Like the fine and decorative arts, the jeweler's art is a reflection of its place and time, with changing fashions, techniques and materials influencing jewelry forms of each new decade. Explore the last two centuries of jewelry eras.
Like the Georgian period that preceded it and the Edwardian period that followed, the Victorian age was named for its reigning monarch, Queen Victoria. Spanning from 1837 until 1901, her 63-year reign was longer than any preceding monarch. Few periods of history embody as much importance as the Victorian era, a diverse age of progressive scientific advances, exploration, expansion and invention. It was a time when Britain had reached the height of its power, having defeated the French Emperor Napoléon and built one of the most vast modern empires that the world had ever seen.
Victorian Diamond Flower Pin, 23.10 Carats. M. S. Rau.
While the Empire was far-reaching, the Industrial Revolution flourished back home in Britain, bringing with it new markets, a rise in consumerism and widespread prosperity. Amid this innovation and change, a new, thriving middle class developed whose wealth sparked an unprecedented demand for jewelry in the mass market. The resulting jewelry crafted during this period is a product of the changing fortune and unprecedented prosperity of the time.
As the tastemaker of the age, Queen Victoria guided the course of fashion throughout her life, and, naturally, her own personal tastes changed over the 60 years of her reign. Thus, jewelry from the Victorian age is usually divided into three distinctive periods: the Romantic period (1837-1860), the High Victorian period (1860-1885) and the late Victorian period (1885-1901). While there is considerable overlap between these three phases of design, they also produced their own distinctive styles that reflect the life and prevailing tastes of Queen Victoria herself.
The Romantic period is so named because it refers to jewelry created while the Queen's husband, Prince Albert, was still alive. Often, these pieces mirrored the affection between the Queen and King. Flower motifs, metalwork folded into depictions of foliage and en tremblant brooches were highly popular, reflecting the whimsy of a couple in love. The serpent motif was also in demand as a symbol of eternity — Prince Albert gifted Queen Victoria with an engagement ring that featured her birthstone, an emerald, set within a snake motif, popularizing the trend.
Such sentimental symbolism was a carryover from the preceding Georgian era. This sentimentalism also manifested in the prevalence of miniatures, lockets and complex knot motifs that remained wildly popular as gifts throughout the Victorian age. Other fashionable pieces included cameo and intaglio surrounded by small diamonds or seed pearls, as well as jewelry decorated with delicate enamel work.
Jewelry from this period differed from preceding eras in the way that it was crafted. Thanks to rapidly evolving technology, craftsmen improved upon the repoussé technique, a practice that involved metalworking and hammering malleable metal into intricate designs and patterns. The result was delicate settings that would become a key indicator of period Victorian jewelry. Yet, despite these technological advances, gemstones still featured less complex cuts than those seen today, primarily featuring the rose cut, Old Mine cut and even the cabochon.
The death of Prince Albert in 1861 brought about an end to the Romantic period, beginning the High Victorian period (also known as the Grand period). After Albert’s death, Queen Victoria fell into a period of deep mourning, inspiring a vogue for black mourning jewelry such as rings and lockets. The most luxurious black jewelry pieces were crafted from jet, a form of fossilized coal. This material became so popular and desirable that tourists would travel to Whitby, the source of this material, and take home a piece as a souvenir. Black onyx and enamel were also prolific materials used for jewelry during this period.
In addition to the prevalence of black-colored jewelry items, there was a renewed interest in antiquity. Looking towards the past, bench jewelers took inspiration from the Etruscan, Egyptian and classical periods, integrating their key motifs into jewelry designs.
Foreign influences continued into the Late Victorian period, also known as the Aesthetic period. Jewelry became simpler and smaller in scale, and many jewelry designers looked to both the ancients and Japan for design inspiration. Colored gemstones also prevailed, thanks to an increase in global trade that introduced a new wealth of topaz, garnet, emerald, rubies, sapphires and turquoise into the region. Many of the designs of the period are comparable to those of the Edwardian age, so much so that many jewelry historians categorize pieces created after 1890 as Edwardian, despite the fact that King Edward VIII did not take the throne until 1901.
Known for its elegance and intricacy, Edwardian jewelry is named for King Edward VII, though the style has its origins in the final years of Queen Victoria's reign. It was the very last period of jewelry design to be defined by and named for a British monarch, and like its predecessors, it is a true reflection of its time and place. While jewelry under Queen Victoria came to represent her great love and her great loss, Edwardian jewelry undoubtedly reflects King Edward's penchant for luxury.
A playboy in his youth, he inherited a golden age from his mother, reigning over a vast British Empire that had not been seen before or since. The king was a skilled diplomat, and famously presided over the formation of the Triple Entente, an alliance between Britain, France and Russia, an action that would prove crucial with the onset of the World War I. As a whole, Britain prospered, and Edward and his wife, Alexandra, indulged in the luxury of the age.
Among the era’s greatest luxuries was its jewelry creations. Not only did jewelry design from the age overlap with the Late Victorian period, but also the rise of Art Nouveau, a style that will be discussed at length in the next section of the exhibition.
In many ways, Edwardian designs were a reaction against the bold, monumental machine-made jewels of the High Victorian era. Instead, jewelers looked back to more traditional, handmade forms, while also creating jewelry that was lighter and far more intricate. Pieces were crafted with delicate openwork and piercing that mimicked weaving, embroidery, lace and latticework. It became known as the guirlande, or “garland,” style, and it borrowed the fluid lines of the concurrent Art Nouveau style and married them with traditional motifs of the 18th century.
However, though it was crafted to appear delicate and highly intricate, Edwardian-period jewelry had a key advantage over its predecessors in terms of durability — platinum. Prior to the late 19th century, platinum was scarce and there was little understanding amongst jewelers of its workability. However, the invention of the acetylene torch in 1903 allowed platinum to be adequately heated and formed into the intricate designs favored during the period. The use of platinum was soon fully exploited for jewelry, providing both the strength and workability that give Edwardian pieces their light, airy aesthetic. A new decorative technique known as millegraining, wherein extremely small beaded details are applied to the edges of a design, was also made possible by the use of platinum. The technique lent the jewelry a softer, lighter look that has since become synonymous with designs of the era.
Art Nouveau (1890-1915)
Developing alongside the Edwardian style was the more daring Art Nouveau, similarly growing out of a rejection of the machine-made designs and heavy mourning jewelry that dominated the High Victorian age. Translating from the French to “New Art,” Art Nouveau moved away from the neoclassicism that informed all aspects of the arts that had came before. A neoclassical emphasis on symmetry and proportion was set aside in favor of organic forms that embraced the inherent asymmetry of the natural world.
The roots of the Art Nouveau movement were twofold. The first hints of the style emerged in Britain thanks to the influence of the Arts & Crafts movement of William Morris, which championed the role of the designer in an age of industrialization. Like the Art Nouveau style, the Arts & Crafts movement touched all aspects of the decorative arts, seeking to bring beauty and art into the everyday rather than placing it upon a pedestal. Guilds emerged that championed the work of the artisan, supporting a new generation of artists and designers in opposition to the machines of industry.
The other significant influence on Art Nouveau’s emergence was the influx of Japanese art into the West. The vibrant colors, sinuous contours and flattened perspectives that dominated Japanese prints were directly translated into Art Nouveau textiles and wallpapers, while Japanese woodcut and printmaking techniques were also quickly adopted.
From its Japanese influence, Art Nouveau embraced one of its most prevailing decorative tropes, that of the sinuous, free-flowing line. Not only was the curving line an apt interpretation of the inherent chaos of the natural world, but it was also employed in order to imply movement, such as in the flowing tresses of a maiden or the rippling effect of water. From nature, Art Nouveau designers also borrowed floral and animal motifs; peacocks were common thanks to the natural vibrance and drama of their plumage, while spiders, butterflies and other insects were also often interpreted.
Just as revolutionary as these new motifs were the new techniques that were used to render them. Plique-à-jour, an enameling technique similar to cloisonné, was made popular thanks to its vibrant colors and translucency that mimicked the diaphanous quality of butterfly wings and leaves. The ideals of truth to nature extended to the materials used. Rather than choosing metals and stones based on their rarity, artisans sought out those gems with an aesthetic effect that most suited their designs.
Gems such as moonstones, opals and mother of pearl were preferred for their ethereal luminosity. Agate, garnets and aquamarines were beloved for their distinctive color, while Baroque pearls were desired for their unusual contours that were so prized during the period.
One of the most well-known designers to emerge during this period was René Lalique, a jeweler and glassmaker whose creations become synonymous with the movement. Training in both Paris and London (where he encountered the Arts & Crafts movement), Lalique began his career by designing jewelry for firms like Cartier, Destape and Boucheron. By 1885, however, he opened his own storefront, where he sold glassworks as well as his famed jewelry designs. By using glasswork and special techniques of enameling, Lalique was able to produce jewelry less centered around gemstones and jewels, instead focusing on form through the manipulation of metals, mother of pearl and even horn.
Also captivated by the beauty of the female form, René Lalique’s designs often took the form of nymphs or maidens. The faces and bodies of young women became the centerpieces of many of his most coveted jewels, their arms and hair often merging to become various flora and fauna. His designs made waves at the 1900 Exposition Universelle, where critics unanimously praised his jewelry.
In America, Louis Comfort Tiffany and Tiffany Studios created spectacular Art Nouveau designs primarily in glass but also in jewelry. Marcus & Co. was another prominent American jeweler of the Art Nouveau period that became particularly renowned for their use of enamel.
The style prevailed for over two decades since its emergence, with most scholars agreeing it came to an end with the beginning of World War I. However, its influences are still felt to this day, as elements of the Art Nouveau have re-emerged in the decorative arts over the past decades.
Art Deco (1910-1939)
As the Art Nouveau movement began to wane in the years before the First World War, it paved the way for a new style to emerge: Art Deco. The movement takes its name from the 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes, a world's fair hosted in Paris that marked the zenith of the Art Deco style. Immensely popular, the fair attracted over 16 million people during its seven-month run, showing wares from 15,000 exhibitors in the new "style moderne."
Previously, the term “Cubism” was used to describe this new, avant-garde design ethos, and the angular, geometric jewelry that brought forms back to their basics certainly are suited to the term. Whereas Art Nouveau was a reaction against the machine-made wares of the Industrial Age, Art Deco embraced the technological innovation, industrial materials and mechanization of the modern era. Its design principles emphasized clean lines and streamlined aesthetics that were the antithesis of the over-exuberant flourishes of the Art Nouveau age.
The years following the war saw a revolution in all areas of fashion; women gave up their corsets, shortened their hair and their hemlines, and thus the flapper style was born. Sleeker silhouettes and simple, yet sophisticated clothing necessitated a new type of jewelry. Luckily, thanks to a booming economy following the war, consumers had the money to spend on luxurious new jewelry pieces to accompany their new wardrobes.
The interpretation of the Art Deco style in jewelry varied widely, but as a whole it quickly became associated with luxury. Jewelry incorporated the very best examples of diamonds, platinum, jade and other precious gems, while innovations in gem cuts and facets made gemstones more brilliant and luminous than ever before. Still, large gemstones were often dismissed in favor of numerous small brilliant-cut stones, which allowed the jeweler to achieve the distinctive, linear designs that have become associated with the movement.
Further streamlining jewelry of the period, Van Cleef & Arpels famously mastered the invisible, or “mystery,” setting, which truly allowed the gemstone to shine in nearly-imperceptible platinum settings. Platinum itself continued to reign supreme as the metal of choice, after briefly giving way to the yellow gold that was preferred by Art Nouveau artisans.
In addition to Van Cleef & Arpels, the French jewelry firm Cartier was at the forefront of jewelry design throughout the Art Deco period, paving the way with innovative new designs inspired by the modern age. The jewelers were renowned for their daring approach, incorporating surprising materials such as coral and onyx, as well as gemstones that were carved rather than cut and faceted. Not only were the maison’s designs informed by a near-radical geometry, but also by Near Eastern and Egyptian influences that would inspire some of their most lasting designs.
While luxury gemstones re-emerged with a vengeance in the Art Deco period, vestiges of the Art Nouveau still remained, particularly in the use of more unorthodox materials and combinations. While Art Nouveau designers used non-precious gems in order to mimic nature, Art Deco jewelers incorporated materials such as onyx, jade, ivory, lapis and rock crystal for purely aesthetic reasons. Manufactured materials such as plastic and glass were also widely utilized; inspiration came from modern life, and thus modern, everyday materials were sometimes used to bring a jeweler’s vision to life.
In addition to industry and technology, the Art Deco style also referenced pre-modern art, specifically the compelling motifs of ancient Egyptian art. The 1920s saw a new wave of what became known as “Egyptomania” following the discovery of the young King Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922. Images from Egypt spread throughout the Western world with news footage of archaeological digs. More than 3,000 years after his death, the pharaoh's influence spread throughout Europe and across the Atlantic to the United States. The discovery inspired a new phase of Egyptian Revivalism that touched everything from jewelry to the decorative arts as artisans integrated Egyptian-style motifs in their sleek, Art Deco creations.
Emerging just before the onset of World War II, Retro jewelry was truly an amalgamation of all the jewelry designs that came before. Designers married the geometry of Art Deco with the organic sensuality of Art Nouveau, rounding sharp edges and emphasizing volume over starkness. The period also saw a return to the abundant floral motifs that prevailed during the Victorian and Edwardian ages in a highly modern interpretation of the past. Its very name, “retro,” is from the Latin for “backwards,” suggesting a style imitative of the past. Despite its myriad of influences, Retro jewelry was first and foremost a product of its distinctive time and place, reflecting the turbulent and ever-changing world of the 1940s and early 1950s.
The Retro period was an age defined by the Second World War, an event that impacted all aspects of daily life. While the first hints of the Retro style appeared around 1935, it was the war years that truly came to define the design period. The worldwide conflict unsurprisingly impacted jewelry production, most significantly in the availability of materials. Thus, jewelry designers were choosing metals and gems not solely for aesthetics, but based on what was available.
Since platinum and sterling silver were reserved solely for military purposes, designs were most often crafted from gold alloys. In addition to gold, copper and palladium became new staples in the jewelry world during wartime. Jewelers used thin sheets of these metals backed by a non-precious base metal to conserve supplies; it also helped designers achieve the heavy, three-dimensional designs that were fashionable during the period.
Precious gemstones were equally challenging to find. Not only did activity at many mines cease during the conflict, but international trade was also interrupted by new sanctions and trade route disruptions. Since procuring gemstones was difficult at best, many jewelers began to utilize synthetic, or lab-grown, stones in the place of naturally occurring ones. Additionally, clusters of smaller stones, which were easier to find, became the norm over the use of larger gems.
Some jewelers left out gemstones all together, creating designs from metal alloys alone. One of the most popular designs of the period was what became known as the tank bracelet. Both bold and stylish, the tank bracelet took its design inspiration from the wheel treads made by tanks during the war. Such military-themed jewelry was popular throughout the Retro period, and was almost always crafting solely from yellow gold.
Although metal had to be rationed and smaller gems were commonly used, there is nothing diminutive about Retro-era jewelry. The designs often utilized illusion settings to create a heavier, three-dimensional look compared to the more flattened style of Art Deco jewelry. Brooches, vintage earrings and cocktail rings became especially popular during the Second World War and into the 1950s, adding a hint of glamour to the more masculine clothing styles that prevailed during wartime.
The scarcity of materials as a result of the war also led to another ingenious jewelry trend, that of convertible, multi-use jewelry. Brooches doubled as charms, pendants and even earrings. Necklaces themselves could often turn into multiple bracelets, giving a variety of looks for a more economical price.
Another effect of the war on jewelry design was the newfound prevalence of patriotic jewelry. Van Cleef & Arpels and Cartier both made their own versions of patriotic jewelry in France, Van Cleef with their Jeep de la Libération series and Cartier with their Bird in a Cage motif that was created in protest to the German occupation. Jewelers in the United States similarly created patriotic designs, creating red, white and blue pieces using rubies, diamonds and sapphires.
Down to its very basics, Retro jewelry was feminine and patriotic, paying homage to the styles that came before while still representing its own place and time. Though the years proved difficult for the world at war, they were still among the most creative in the history of jewelry design. These pieces remain among the most fascinating and historic of the 20th century, representing designers coming full circle melding past with present.