In the 1940s costume jewelry came into its own in the United States. Even more so than in the 1930s, isolation from Europe forced the United States to discover its own identity. This, coupled with modern mass-production techniques, meant that anyone could dress up to their heart's content. As in the '30s, cinema remained a prime influence on popular iconography, and makers such as Joseff of Hollywood continued to take full advantage of this. However, the appeal of the movies did riot stop at the American borders, and inspiration in fashions were exported to Europe, especially Paris, where the themes of Hollywood fashion were cleverly repackaged as "French", and resold.
While the Second World War wreaked havoc on Europe, the United States at firs remained neutral, with a bolstered defence industry. This increased employment and prosperity for the ordinary person. However, while a market for costume jewelry was increasing thanks to this new-found prosperity, the materials needed to create the jewels were becoming less readily available. Before the war, stones came from Europe, especially from Austria a source that, not surprisingly, was cut off after the outbreak of hostilities. Along with the earlier prohibition of the use of gold, other metals became prohibited for use for anything other than the defence industry, so in 1941 nickel, tin, zinc, and copper were taken off the market.
The United States looked inward for new materials and influences and found them in Amerindian designs. Native American forms were adorned with turquoise, corals, and seed pearls from the Gulf of California. Plastics were increasingly used, as was a bewildering array of other non-precious materials, including wood, leather, fur, and even ceramics. Miriam Haskell was particularly innovative in using cork, shells, and wood among other non-typical materials.
In 1942, platinum and iridium (used as a hardener for platinum) were taken out of circulation. The limited availability of base metals was also acutely felt, but costume jewelers innovated and found an almost ideal metal to use in the intervening time: sterling silver. It proved to be a successful replacement, being easy to work, easy to plate, and, above all, available from the government in bulk. Indeed it was so good that even after the lifting of the bans on the use of various base metals, the industry continued to use it into the 1950s.
The non-precious nature of the materials being used really had its advantages. The skilled and relatively cheap labour of model-makers, stone-setters, enamellers, and other ancillary workers, coupled with inexpensive materials, allowed designers' imaginations free reign to produce design after design relatively cheaply.
The 1940s is stylistically best known for the "Cocktail Style", sometimes called "Retro". It incorporates the geometry of Art Deco but adds almost baroque curves. Three dimensions were allowed back into what had been the flatter geometries of the 1930s. It was almost as if the new femininity of the post-war years, in which women gained unprecedented independence, was feminizing the previously androgynous styles of the wars and inter-war years. Typical cocktail jewelry contained numerous motifs including folds and pleats, almost as if it were fabric frozen in mid-movement. Scrolling waves of tapered ribbons, shells, and barrel-like forms all executed in gilded metal were also very popular. Also, more colour came back into jewelry. A popular gold colour was "rose gold", in which copper added a rosy tint to the finish. Coloured stones also reappeared, a favourite being the ruby. Enamels were frequently used, adding vibrant hues and life to curving floral and faunal forms. The newly acquired movement of form in jewelry was juxtaposed with the rather severe and strongly tailored look of ladies' clothing and coiffures of the earlier 1940s. Post-war Paris reasserted itself as the leader in haute couture, with a prime mover being Christian Dior's "New Look", which was launched in 1947. This was of a retake on the harshly tailored look, bringing in gentler lines, a tucked waist-line, and a longer skirt. The uncluttered look still remained popular but now it was more feminine. He later created costume jewelry to complement his clothing, and Dior jewelry is especially collectable today.
Another important development in costume jewelry was technical. Previously, casting had been done using a simple gravity method whereby the molten metal was allowed simply to fall to the bottom of the mould. The 1940s saw the development of centrifugal casting, in which the moulds are spun, forcing the metal into them. in a much more efficient manner. This allowed for greater intricacy of shapes and finer workmanship.
The 1940s represented one of the pinnacles of costume jewelry manufacture and design. Many of the firms active during this decade saw the highest productivity of all time. During this time Trifari produced some of its most famous jewelry: pins, generally in animal forms, with clear Lucite bodies imitating the use of rock crystal by precious jewelers. These are today called "Jelly Bellies" and are very desirable. Pennino produced absolutely stunning pins, in strong 1940s styles, which are again very sought after. Other firms, such as Marcel Boucher, Joseph Mazer, Eisenberg, and Coro, were at their zenith.
Writer – Steven Miners