Larger Than Life: Jewelry in the Retro Period (1930s – 1950s)
The Retro period of jewelry—sometimes referred to as “Cocktail Jewelry” because of its substantial nature and colorful qualities—came to fruition during the global immersion into World War II, starting in the mid-1930s and continuing on into the early-1950s. As a reaction to ongoing world conflict, and still reeling from the blow of World War I, jewelry became bolder, brighter, and more light-hearted. Several prior eras and their corresponding aesthetics informed the overall sensibility of Retro jewelry: the streamlined linear and geometric elements from 1920s Art Deco; three-dimensional curves and asymmetrical motifs from Art Nouveau and Victoriana; and a futuristic vision with a bolder, stronger style. This unique fusion of past and future gave birth to an incredible array of designs—some eye-catchingly geometric and others romantically feminine.
Platinum and sterling silver, essential to the war effort, were scarcely available for commercial use, directly resulting in gold regaining great popularity during this time. Manipulated into different hues and forms, different colors of gold—such as rose, grey, and green—were all used in striking combinations. Often quite substantial in scale, Retro jewelry also typically lacked traditional precious gemstones thanks to the onset of the economic depression and the closure of gem mines at the time, replacing them with chalcedony, aquamarines, amethysts, moonstones, topaz, and citrines. Some clusters of smaller precious gemstones were placed in invisible settings to create a larger look from smaller stones, while various enameling techniques were utilized to accentuate gems, highlighting their colors and enhancing the size of the overall piece.
With the unprecedented transitions happening around the world at the time, Retro jewelry was intended to offset the masculine clothing styles being worn by women, as they began joining the workforce in more structured pantsuits. A modern interpretation of the past during a turbulent time, women sought a feminine balance by donning jeweled motifs of flowers, birds, and other animals. Jewelry was crafted into these natural motifs to resemble their real-life counterparts, with gemstones and aspects of brooches, rings, earrings, and necklaces designed to tremble and move with the wearer, bringing new realism to these lifelike creations. Bows, ribbons, and sunburst designs from the Victorian and Art Nouveau periods were similarly reworked to reflect the new Retro design sensibilities: Cartier perfected exotic flora and fauna designs with the help of Jeanne Toussaint, which eventually became the “luxurious, but poignant, symbols of the Duchess of Windsor.” Van Cleef & Arpels, meanwhile, found success with their “Ballerina Brooches,” realistically rendered in pavé gemstones. Other established jewelry houses such as Boucheron, Tiffany & Co., and Lacloche Frères continued to increase their sales following the war with similar naturalistic and feminine styles.
As World War II continued to impact the globe, more patriotic themes found their way into Retro jewelry, and thus, colorless diamonds, blue sapphires, and red rubies were often paired together, typically seen with three-dimensional sculptural flags, ribbons, bows, and folds made out of metal. Van Cleef & Arpels’ “Hawaii” collection featured small clusters of diamonds in sapphires, rubies, and diamonds, while Toussaint at Cartier designed the renowned “Bird in a Cage” in 1942 to symbolize France’s occupation, to later counter after the Liberation with their “Bird at the Door of its Cage.” Some jewelers, such as Boucheron, developed military-type insignias and figural designs throughout the 1940s, while others, such as Mauboussin, specialized in airplanes, Jeeps, and soldiers. The strong military cultural influence also resulted in “Tank Track” bracelets, with geometric styling of large repetitive links similar to tank treads, as well as the development of the gas pipe or “Tubogas” chain style, which became immensely popular for both necklaces and bracelets of the period. Incredibly light, but with a heavy appearance, these industrial-inspired chains could be worn alone or with pendants, typically sitting at the base of the neck.
Retro jewelry of the 1930s and 1940s is also often characterized by its chunkiness, found especially in boule or bombé rings and oversized earclips. Most customers had limited financial resources, so small quantities of gold and other precious metals and stones were used with an eye towards achieving the greatest effect. Big and bold, jewelry during this era was also often convertible, with pieces that could function as two—or even three—different styles. Necklaces could transform into bracelets, and clip brooches had hidden bails to attach to necklaces, giving a variety of looks with a single price tag.
Following the war, many of the technologies developed were employed in peacetime production, and jewelry continued to be mass-produced. Design gained a new importance during this time, as a means of selling products in the commercial world. In peacetime, jewelry once again became more understated and traditional. Platinum became widely available for commercial use, and began to replace the rose gold of the previous years. By the mid-1950s, Retro jewelry, with its big bold over the top designs, was out of style, replaced by more tailored looks popularized in the 1950s and 60s.