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The decadence of art deco

Through the ages, gemmology and jewellery have both been heavily impacted by global societal trends. KATHRYN WYATT looks back at the defining Art Deco movement.

The style we now call Art Deco was not known by that name until the term was coined in the late 1960s. This sleek style of the 1920s and 1930s was called Art Moderne or the ‘jazz’ style in its day.

Art Deco has seen several resurgences, most recently with Tiffany & Co releasing an Art Deco range that contained both high-end and low-end pieces designed for the film The Great Gatsby, which was directed by Baz Luhrmann in 2013.

The mainstay of many a jeweller’s business is the engagement ring. With this in mind, it is important to understand the ‘flavour’ of Art Deco. Many couples, be they young or old, are looking for period pieces or a ring that emulates their favourite styles. Some insist on a ring that is from the Art Deco period – notably defined as 1920 to 1935. Others who do not have the high budgets that vintage jewellery can command are happy to have an Art Deco-inspired design.

It is interesting to understand how the design or aesthetic emerged because some customers just love the story. Buying an engagement ring can be an emotional time and knowing the history of a particular style can help staff to sell more effectively by providing the story of a ring, whether it is a period piece or an Art-Deco-inspired piece.

The Art Deco gestation period included the watershed event of World War I (1914-1918). Prior to the war, elegance, grandeur and luxury characterised the Edwardian Period and was made manifest in the style and character of King Edward VII. The First World War destroyed all of that opulence and the survivors of the horrors of war were ready to live and forget the past.

Pre-war fashion, traditions and values were cast aside. Women, who had been asked to take on masculine roles during the war left behind their constricting corsets and traditions – they were being emancipated; their hair was cut short, hem lengths were shortened and they wore trousers! This was just part of a wider liberation of society at the forefront of which were artists, jewellers, sculptors and architects.

Everyday items reflected this change of thinking in new designs, decorated to look attractive and fashionable, bright and bold. There was a reaction against Art Nouveau and its naturalistic fluidity of the curve, muted colours and use of organic components.

Post-war people wanted luxury and so luxury materials were used like ivory, jade, diamonds and platinum. Also they wanted the latest technology, which included synthetic rubies and sapphires, even the new plastics.

Synthetic gemstones were not frowned upon and actually the opposite was true; they were regarded as cutting edge and can be seen in many high-end pieces of Art Deco, including pieces of the time by Cartier and Boucheron. Jewellers used small, accent-coloured gemstones such as emerald, ruby, blue sapphire, onyx, and even coral to create geometric patterns. These designs are easily recognised today as Art Deco and cannot be confused with the earlier Edwardian designs or the later Retro designs.

There is more to come next month when this column will explore many other aspects of Art Deco jewellery.

Kathryn Wyatt

Contributor • 

Kathryn Wyatt BSc FGAA Dip DT, is a qualified gemmologist, diamond technologist, registered jewellery valuer, educator and member of the Australian Antique & Art Dealers Association. For more information on antique and vintage jewellery courses, visit:

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