With a few exceptions, the 1970s were a poor time for costume jewelry design, not least because the taste for self ornamentation was definitely in decline. Gold prices were very high and plating costs rose with them. Jewels were minuscule, reflecting raised costs, and partly as result plastics were again in common use. A typical necklace would be a plastic disc suspended on a chain. Sad days indeed!
Thanks to the punk movement, jewelry took a bizarre and generally unlovely turn epitomizing an ideal of anti ornamentation. Bicycle chains were worn around neck and wrist, razor blades and safety pins decorated outfits, all sending out an anti fashion message. It is probably due to this design hiatus that those who had new and interesting ideas managed to get a foothold in an otherwise barren market.
One firm that seized the day was Butler & Wilson. The dearth of innovative design in the 1970s led to vigorous retrospection towards Art Deco design, and with antique jewelry becoming so popular, Butler Wilson filled the gap in demand by producing their own jewels in the Art Deco style. They cleverly matched antique design and modern trends and lit up an otherwise dull decade. Butler & Wilson have continued to produce collectable classics to the present day, taking inspiration from diverse themes ranging from Victorian Scottish agates to Navajo Native American designs.
In France Jean Paul Gaultier produced electronic jewelry, William de Lillo produced jewels for Gerard Pipart's collections, Langani (based in Stuttgart, Germany designed jewels for Louis Feraud, and indeed a lot of collaboration was producing interesting jewels on an haute couture, bespoke basis, but not on a level seen in earlier decades
In the United States, costume jewelry design was also in crisis but not as profoundly as in Europe. Ken Lane was still producing gaudy copies of large and bulky precious jewels made by the top-end jewelers, and famous names were seen to be wearing them. Socialites such as the Duchess of Windsor were fans of Lane's creations. The ebullient personalities of the day were not to be stifled and the likes of Elizabeth Taylor wore magnificent precious jewels. Joseph Mazer also produced large exuberant costume jewels, although generally of a technically finer finish than Ken Lane's.
The beginning of the decade was particularly dogged by economic uncertainty, and a new type of designer was making their mark with a limited move back to an almost "Arts and Crafts movement. Whereas the original British Arts and Crafts was born out of a fundamental rebellion against the mass industrialization and dehumanizing effects of the industrial revolution, this limited move back to hand-produced creations was more a result of economic factors. However, the Arts and Crafts aesthetic had its appeal: as Ruskin did at the end of the previous century, designers and artists who attended college in the '60s were now discovering the home made look.
Emphasis was placed on non-precious materials, valuing natural textures and rough cuts. Communes were set up, reflecting the guilds and cooperatives of the Arts and Crafts jewelers. Like the earlier movement, this new breed experimented with design, and many pieces were simply conceptual. Not mainstream or mass-market in any way, they were sold and exhibited only in galleries. A good example of this form of design and production is that of the handmade pieces of New York designer Wendy Gell. As the Arts and Crafts of the turn of the 20th century provided a springboard to the magnificent designs of the 1920s and '30s so this later version can be seen as providing a jumping-off point for some remarkable work in the 1980s and '90s.
One gallery that exhibited these pieces, located in New York, was called Arhvear and launched many successful careers. Another called Sculpture to Akbar, which opened in 1972 in New York's City Plaza Hotel, exhibited pieces by goliaths of the design world such as Picasso, Roy Lichtenstein, and Man Ray. Among the less well known was Robert Lee Morris, who went on to build an important reputation.
The return to individual designer styles left the larger manufacturers in something of a quandary, so in response they typically fished around for their own in-house independent designers. For example, Trifari employed designers such as Diane Love, Jonathan Bailey, and Andre Boeuf.
It is a great time to start collecting '70s jewelry as it is still undervalued and easily found at a good price. More names to look out for include Yves Saint Laurent, Ciner, Pierre Cardin, Nettie Rosenstein, Oscar de la Renta, and especially Stanley Hagler. The latter deserves a special mention here, not only because of his eminent design career, but also for the intense level of workmanship of his pieces The play of unusual materials, vibrant colours, subtlety of pearl shades, and quality of pating ensures tha its appeal is broad