The original American “bling,” cocktail rings emerged during the 1920s as bold statement pieces designed to draw the eye to the wearer’s hand along with — you guessed it — their cocktail. Today, a cocktail ring looks just as sophisticated paired with a casual turtleneck and a latte as it does accessorizing a slinky evening ensemble and a Gin Rickey at a fancy cocktail party. But these one-time flapper staples carry a rich history of rebellion, independence and Roaring ‘20s-era excess.
Traditionally comprised of an enormous center stone accented by smaller gems, cocktail rings are mounted in high settings to intensify sparkle with a dramatic halo effect. Truly a revolutionary design, these eye-catching accessories were as experimental as they were symbolic of youthful rebellion. So, to celebrate the centennial anniversary of Prohibition, raise your glass and tip a tipple to the glamorous statement jewelry that says, “let’s drink!”
The 1920s: Exuberance & Excess
Prohibition — and the subsequent birth of the cocktail ring — emerged thanks to the convergence of a number of cultural changes. Dramatic social and political changes marked the 1920s as a period of give and take between rapid advancement and repression. Tensions rose to a fever pitch during this era as an older generation nostalgic for pre-World War I traditions and values clashed with a younger generation returning from the Great War in Europe — and their rebellious new youth culture. Gender roles and race relations were both in flux amid an explosion of progress in arts and technology, ushering in moving pictures, radio, automobiles, the Jazz Age, the Art Deco movement and a brazen sexual revolution. Wide exposure to Black culture through the Harlem Renaissance and Jazz music’s immense popularity harkened the very beginnings of racially integrated social spaces in the United States. Still, waves of violent backlashes plagued the nation during the 1920s, dashing any lasting racial reform for decades to come.
Prohibition & the Birth of Cocktail Culture
Within this atmosphere of cultural instability, politicians sought to instill order, in part, by prohibiting alcohol. The move was politically appealing to two key groups: older generation who yearned for morality and a new subset of voting women engaged in the grassroots Temperance Movement. On October 28, 1919, Congress passed the Volsted Act, or National Prohibition Act, prohibiting the sale of alcohol until its repeal in 1933. Alcohol was now banned, but the federal government lacked resources to enforce it. Therefore, an entire industry of bootleg liquor production and distribution emerged on the blackmarket, along with secret speakeasies and hidden cocktail lounges accessed only with in-the-know personal connections and clandestine code words. Cocktail culture was in full swing, a byproduct of mixing horrid-tasting — and often poisoned — contraband liquors with tasty ingredients to create palatable alcoholic libations.
Flappers & the New Modern Woman
A new generation — largely considered the first — of independent American women emerged in a shifting nation, blurring lines in traditional gender roles and pushing boundaries in economic, political and sexual freedoms. In August 1920, the 19th Amendment was ratified granting women the right to vote. Women in industrialized cities increasingly continued working outside of the home, a rising trend of the late 19th century and onset of WWI, which secured the working woman’s newfound — and revolutionary — financial independence. Thanks to the innovative genius of designers like Coco Chanel, dramatic changes in fashions followed to suit the modern woman’s new lifestyle. Restrictive Victorian corsets and long skirts were abandoned in favor of risqué, knee-grazing hemlines and utilitarian trousers, and the voluminous hairstyles of the 1900s were swapped for chic, gender-defying bobs and cosmetics.
The everyday woman of the 1920s also began socializing publicly with mixed groups of men and women. But the most dramatic social deviation this new breed of woman embraced was frequenting bars — then, speakeasies and secret watering holes loaded with bootleg liquor. “Wet” environments were male-dominated until the 1920s, and what would have been incredibly scandalous for any woman outside of the sex trade and entertainment industries of earlier eras was now an everyday source of leisure and social pleasure.
The term “flapper” was coined describing this new generation of socially unbridled, energetic young women in the United States and Europe who embraced a lifestyle viewed by many during the era as outrageous, immoral or downright dangerous. Scores of flappers cut their hair into sleek bobs, wore makeup unapologetically and wore skin-bearing new fashions. And for the first time in American history, everyday women openly smoked, drank, dated, experimented sexually, circulated in racially integrated spaces and danced with abandon to the latest Jazz music.
Origins & Legacy of the Antique Cocktail Ring
Careful to ensure that everyone noticed their illegal cocktails, flamboyant flappers who frequented the underground speakeasy scene opted for glamorous and eye-catching jewels and precious gemstones to complement their glasses and tumblers, drawing attention to the fact that they were sipping illicit beverages. A way to flaunt feminine independence, beautiful cocktail rings were usually donned on the right hand in blatant contrast to the hand reserved for wedding bands and engagement rings — and a clear signal that this was a ring she had certainly bought with her own money. Gatsby-esque excess became all the rage, dawning an era of wild consumerism reflecting the economic bubble of wealth that burst in October 1929. The ostentatious period of showboating came to a sharp halt with the Great Depression.
During later decades of the 1940s, ‘50s and ’60s, the cocktail ring, including those adorned with colored gems, became a standard dress-up accessory for women heading to a cocktail party, upscale restaurant or night at the opera. Briefly going out of fashion in the 1970s, the cocktail ring made a bold comeback during the power-dressing ’80s in daytime and evening fashion, and they’ve stayed glamorous jewelry box staples ever since. Pour yourself a strong one, browse M.S. Rau’s dazzling collection of cocktail rings and antique barware, and make a toast to the 1920s flappers who gave us these bold statement pieces. Whether these bold rings were made with beautiful opal, stunning topaz, unique aquamarine, or other colored gems, these statement pieces became a symbol of rebellious women everywhere. From cocktail parties to special occasions, these large gemstones and fine jewelry pieces were all the rage and a true fashion statement. These large rings and statement pieces are still in style and will be so for years to come. References: “How Cocktail Rings Got Their Name.” TheJewelleryEditor.com. Accessed October 23, 2019. http://www.thejewelleryeditor.com/jewellery/article/how-cocktail-rings-got-their-name/ "Why Are They Called Cocktail Rings?" Refinery29.com. Accessed October 23, 2019. http://www.thejewelleryeditor.com/jewellery/article/how-cocktail-rings-got-their-name/