Meredith Etherington-Smith looks at a wonderful selection of pieces offered in our Magnificent Jewels sale in Geneva, and explains how straitened times informed their bold aesthetic
In the 1920s, the French fashion designer Madeleine Vionnet popularised the bias cut, which accentuated the natural female form. By the early 1930s bias-cut slipper satin dresses were the height of fashion, often accessorised with large rows of square and emerald-cut diamonds set geometrically in platinum for bracelets, which were worn high on the arm and known as ‘service stripes’.
But as the Great Depression of the 1930s tightened its grip and international tensions rose, fashion became less luxurious and began to be influenced by the more serious issues of the day. By 1939, and the outbreak of the Second World War, the silhouette had changed: waists were emphasised with narrow belts for the first time since the early 1920s; skirts started to shorten to just below the knee and become fluid; and shoulders began to widen, as can be seen in photographs of film stars of the time, such as Marlene Dietrich and Joan Crawford.
Within a year, many women had joined the war effort, either enlisting or working in factories making munitions and aeroplanes. Fanciful jewels did not go with the resulting fashion for uniform-inspired, wide-shouldered jackets worn over shirts, knee-length straight skirts or trousers, and topped off with the tilt of a masculine hat. In the daytime, lattice-work snoods hid long hair curled up in victory rolls, ready to be uncurled and brushed out for an evening date, whereupon turbans would frequently be worn with a pinned jewel.
By 1940, the stage was set for the entry of retro jewels to match the masculinity of wartime fashion. Access to platinum was restricted and so the major and minor jewellers of the time used polished, mixed, bi-colour and tri-colour gold, particularly rose gold, which became very popular because of the high percentage of copper allowed.
In order to make the most out of these metals, jewellers such as Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels, Verdura, Mauboussin, Mellerio and Sterlé braided their designs, wove them into geometric patterns and produced bold three-dimensional curves, asymmetric motifs and pieces inspired by the military or by the mechanics of assembly lines. The popular heavy bracelets of the time looked like tank treads, while the large machine-aesthetic brooches were destined to brighten up a masculine lapel.
Gemstones were rare during the war and retro jewels featured them sparingly to make bold design statements rather than bearing witness to the wealth of the wearer. Large emerald-cut semi-precious stones such as amethysts, aquamarines, topaz and citrines were popular; only a few precious stones, such as small diamonds and the ever-popular calibré-cut rubies and sapphires, were used.
Retro jewels are a marvel of sophisticated and bold design, inspired both by the brutal machines of war and by nature in the form of fanciful and bold flower and bird brooches. These jewels are often convertible — a choker transforms into a pair of bracelets, for instance, fitting the straitened, utilitarian mood of the times.
The era of retro jewellery lasted until the late 1950s. In our Geneva sale, we offer a selection of wonderful, highly collectible retro examples from the major jewellers of the time, ranging from those reflecting the machine aesthetic to sprays of flowers, birds, ribbons, bows, scrolls and fabrics that looked back to a romantic past in an effort to lighten the shadow of war.
The renewed interest in retro-modern jewellery has coincided with yellow and pink gold making a strong comeback. As the ultimate utilitarian jewel, brooches are also on trend again, whether pinned on to a collar, a jacket or a simple black dress, paired with a chain and worn as as a pendant, and even attached to belts and handbags.