Glitzy. Glamourous. Flamboyant. The Roaring 20s were a period of evolving fashion and sparkling society. For many, this decade evokes over-the-top Gatsby-esque celebrations, as well as the birth of mass culture, jazz music and the “new woman.” The onset of fashion trends that broke all the rules mimicked the changing society as a whole, and those changes continue to reverberate through the decades.
Following the Great War, culture in the United States experienced a seismic shift into the modern era. Monumental skyscrapers like the Empire State Building, soared above cities and the brilliant sheen of steel seemed to nearly swallow New York City. Airplanes and automobiles made travel more accessible than ever before. The rapidly changing culture expanded throughout all aspects of life: politics, social issues and even fashion. As society shrugged off the final vestiges of Victorian-era culture, modern women in the machine age traded in their old-fashioned corsets for the low waistlines and loose silhouettes that today epitomize the flapper style.
Inspired, in part, by society’s new adoration of technology and architecture, the Art Deco style began to emerge. Designs mimicked the streamlined aesthetics of the changing world with crisp, angular and geometric lines, embracing this new cosmopolitan chic and exuberant spirit of the culture.
The style took its name from the 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes, a world's fair hosted in Paris to exhibit the groundbreaking new Art Deco movement in the realms of design, architecture, furniture, jewelry, glass and more. The fair was a sensation with over 16 million people from around the world visiting to experience this captivating "style moderne." This decorative art movement, which developed alongside the emerging industrial economy in both Europe and America, was part of a rapidly changing culture. Nodding to the advancements and processes of technology, Art Deco aesthetics represented a pared-down vision of an embrace of machinery and modernism. In other words, Art Deco showed the demands of mass production and the embrace of new material as it showcased linear, modern and simplified symmetrical forms.
The opulence and abandon of the 1920s represent glamour at its height. Coupled with the push and pull of the stimulating new metropolis, fashion now established itself as ultra-feminine and chic. This streamlined decorative art style was seen throughout the aesthetic culture of the age, becoming what we know today as American Art Deco. The birth of the Art Deco movement changed jewelry design for years to come. This new design ethos presented itself with the striking effects of geometry and symmetry front and center. The result was a cleaner style than the more organic lines of preceding styles, yet it still incorporated brilliantly colored stones for a statement-making effect.
Materials used in the creation of Art Deco jewels reflected the modern world, just as the designs did. Most jewelry made during the era was fashioned in either white gold or platinum. Platinum was a relatively new material for jewelry. The Edwardian period saw platinum used for the first time in this application — a major technological advancement at the time. Prior to the late 19th century, platinum was quite scarce and there was little understanding amongst jewelers of its workability. With studying and testing, the use of platinum was fully exploited for this jewelry, and it was discovered that platinum allowed flexible workability. White gold first emerged around 1915 when it was introduced to combat rising platinum costs while still meeting the public demand for light-colored metals. Yellow gold was considered out of style in the Art Deco-era, and is rarely seen.
Art Deco jewelry also sought to incorporate the very best examples of diamonds, jade and other precious gems, while innovations in gem cuts and facets made gemstones more brilliant and luminous than ever before. Color was an important consideration, and classic jewel tones like emerald, ruby and sapphire reigned supreme.
The interpretation of Art Deco style varied widely, from emphasizing separate aspects to depictions of different themes. For some, this interpretation resulted in energetic colors and accents; for others, this meant emphasizing jewelry’s intrinsic, graceful values. However, for many savvy and modern Art Deco jewelers, this interpretation resulted in large-scale pieces and gemstones, reflecting the exuberance, free-flowing personality and high style of 1920s culture.
Non-western motifs also feature prominently in the fine jewelry of the Art Deco period, and South and East Asian motifs proved especially popular. Non-western-inspired jewelry pieces often incorporated a larger variety of materials and colors, with handsome specimens of jade or striking black and red enameling.
Now, more than ever, Art Deco period pieces have experienced a particularly popular resurgence in the jewelry world – movies such as The Great Gatsby glorify the high-spirited Jazz Age and all the glamour that came with it. Exploring the boundaries of geometry in a way that is both stylish and fun, Art Deco jewelry reflects the confidence of its age. Even today, the Art Deco design movement inspires everything from interior design and furniture to fashion and jewelry with its geometric shapes, seamless patterns and rich colors. Classic yet bold, vintage Art Deco designs remain one of the most enduring and sought-after styles of the last century.
To see M.S. Rau’s entire collection of Art Deco jewelry for sale, explore our website. You can also read about other eras of jewelry design in our latest virtual exhibition, Extravagant Jewels: A History of Jewelry Design.
This article was updated on 2/16/2022.