Among the major periods of art, fashion, and jewelry, Art Deco remains one of the most fascinating and beloved. After all, its arrival marked a new era of Western history during which industrial production flourished and many older social mores were cast aside, arguably paving the way for many of the modern luxuries and social freedoms to come.
The Art Deco era began during the early 1920s and received its name from the Exposition International des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes, which was held in Paris in 1925. The exposition celebrated the association of art and industry and was largely dedicated to jewelry arts.
Art Deco earrings featuring diamond and onyx
Indeed, as the aesthetic themes of Art Deco jewelry illustrate, art and fashion of the time were indelibly informed by developments in the thriving industrial sector. In addition to a booming economy, the vivacious social scene of the Roaring Twenties that sparkled with jazz, speakeasies, and flappers further encouraged individual expression and creativity.
The artistic period preceding Art Deco was Art Nouveau, a period defined by soft pastels, organic curves, and nature-inspired motifs. If Art Nouveau is a beautiful, flowing country landscape spotted with delicate irises and cranes, then Art Deco is the luxe, glittering city lined with brightly lit skyscrapers. The latter era favored more masculine, geometric lines, distinct angles, and futuristic motifs. Art Deco’s clean lines perfectly suited the budding machine age, and the style exuded confidence.
Artistic inspiration for Art Deco was sourced from all over the world. Oriental, Indian, African, and South American art all play a role in the special touches that defined Art Deco jewelry. Perhaps most interesting is the influence of ancient Egypt on this modern artistic style. The discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamen in the Valley of Kings spurred a fascination with all things Pharaoh-esque, including lotus blossoms, pyramids, the eye of hours symbol, and even scarabs. These motifs inspired new combinations of materials, including lapis lazuli with gold and cornelian with turquoise.
Egyptian Revival Scarab Pin, circa 1925
Schools of Design
The Bijoutiers-Artistes comprised a school of Art Deco jewelry design. They prioritized eye-catching design over the intrinsic value of the materials. Often, their designs included carved, sculptural gems, and diamonds were usually used as accents or punctuation rather than as the main feature. Jewelry created by the Bijoutiers-Artistes was usually created within an artistic community by artists with various trades—rather than by jewelers alone. This school of design favored a mix of precious and semi-precious stones.
Art Deco Sapphire, Moonstone, Enamel, and Diamond Ear Pendants by Georges Fouquet, circa 1925.
The Bijourtiers-Joulliers hailed from the well-established jewelry scene in Paris. Although their designs may have appeared more conventional than those of the Bijoutiers-Artistes, this group of jewelers is credited with introducing unusual diamond cuts, including triangle, trapeze, and half-moon, among others. They mostly favored precious stones but occasionally incorporated coral, agate, and turquoise into their pieces.
Cartier Art Deco Necklace
Major Art Deco designers included Tiffany, Cartier, Van Cleef and Arpels, Harry Winston, Lalique, and Mauboussin.
Materials & Innovations
Art Deco diamond and sapphire ring
Thanks to the economic prosperity of the 20s, more people were able to afford fine jewelry, including diamonds and engagement rings. New casting techniques allowed for more efficient production of intricate setting, further increasing the accessibility of fine jewelry. Advancements in cutting techniques prompted the advent of the modern round brilliant cut, a diamond cut that really allows the stone to dazzle as only diamonds can. Finally, platinum was the most popular metal at the time, but white gold served as a more affordable substitute.
Photos: Barbara Michelle Jacobs, Lang Antiques
Although mourning jewelry is typically associated with Victorian fashion, mourning jewelry dates back to at least the 15th century when miniature portraits (which were often worn as jewelry) gained popularity among European monarchy. In fact, the miniature portraits famously featured in Victorian mourning and sentimental jewelry is the product of centuries of development.
Miniature portraits on display at the National Museum in Warsaw.
The Origin of Miniature Portrait Jewelry
Mourning jewelry expert Hayden Peters argues that miniature portraits have their roots in the introduction of the printing press. “Miniature” stems from the Latin miniare, or “to color with red lead.” During the 15th century (and for some time before), hand-printed books often featured red capital letters (these books are also known as illuminated manuscripts).
By the 1460s, however, these handmade books faced competition from books created with the printing press. Although there continued to be hand-illustrated books, some illustrators turned their attention to creating miniature portraits.
By the 1520s, miniature portraits were popular items in French and English courts. Jean Clouet in France and Lucas Horenbout in England were two early notable miniaturists, creating miniature portraits for jewelry that could be worn around the neck or simply held in the palm of one’s hand. At a certain point, miniature portraits were used to adorn snuff boxes as well.
Portrait of a man against a background of flames by Nicholas Hollard, c. 1600.
Miniature Portrait Symbolism
From roughly 1580 to 1635, miniature portraits were fashionable gifts among society’s elite. They could be given unframed to a loved one, allowing the recipient to select their desired frame. In some areas, they were even the subject of public ceremonies. In addition to serving as memorial pieces, miniatures were of special important to those whose loved ones were required to travel or live far away. For example, a wife may have kept a miniature portrait of her husband while he was away.
Peters points out that the Humanist movement during the Renaissance may have played a role in the popularity of miniatures. Given the renewed focus on the individual (rather than the divine), it’s no wonder that people would want to carry around images of the people they held dear.
Miniature portrait of Charles I.
Miniature portraits also served as an outlet for individuals’ political loyalties. During the reign of Oliver Cromwell, some people carried around mourning portraits of Charles I to show their solidarity with the Crown.
Miniature Portrait Materials and Innovations
Miniature portraits were sometimes as small as 40mm x 30mm. Initially, they involved watercolor painted on stretched vellum. By the second half of the 17th century, most miniatures were created by painting vitreous enamel on copper, a method that was particularly popular in France. By the late 18th century, this method was mostly replaced by watercolor on ivory (ivory had become fairly affordable by this point).
Miniature mourning portrait of a young girl.
The quality of miniature portraits varied, of course, with some featuring exquisite details while others were created from classic templates and adjusted to more closely represent an individual’s features—with varying degrees of accuracy.
With the development of the daguerreotype in the mid-19th century, the popularity of miniature portraits eventually diminished in favor of photographic technology.
Photos: Wikimedia Commons, The Art of Mourning