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The Buyers' Guide to Art Deco Jewelry

Strong design and technical brilliance are compelling reasons to collect signed Art Deco jewelry. And at its best and most collectible, it is a form of timeless wearable art, belonging to the Modernist movement that swept away Revivalism and excessive ornamentation. “Deco” jewelry represents a unique period in skilled platinum handiwork, resulting in forms with highly engineered articulation and minimization of metal. From a social-historical perspective, too, it is an art form with significance for women. Now educated and part of the workforce, independent women, especially wealthy ones, went out at night dressed with new freedom, crossing gender lines and breaking taboos. 

While a large amount of mainstream platinum, diamond and gem set jewelry was made in the 1920s and 1930s, the five collecting concepts here focus on signed Deco pieces that great French and American makers raised to the level of art.

Abstraction, Engineering and the Slip Dress: The Classic Strap Bracelet

Fig. 1 Strap bracelets were inspired by the fabric edgings and trimmings from the French art of passementerie (Above:) Passementerie, French, mid-18th century, Metropolitan Museum of Art, (Below:) Okrant et Davidonniez Diamond Wide Strap Bracelet, France, 1920s, Macklowe Gallery

The Deco style took shape even before World War I, when Cartier began experimenting with Islamic design, geometry, and abstraction. "De-metallization", the minimization of metal settings, had already been pioneered in the Belle Epoque. Now, the articulation of the micro hinges and joints of bracelets, necklaces, and pendants allowed these pieces to conform flexibly to the body. They were engineered down to the nanometer. A quintessential jewel of the 1920s and 1930s was the strap bracelet, constructed by platinum specialists to look and feel like a strip of diamond fabric. (Fig. 1) A refined Deco strap, like this one by Okrant and Davidonniez, a Paris manufacturing jeweler for houses like Van Cleef & Arpels and Cartier, will also be perfectly smoothed and finished, the mounting for each diamond polished even on the interior.

 Fig 2.1: Six Cartier Diamond Straps, Couture by Madame Vionnet, c. 1930, Fig 2.2: Two Diamond Straps on Each Arm, Gowns by Madame Vionnet. Circa 1930

Complex structures of moving parts in miniature, these bracelets were worn on bare arms, alone or in multiples.(Fig. 2.1) In Vogue shoots by Horst and Steichen, the opulent straps were perfectly paired with new minimalism with free-flowing gowns by leading women couturiers, Madeleine Vionnet and Jeanne Lanvin.(Fig. 2.2) Society art photographers like Cecil Beaton celebrated the classic combination of contemporary-looking bias-cut gowns and strap bracelets in timeless images, conveying women entirely liberated from both corsets and taboos, looking both glamorous and comfortable. Today's sleeveless top, slip dress, or gown still pairs perfectly with Deco diamond straps at summer cocktail parties or glamorous events.

The Effortless New “Dress Clip” and the Birth of Ultramodern Couture

Fig 3.1: Princess Marina, Duchess of Kent, considered the Royal Family's original style icon, wearing Cartier sapphire dress clips, Fig 3.2: Carole Lombard wearing one of her many pairs of dress clips

The revolutionary simplicity of the 1920s and 1930s chemises and bias-cut gowns favored all the new and imaginative forms of Deco jewelry. One of these forms, the innovative “Dress Clip,” is a favorite of collectors. Beloved of both royalty (Fig. 3.1) Hollywood sirens like Carole Lombard, the jewel was popular throughout the period. Clipped effortlessly at the base of a v-neck, a dress strap, the line of a backless gown, even at the end of a sleeve, they represented a daring and careless new glamor (Fig 3.2). A May 1930 Vogue shoot arrayed exquisite Cartier Deco clips casually on a sleek, bias-cut gown for maximum chic.

Cartier London Indian-Inspired Diamond Double Clip Brooch, 1930s, Macklowe Gallery

In the 1930s, Cartier London incorporated intensely-colored Colombian emeralds and Brazilian aquas and citrines into clips, bracelets, and tiaras, along with strongly patterned groups of fancy-cut diamonds to convey an architectural majesty to these creations.

Fig. 4 Left: Emerald and Diamond Earpendants, Cartier London, c. 1935. Collection of Mrs. Jayne Wrightsman, Sotheby's, Right: Cartier Aquamarine and Diamond Brooch, Macklowe Gallery

During this period, Cartier London snapped up the Brazilian supply of natural sky-blue aquamarines until they ran out. This Cartier aquamarine clip belongs to this important body of design. (Fig. 4) Created in the same London workshop as Mrs. Wrightsman's celebrated emerald and diamond pendant earrings, this gorgeous and versatile Cartier aquamarine dress clip captures this Cartier late Deco aesthetic, to highlight a great and stylish collection to wear now.

Brooches as Modernist Compositions

Fig. 5 Left: Marchioness of Cholmondeley, Cartier Emerald Buckle Brooch, c. 1930, Right: Mauboussin Paris Art Deco Rock Crystal, Jadeite, Diamond Buckle Brooch

In addition to innovative dress clips, women wore brooches in novel ways, encouraged by the new motifs and inspired allusions that characterized the work of top jewelers. As playful, jeweled interpretations of traditional accouterments, Cartier designed gemmy buckles as a way to highlight the draping of flowing bias-cut fabrics - for example, a superb Deco buckle brooch set with a 38-carat emerald exhibited in the House of Couture at the 1925 Art Deco exposition. The buckle soon entered the collection of the chic Marchioness of Cholmondeley who pinned it on to gather up fabric at her waist in her numerous society portraits. (Fig. 4) Father-and-son team Georges and Pierre Mauboussin also offered avant-garde re-interpretations of the buckle jewel, here with intensely-colored, bold geometry formed of beveled rock crystal, pierced jadeite, and melon-carved emeralds. Winners of a Grand Prize for jewelry at the 1925 Exposition, Mauboussin's voluminous, colorful work is highly original. This complex buckle jewel’s combination of mechanical and floral design elements, so distinctively Mauboussin, also playfully mixes European, Asian, and Indian cultural references. In addition to their chic modernism as jewels, brooches of strong composition

Original Creations by the Deco Avant Garde: Mauboussin

Mauboussin Paris Turquoise, Rock Crystal and Diamond Necklace, 1929, Macklowe Gallery

As in all media, collectors value jewelry artists who innovated. As Art Deco entered the mainstream, Mauboussin was already advancing the style in visionary ways. Five to ten years before other houses, they were experimenting with the machine aesthetic, paring forms down to minimalist studies in line and volume. In 1929, Georges and Pierre, an aeronautical engineer, created this pioneering necklace in that vein. (Fig. 5) While other houses confined themselves to more conservative diamond and platinum work, the “Kings of Color” designed this playful series of diamond semi-cylinders, milk chalcedony gears, and turquoise domes to express their evolved ideas. The creation of this one-of-a-kind experimental jewel, inspired by both aviation and modern art, is recorded in the Mauboussin archives and will highlight any museum or private collection.

Jewelry and the Art of Architecture: The Skyscraper Aesthetic

Left: Art Moderne Tiffany & Co./Verger Frères Platinum, Aquamarine, and Diamond Bracelet, 1930s, Macklowe GalleryRight: Chrysler Building, Nina Leen, 1971, Life Magazine Collection

An American contribution to the global Machine Age artistic movement, the “skyscraper” aesthetic is a highlight of the late Deco that found expression in jewelry. This original form of architecture became a foundational part of the popular imagination in the late 1920s and 1930s. Jewelers responded to it by miniaturizing its monumental architectural elements in their platinum jewelry. With its streamlined platinum links, accented by sky blue aquamarines, this Tiffany & Co. bracelet cleverly references the gleaming steel terraced arches, ribbed sunbursts, and stepped setbacks of the New York skyline.(Fig. 6) Made in collaboration Verger Frères, Paris, this highly collectible bracelet is an ode to Gotham’s international Deco style. By concentrating their eye on signed work by the top jewelry houses, art lovers can build a refined and wearable collection reflecting the timeless modernism of the period. By concentrating their eye on signed work by the top jewelry houses, art lovers can build a refined and wearable collection reflecting the timeless modernism of the period.

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