Retro Era Jewelry: Late 1930s & 1940s
Following the swan song of the Art Deco aesthetic in Paris in 1937, the Retro Era arrived, featuring eye-catching designs that employed innovative new techniques and original creations.
Retro Era Materials
Platinum, once the mainstay of fine jewelry, was requisitioned for use in the war effort. While palladium was substituted for platinum, most of the jewelry produced during the Retro Era was styled in gold. Gold continued to be the metal of choice through the 1950s and beyond.
In an effort to get the most out of the gold that was available, more copper was alloyed with the gold, resulting in lower karat weights.
Tuboga chains, first seen in 1934, were employed throughout the 1940s. Jewelers used this style in necklaces, bracelets, and belts with clips and decorative add-ons. (The name “tuboga” translates to “gas pipe.” Today, it’s commonly referred to as snake chain.)
Before, and for the duration of World War II, restyling one’s old jewelry became very popular, given the limited supplies of materials available to create fine jewelry. As might be expected, the market for estate jewelry thrived, with consumers investing in precious metals and gems instead of currency.
Given the global turmoil of the times, gemstones supplied by countries such as South Africa, Burma, and India were no longer a sure thing. As a result, synthetic stones were used as substitutes. Diamonds were used sparingly, often pavé-set or invisibly set for a bigger look, as supporting stones to colorful gemstone centers. Additionally, semi-precious gemstones were used in place of precious stones. Of particular interest were peridot, amethyst, citrine, aquamarine, and topaz.
To lend color to pieces, artisans often employed enamels, which highlighted the gold and showcased the colored gemstones.
As the war progressed, diamonds became scarcer, and it was rubies and sapphires that were used to complement large semi-precious centers such as moonstones and aquamarines.
Retro Era Style
Braided gold was used to form fringe, knots, tassels, and woven themes. Bows, feathers, and volutes made a comeback in high-polished beribboned gold, often with pavé-set gemstones. Fabric-inspired patterns such as resilla, cannetille, and lace were frequently employed.
Flora and fauna were popular themes. Fruits and vegetables had their day in the sun, most notably at the hands of Boucheron, which specialized in jewelry that depicted cabbages, olives, hazelnuts, and corn.
Birds of a feather could often be seen in Retro jewels. Intricately crafted with a realistic feature, these avians were depicted in a range of colorful gemstones and enamels.
Tigers, panthers, and lions featured heavily in brooches, bracelets, and earrings, as were dogs, cats, horses, and bees.
Movement was a key innovation of jewels during this period. Branches swayed, petals trembled, butterfly wings vibrated. Colorful gemstones held by miniature threads created an eye-catching effect.
Multiple textures were used in the same design, pairing matte and high-polish finishes, for example, to highlight the design.
There was a revival of feminine motifs, in particular the ribbon and bow designs prominently featured in Edwardian and Belle Époque jewels.
Retro Era Must-Haves
Rings were large and impressive. Bombé rings (also known as “boule”) were domed and covered in gemstones. Another popular style was the flowerhead, which, as its name implies, typically had a center stone surrounded by “petals” of additional gemstones.
Brooches were crafted of gold and depicted lace, ribbons, bows, and knots, encrusted with aquamarines, amethysts, and citrines. Playful flora and fauna themes were all the rage.
Necklaces were fashioned with fancy gold links and tuboga chains, with a length that hit the base of the neck. Detachable clips and other elements allowed the necklace to transform into a brooch, earrings, or bracelet.
Bracelet styles included the bicycle chain, gas-pipe, and wide cuff. Van Cleef & Arpels designed the Ludo strap bracelet. Also known as the honeycomb bracelet, it featured brick-like rectangular or octagonal elements decorated with gems. The ornate clasp was also decorated with gemstones.
Charm bracelets were the perfect way to reflect one’s interests, passions, and experiences. Just about anything one could imagine was made into a charm that could be attached to one’s charm bracelet.
In 1940, Cartier, led by Jean Toussaint, incurred the ire of the German Forces occupying Paris by prominently displaying in its Rue de la Paix shop window its caged bird piece, which symbolized French resistance against the Nazis. When the Allies liberated Paris, Cartier amended the design, with the cage door open and the bird poised for flight.
Van Cleef & Arpels designed the Ballerina Clip, a realistic depiction of a graceful dancer, awash in pavé-set gemstones – a design that was copied by jewelry artisans everywhere. Representations of gypsies soon followed, along with elegant figures in costumes covered in colorful gemstones.
Wartime themes flourished during the 1940s. Mellerio produced soldier brooches, weapons, and armored cars. Mauboussin created airplanes and a commemorative “Liberation Jeep.” And no patriotic American would be without some sort of representation of the Grand Old Flag. Van Cleef & Arpels created a Hawaii Collection, featuring red, white and blue flowers, depicted in rings, necklaces, bracelets, and earrings.
After World War II, the countries involved in the conflict strove to return to some kind of normalcy. Nothing would ever be the same as it had been, and change was the only constant.
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