Jewellery Stories

What Art Déco Jewellery Can Tell Us About Its Time

The Times They Are a‑Changin’

by Lea Felicitas Döding


ow considered classic and timeless, many features of Art Déco jewellery were once novel, sensational or even downright shocking. From the emblematic drop earring to the first cultured pearl necklaces, many jewels tied into the cultural changes and innovations of their time.


Drop Earrings

Art Déco drop earrings with diamonds in platinum, c. 1930

Perhaps the most radical innovation of the 1920s, in terms of fashion, was the short, bobbed haircut. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story Bernice Bobs Her Hair, published in 1920, concerns a  young girl whose shocking decision to bob her hair may seriously impact her social standing: the cut was akin to a rejection of traditional womanhood, and it is said that initially, many salons even refused to perform the service.

Still in 1921, film star Asta Nielsen shocked conservatives in the Weimar Republic with her bobbed hair – but by the mid-1920s, it was considered de rigueur. But what does all this have do with earrings? The cut bared the earlobes, and bob and dangling earrings thus complemented each other. In September 1926, the influential German fashion magazine Die Dame expressly suggested wearing drop earrings to accentuate a bob, further commenting that “Presently, elegant women love to wear long earrings, but only for the evening, for they are impractical during daytime”.

Accordingly, jewellery catalogues of the 1920s are teeming with offers of long drop earrings, though studs kept being offered alongside them. It is noteworthy that, unlike the screw-back earrings of the earlier 1900s – a time when earrings had just made a comeback – the vast majority of 1920s studs and earrings were conceived for pierced lobes, since earrings were  now again worn frequently enough to pierce one's ears for them.

Bracelet Stacks

Three platinum and diamond bracelets, the central one with a natural sapphire, c. 1930

As it does today, so Hollywood influenced mainstream fashion and taste in the 1920s and 1930s. Especially the introduction of sound films – the talkies – in the late 1920s allowed Hollywood cinema to become a global phenomenon and gave rise to a cult of stardom.

On black and white film, all-diamond jewellery looked most impressive. Movie star wardrobes also gave rise to new ways to wear jewels: the glamorous bias-cut evening dresses of stars such as Jean Harlow bared their wearer’s arms and shoulders, allowing wrists and even upper arms to be accentuated with bracelets and bangles.

In fact, barely a glamorous studio portrait of a Déco era actress is complete without a stack of diamond bracelets – the wrist, usually prominently featured as the leading lady rested her face in her palm, became a favourite place for copious adornment. In 1930, Norma Shearer even accepted her Oscar for The Divorcee wearing no less than three bracelets on her wrist.

Rivières called line bracelets, featuring a straight row of diamonds or alternating gemstones, were worn as well as more elaborate and broad examples. In their 1925 catalogue, Philadelphia jewellers S. Kind & Sons offered no less than four full pages of bracelets, commenting: “There never was a time when flexible bracelets were more popular than they are today. It seems as if every girl and woman wears a flexible bracelet and many women of good taste wear two and even more in attractive combinations.”

Solid Platinum Jewellery

A large Déco pendant with diamonds mounted in solid platinum, c. 1930

The taste for white metals in jewellery had been prevalent since the onset of electric lighting in the late 19th century, which allowed diamond jewels for the evening to glisten as never before. Whilst first silver and then white gold had been used, no metal compared to the refined appearance of platinum. In the very early 20th century, up until the October revolution of 1917, thousands of kilograms of platinum a year were imported from Russia's Ural Mountains mainly into France and Germany.

Solid platinum pieces had occasionally been made in the early 1900s; more commonly, however, a delicate platinum top was applied to the front of a solid body of gold, so that jewels gave the appearance of being all white when worn. Besides practicability – platinum is difficult to work with, having a high melting point – one reason was the steep pricing of the metal, surpassing that of gold. Unsurprisingly, prices increased when the Russian platinum production declined after the revolution. In Germany, one of the leading centres of Art Déco jewellery production, platinum commanded between two and five times the price of gold throughout the 1910s, finally reaching six times that of gold by 1924.

It was only with the discovery of platinum mines in Transvaal, South Africa, in the same year, that prices began to drop, finally approaching that of gold by the 1930s. Consequently, solid platinum jewels – though still costly and luxurious – became more common again.

Black Materials

Three onyx rings featuring (from left to right) a yellow sapphire, an old European cut diamond and a natural pearl, c. 1920-30.

Onyx, jet, enamel – black materials had once been mainly confined to mourning jewellery. Thus being considered austere and serious, they were rarely combined with diamonds. But as WWI did away with many conventions, so most jewellery slowly lost its culturally assigned symbolic value, being appreciated instead for its aesthetics only. Paradoxically, it may even have been the ever-present mourning wear during WWI that contributed to the normalization of black materials among a younger generation.

By the late 1910s, plenty of decorative non-mourning onyx pieces appeared in jewellery catalogues. As wrote the US-American periodical The Jewelers’ Circular in 1922: “The Daily Mail considers that women no longer are guided by superstition in their choice of jewels. Jet and onyx are very popular now.”

By the mid-1920s, especially the onyx plaque ring, centrally set with a contrasting pearl or diamond, had become a staple of the well-curated jewellery box.

Decorative Rings

An aquamarine and diamond dress ring, ca. 1930

Just as black materials did, so rings in general moved further into the realm of decorative rather than sentimental jewellery. 

Coloured gemstone rings grew in popularity. Although we might call them cocktail rings nowadays, the term likely wasn’t around before the late 1930s. Just as in the 19th century, the term dress ring was employed to describe a ring that had been chosen for the purpose of complimenting one’s dress. A decorative ring that did not focus on a large primary gemstone, but was neither a wedding nor engagement ring, would have been called a dinner ring.

The retreat of sentimental rings was also seen in a general reduction of the number of rings a woman wore. During the 19th century, it had been very common for a woman to wear several rings of sentimental significance, paying little mind to how they matched. But, as wrote Harper’s Bazaar in 1929: “One no longer sees each finger covered with two or three rings. The chic society wears a diamond hoop wedding ring, and a large solitaire engagement ring mainly diamond, and perhaps one other dress ring to carry out the tone of her dress.”

Cultured Pearls

An Art Déco pearl necklace and a diamond and cultured pearl bracelet, 1920s and 1940s respectively.

Due to the high cost and effort associated with matching strings of natural pearls, pearl imitations have been around for centuries. It was only in the early 20th century, however, that a process of cultivating spherical pearls was made viable by the Japanese businessman Kokichi Mikimoto.

Cultured Mikimoto pearls could barely be told apart from rare and costly natural pearls by eye, causing a great sensation. According to a 1924 issue of the Viennese Fachzeitung der Juweliere, Gold- und Silberschmiede, a periodical for jewellery professionals, the first cultured Mikimoto pearls were made available in London by 1921. In the US, they seem to have been available slightly earlier, as they are advertised in catalogues dating as early as 1919. 

It is therefore unsurprising that delicate graduated pearl necklaces quickly became even more of a staple; their lower cost at almost equivalent looks made them popular with a broad audience.

Shoulder Pins

A shoulder pin made of diamonds and pearls mounted in platinum, c. 1930

No piece of jewellery is as intricately tied to garment fashion as the brooch, since it requires to be pinned to fabric. As fashion changed over the centuries and decades, many types of brooches have therefore become obsolete.

An obscure type of 1920s brooch, perhaps unfairly so, is the shoulder pin, characterized by its rectangular or circular, always frame-like character. As its name suggests, it was meant to be worn on the shoulder, usually on the strap of a fashionably shoulder-baring dress whose fabric would then peek through the central cut-out of the pin. 

Since such dresses were usually worn in the evening, shoulder pins tend to be designed for the evening, too – platinum-topped and set with diamonds.

Dress Clips

An Art Déco diamond and platinum dress clip, c. 1930s.

Easily the most innovative jewel of the Art Déco period, the dress clip is related to the brooch but features a plate clip fastening rather than a pin on the back. It also catered to a change in fashion: during the 19th and early 20th centuries, heavy diamond-set evening brooches had been worn as corsage ornaments, pinned to ribbon bows and supportive masses of lace that fell away with the rise of flapper dresses and clingy satin gowns. The prevalence of smooth and non-patterned silk satin fabrics for the evening also required a solution different to the sometimes destructive pin. The dress clip fit all requirements, as it leaves no pin holes and can be clipped almost anywhere.

Originally designed in pairs, many dress clips have only survived as separates today. Whilst pairs were worn on opposing sides of the neckline or could even be clipped together to form a single ornament, a separate dress clip would have been worn on the sash of a dress, the centre of the neckline, the shoulder strap of a dress, the hat – the only limit being one’s imagination.

Lea Felicitas Döding

As an art historian, I am primarily interested in the material culture of jewellery. Who would have worn a piece, when and why? What was the cultural significance of certain gemstones and jewellery designs? These are the questions I attempt to solve for the Hofer Magazine, and which often lead me into the depths of jewellery history.

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