds were a popular choice of precious stone, and were often encrusted along the length of the earring, with a larger diamond at the top or bottom.
Designers sometimes took inspiration from the Far East with their earring designs. For example, floral motifs were quite commonly used, and leaves too.
Initially, Art Deco bracelets were typically quite narrow, and comprised multiple precious and semi-precious stones. They also featured filigree and milgrain, and repeating geometric patterns. Ladies often wore several bracelets at a time, which moved freely as they danced.
As the years went on, the bracelets started to widen. Cuff bracelets became popular; particularly those that enabled the wearer to clip a brooch onto it.
Brooches soared in popularity in this era, and were often worn on smart jackets, dresses and blouses. There was a lot of variety in terms of design, with some jewellery-makers preferring simple geometric patterns, and others using bright gemstones to create flowers, animals or Egyptian-inspired images.
Later, the designs focused on flexibility. For example, some art deco brooches came as a ‘joined pair’. They could be worn together as one big brooch, or worn separately as two smaller ones.
All sorts of beautiful art deco accessories were being created at this time. Bands and clips for shorter hairstyles always sold well, and these were usually large, eye-catching pieces of jewellery. Cigarette cases, mirrors and beauty-cases were also popular, and they gave jewellery-makers more surface area to get creative with designs.
How Art Deco has changed over time
Art Deco’s heyday was from the 1920s to the early 1940s. However, it’s one of the rare jewellery fashions that has never really gone out of style. Instead, it’s evolved subtly over the years, and pieces from all decades are highly sought-after.
Here’s a quick look at what’s changed:
- 1940s and 1950s
Many pieces during this time showcased classic Art Deco design; such as sharp, geometric patterns and Eastern-inspired motifs. In the 1940s, jewellery was generally demurer, which was due to the impact of the Second World War. By the 1950s, however, it was getting glitzy again. Brooches were especially popular, and faux pearls really came into their own. Use of gold-, silver- and rhodium-plating was also on the rise around this time.
- 1960s and 1970s
Minimalist mini-dresses were all the rage in the 1960s, and jewellery became bigger and bolder, to provide an attention-grabbing counterpoint. Floral designs were in too (due to the rise of hippy ‘flower power’) and plastic was commonly used, as it gave the jewellery some eye-popping colour. By the 1970s, flowing tassel-earrings and beaded necklaces were thoroughly back in style, and bright gemstones were also popular.
- 1980s and 1990s
The 1980s was all about colour and kitsch. It’s around this time that crystal became a big feature on Art Deco-inspired jewellery, as it added striking sparkle to earrings, bracelets and necklaces. Pearl beads were popular and worn with casual clothing. In the 1990s, crystal headbands and tiaras made a comeback, along with layered long necklaces.
- The millennium and beyond
These days, Art Deco jewellery has become seriously playful. Whilst you’ll still find classic floral and geometric pieces, you’ll also find some fun and quirky designs in the shape of animals, planets and even champagne glasses. The modern audience also favours sparkle – with Swarovski crystals and diamonds often seen on the runway.
Wearing Art Deco today
Art Deco jewellery remains highly sought-after to this day; thanks to its distinctive geometry, bold motifs and eye-catching appeal. If you love Art Deco style, but aren’t sure how to incorporate it into your 21st century look, here are a few pointers:
- Sparkle with Crystals. Although art deco jewellery comes in a variety of semi-precious and precious stones, crystal art deco jewellery is extremely popular. It offers just as much visual impact as diamonds and is often available in a range of fun and quirky designs.
- What’s the occasion? If you want an Art Deco ring for your wedding day, it’s likely you’ll want something that celebrates the best of this era; such as detailed filigree, geometric design or calibre-cut stones. You should view this as an investment, as it’s a special item that you’ll be wearing every day.
Alternatively, if you’re looking for a more casual piece of jewellery (for example, a necklace to wear at work), then a simpler piece might be more appropriate. A good rule of thumb is – if your outfit is detailed, keep the jewellery simple, and vice versa.
- Think versatility. Art Deco jewellery allows for plenty of versatility. For example, a brooch can be worn on your hat, on a silk shirt, on a dress, or even attached to your handbag. Hunt down attractive pieces that you’ll get plenty of wear from.
- Be bold. The original Art Deco style was all about freedom and fun. If you’re buying an Art Deco-inspired modern piece, make sure it encapsulates this. It should be eye-catching, vibrant and full of personality.
Looking for art deco inspired jewellery? Shop our Art Deco Jewellery collection, featuring a range of crystal art deco earrings, necklaces, bracelets, brooches and more.