Jewelry of the Retro Period 1937-1950
In every jewelry period, the materials and forms employed are reflections of the society and culture in existence at that particular point in history. In addition, every design period is generally a reaction to the period preceding it. In 1980, jewelry historian Neil Letson coined the term “Retro” to describe the bold and vibrant jewelry of the period that ran from the late 1930s through 1950, which diverged in style from the earlier Art Deco period of the 1920s and ‘30s.
Jewelry of the Retro period contrasts sharply with its Art Deco past both in materials and form. Whereas Art Deco design featured flat, two-dimensional geometric forms in restrained cold, white platinum, Retro jewelry exhibits an aggressive three-dimensional spirit predominantly in yellow gold, and, to a lesser degree, pink gold and sometimes green gold, and a return to traditional feminine motifs, such as flowers, bows, ribbons and curlicues. Figurative designs, like ballerinas and animals such as birds, also were popular.
The beginning of World War II in Europe in 1939, and subsequently the U.S. involvement starting in 1941, led to a dearth of platinum, as it was being conscripted for the war effort. This is why much of the jewelry of this period was, in fact, designed in gold. Also, jewelers in Europe were producing little jewelry during this period, so the design focus started to shift to America. The glamour provided by the Hollywood film industry provided relief from the horrors of wartime, and movie stars served as surrogate royalty, wearing elegant jewels to sport the flamboyant new look now known as Retro, or Art Moderne.
Forms of Jewelry
One of the notable substitutions of the Retro period is the disappearance of the long tasseled sautoir necklace of the 1930s, replaced with short tubular linked snake, or “Brazilian,” chains knotted at the side or enhanced with removable gem-set flower cluster clips in what is known as “passé partout” (take me anywhere), first fabricated by Van Cleef & Arpels. Gems and metal motifs, drapery, or scrolls often appeared to the side of a short necklace and were repeated in matching ear clips. Earrings worn as long drops in the preceding decade were now worn close to the ear. Asymmetry was the order of the day, and the double clip brooch, geometric and mirror image-like from the 1930s, was now rendered asymmetrical and more three-dimensional. Bracelets were more popular than ever and could be seen in large highly polished links in yellow and rose gold.
A huge trend of the 1940s was evident in commemorative or novelty charm bracelets. Charms were dangled from double-link charm bracelets or soldered onto a solid gold cuff. As early as 1936, the practice of wearing a bangle from which an attached clip could be disengaged to wear as a brooch became popular and continued well into the 1940s. The interlocking hexagonal link strap-style bracelet, known as the “Ludo” bracelet, was created by Van Cleef & Arpels to great acclaim. Whimsy also made a return. Sign language pins depicted by hands demonstrating the sign language alphabet in yellow gold were created by Texas jeweler Paul Flato. Seaman Schepps was a favorite jeweler of Carmen Miranda and designed the first turbo shell earrings, which have been copied and re-interpreted up until the present day. Suites or demi-parures of jewelry, which had been out of favor for decades, once again gained popularity, comprised, for example, of earrings with matching brooch or earrings, necklace, bracelet and ring, all with a unifying design.
Popular Gemstones in Jewelry of the Retro Period
Due to efforts in manufacturing the machines of war, precious metals were quite scarce during World War II. Gemstones that normally came through European channels to reach the United States were not available either. So American jewelers initiated a design compromise by adding gemstones, primarily from Brazil, in larger sizes to jewelry. This resulted in bigger chunky rings or brooches consisting of large citrine, aquamarine, topaz, or amethyst stones, usually emerald cut and accented with small melee size rubies or turquoises. Synthetic stones also were plentiful during the war years and frequently show up in fine jewelry mountings. Although diamonds are perpetually popular, colored stones and large bright swathes of yellow gold (and sometimes pink and/or green gold) seemed to reign supreme at this time. Patriotic sentiment during this period was high, and gem-set flag brooches were a popular jewel of the era, as was the red white and blue color combination. Pearl chokers were a staple of this time, as well, and were appropriate for just about any occasion.
Popular Retro Setting Techniques
Due to a reduced supply of cut diamonds from Europe during the war years, jewelers invented the “illusion” setting. This setting technique makes a diamond appear larger than it actually is by tricking the eye with the use of a highly polished white gold ring surrounding the center diamond, and often bright cut as well. Without close examination, the diamond’s outline appears to be larger than it actually is. The illusion setting became immensely popular and stayed in vogue through the 1960s.
Retro Era Jewelers
The 1940s is when the famous French jewelry house Van Cleef and Arpels came into its own. This renowned company was founded in 1898, and by 1936 was making its mark with the introduction of the “Cadenas,” or padlock, wristwatch for ladies. The blocky three-sided watch movement was usually attached to tubular snake or “Brazilian” chain bracelet. The Van Cleef and Arpels passé partout design of 1939 worked well with a necklace or bracelet, where central elements could be unclipped and worn separately. In 1942, Van Cleef and Arpels relocated to New York City and continued production through the war years. The first Van Cleef and Arpels ballerina pin was produced in 1945, and consisted of a ballerina with skirt and rose cut diamond head. This figural motif became extremely popular and was quickly followed by similar editions of fairies or sports figures, all with rose diamond cut heads. The American jeweler Paul Flato also came to the fore during this period. Flato introduced a line of jewelry, henceforth known as Surrealistic jewelry, and opened a door for the artistic jewelry of this period to follow in the 1950s. Raymond Yard and Seaman Schepps were other well-known American jewelers of the Retro period, and each counted movie stars as some of their most faithful clients.
All Images by Pampillonia