Oftentimes it can be hard to place the exact age of a piece of jewellery, as styles evolved slowly and organically over time. In a world without mass media, the diffusion and mixing of ideas and patterns was a slow and irregular process. Nonetheless, we can divide most jewellery into a few broad categories over the course of the 20th century, so long as one bears in mind that there is always room for variation (for example a goldsmith might have continued with a particular style, even though it was no longer trendy!). Here is a a brief look through the main jewellery styles of the 20th century.
Art Nouveau Jewellery
Art nouveau refers to a style of Art, Architecture and Decorative Arts that was popular from 1890-1910. The name comes from a gallery in Paris called “Maison de l’Art Nouveau” owned by Samuel Bing. It focussed on an appreciation for unique, one of a kind objects, an interest in nature and an abandonment of the diamond. Semi-precious stones and enamelling were common. The focus on the female form and on eroticism was strong, with a surreal, dream-like sensation to much jewellery. Mermaids, hydras or half-butterfly, half-woman creatures were depicted in high style Art Nouveau jewellery by designers such as René Lalique, one of the leading lights of the era. The style was on the wane by 1910, and the outbreak of World War I finished it altogether
Nature and naturalistic themes, flowers, birds, insects
Use of wood, horn, non-precious and semi-precious stones
Art Deco Jewellery
At the end of the First World War, as a reaction to four years of suffering and restraint, a period of exhuberation and of joie de vivre took hold in Europe. The traditions and customs of the pre-war era were put to one side, and a more light-hearted spirit entered society, whose new motto was “Live, and forget the past”. The jewellery worn was no exception.
The geometric sharpness and purity of the Cubism movement worked its way into jewellery, and the curves and soft lines of Art Nouveau was consigned to history. Interesting stones with varying colours and textures were used, such as onyx, coral, jade, turquoise or moonstone. Modern, emancipated women eschewed feminine colours and favoured bold and striking black-and-white pieces.
The discovery of Tutankamun’s tomb in 1922 introduced Egyptian style to jewellery, and the growth of world travel brought with it Eastern and other exotic influences.
During the 1930s the design got even more geometric and angular. The modernisation and mechanisation of the world lead to mechanical looking designs, with gears, cogs and even sometimes chains being incorporated into patterns. Jewellery got heavier and chunkier, with large polished surfaces and large proportions.
Stepped designs, Geometric patterns.
Long pendant earrings
Black and white colour scheme was fashionable – platinum was very common
Calibré set rings (right) come into fashion
Dramatic, bold designs
While Art Deco was a reaction to previous eras, Retro was an evolution from Art Deco, retaining much of the geometric feel, but with a more three dimensional feel, and colour being reintroduced. Beginning in the 1940s, one sees large, spectacular brooches becoming common, and the influence of the glamour and bright lights of Hollywood made big, exaggerated diamond pieces popular. During the war, platinum was declared a strategic material, so we see gold becoming popular again, with with this coloured stones (which flatter yellow gold) come back to the fore.
During wartime, designs were masculine and heavy. Thick fabrics allowed for heavier brooches to be supported
Glamourous, vibrant and bold patterns
Diamonds very popular
Yellow, Rose and Green gold was used
Reinterpretation of floral Victorian style, with more modern edge (the earrings and ring set to the right is a great example)
Mid Century Jewellery
The 1950s was a conservative time, and the jewellery was no different. Flowers and floral hues came back, with very feminine lines and shapes. Large stones would form the centre of the flower, in a radiating cluster of diamonds.
Matching parures of bracelet, necklace, ring and earrings came back into fashion. People began to entertain at home, so cocktail rings were the height of fashion; the thinking being that when standing in someone’s living room a big ring would flash and be visible to all of the other people there when you drank from your glass!
Jackie Kennedy came to the White House, with her elegant, stylish fashion. Classics like simple strands of pearls were in, sometimes accentuated with diamond clasps or removable enhancers.
Matching sets or parures
Big, bold looking cocktail rings (right)
“Fun” jewellery suitable for a party
Yellow gold in textured or hammered style
Diamonds featuring strongly