In the first two decades of the 20th century fashion moved very quickly indeed, which was hardly surprising when you consider the life changing events of the First World War. The Edwardian lady of the belle époque, tightly trussed in whale-bone corsets, shod in agonizingly tight shoes, hidden under mountainous hair matched only by acres of hat, and weighed down by multitudinous jewels, was gone. Voluptuous forms were no longer a la mode as women of the style modern embraced the boyish forms demanded of them during the hard labours of war. Gone also was the almost decadent frivolous opulence of the Edwardian era. What remained was the knowledge that jewels transcended the mere intrinsic and could be worn for their decorative effect. In the 1920s, the love of luxury reasserted itself and the importance of the decorative effect is evident in the main themes of Art Deco, where the sinuous, feminine, flowing lines of Art Nouveau were banished in favour of geometrical forms.
Clothing reflected the newly found independence of women. Hair became short and was worn in a boyish style displaying the nape of the neck. Hemlines went up and down, settling somewhere just below the knee, showing an outrageous amount of leg (stockinged, of course).The designer Poiret had anticipated the new androgynous look, but Coco Chanel had efficiently catered for it. Elevated hair lines demanded new lengths of earrings, sometimes draping over the shoulder. Naked arms needed bangles and bracelets, on many occasions more than one. Brooches were used on handbags, hats, and belts. Long necklaces called “flappers" were worn casually in this new age of jazz, and were the perfect accompaniment for the linear forms of the dresses.
In the early 1920s it was quite acceptable to wear costume or imitation jewelry during the day, but at night diamonds and other precious stones still reigned supreme, and condescension was poured on those women who wore imitation jewels. These barriers were lowering, however, and by the mid-1920s the perfect vehicle for the emancipation of fantasy jewelry had arrived, namely the Exposition des Arts Decoratifs et Industrials Modernes (Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts; the origin of the term "Art Deco") in Paris in 1925. New materials abounded, and form triumphed over content. This can be observed in the manufacturing methods of some of the more innovative Art Deco jewels. Precious jewelers such as Van Cleef and Arpels, and Cartier experimented with platinum, the new precious metal only recently discovered in 1910, and with new setting techniques, such as channel setting and invisible setting. Another innovation to come from the fine jewelry houses was the introduction of the double clip, patented by Cartier in 1927. This allowed two dress clips to fold together onto a bar pin-type frame, forming one single pin. This functionality and versatility appealed to those living through the Depression.
Inspirations for motifs moved between the Orient, with its Japanese pagodas, bonsai trees, and dragons; the Moghul Empire, which led to the use of large cabochons in emerald, ruby, and sapphire carved into fruits and flowers; and the increasing obsession with speed and the mechanized era, which inspired pieces in the forms of cars, ships, aeroplanes, trains, and the speedy shape of the running greyhound. In 1922, the discovery of King Tutankhamun's tomb rocked the design world, and a fixation with all things Egyptian was to carry on well into the 1930s. Of all the Art Deco themes we see in costume jewelry, that of the Indian "Tree of Life" may be the most sought after and recognizable. In the world of precious jewels, it was called the "Cartier Style" and in costume jewelry the "Fruit Salad" manifesting itself in the latter through the designs of Alfred Philippe for Trifari.
Pearls were once again very popular, with costume jewelry taking the lead. The passion for long sautoir necklaces lent itself to strands upon strands of pearls, not just in the traditional "Essence d'Orient" colour but also in a dazzling array of hues, ranging from pink and purple to grey and yellow.
One of the most collectable of costume jewelers arrived on the scene in the 1920s. Miriam Haskell opened her first shop in the McAlpin Hotel on 34th Street, New York, in 1924 and was to go on to design and produce her own jewelry in the 1930s. Monocraft, better known today as Monet, was founded in 1929 by brothers Michael and Jay Chernow, and it was also in the mid-1920s that Pennino started making his fabulous high-quality costume jewelry.
It was during these post-war years that the United States started industrializing on a large scale. The big players who came to dominate in later years were now laying the foundations for their future success.
Writer – Steven Miners