How jewellery design evolved during the 19th and 20th centuries.

Wars and economic slumps led jewellery design from the 19th and 20th centuries to seesaw between embracing extravagance and designing for the demure. Find out more about the historical marks left by the world’s financial rollercoaster rides in this extract from Celebrating Jewellery by Daniela Mascetti and David Bennett.

The war years saw privation on every level. The effect on the jewellery industry was to be extreme.


The disruption of shipping meant that the supply of precious stones was virtually cut off. Precious metal, in particular platinum, was requisitioned for the armaments industry and gold had to be largely supplied by the client. This prompted an important change in the look of jewels which now concentrated on yellow gold, large colourful semi-precious gemstones and bold, sculptural shapes.

Jewellers such as Suzanne Belperron, Jeanne Toussaint for Cartier, Verdura and Schlumberger started to produce extravagant, bold, colourful and imaginative jewels which relied on the strength of design rather than the importance of the materials. The most elegant women of the time such as the Duchess of Windsor and Daisy Fellowes — always in search of innovation — helped greatly to popularise these new designs.

The post-war decade, which began with rationing in Europe was, in contrast, a boom period in the United States which quickly became the biggest consumer of precious jewellery. Firms such as Harry Winston and Tiffany saw demand increase rapidly and large diamonds were suddenly in fashion. In France, Cartier and Van Cleef & Arpels quickly capitalised on the in-flow of American tourists in order to offset the lack of local trade.

Hollywood glamour helped to reinforce the fashion for luxury, despite the fact that most of Europe was still only a spectator. Indeed in Britain the early post-war years saw a distinct decline in the fashion for the display of important jewels – the owners fearing that they might be accused of having been involved in profiteering.

The general mood of enforced austerity was not, in any case, conducive to lavish display. The large scale of decorative jewels of the war years was retained. Yellow gold continued to be fashionable for daytime wear and the cocktail hour, and the fashion for costume jewellery became firmly established.

For a while, brooches became the dominant and indispensable accessory, worn on the coat, at the shoulder, on the hat, even on the handbag. Diamonds were still predominantly set in white metal. To answer to the lack of platinum during the war, new alloys of white gold were produced and white rhodium-plating contributed to a close imitation of platinum.

The 1950s and early 1960s are frequently characterised by an eclecticism that resulted in jewels as diverse in inspiration as whimsical creations of Disneyesque cartoon characters to Hollywood-inspired pastiches of court jewels of the late eighteenth century. The latter perfectly fitted Dior’s New Look which was the dominant dress fashion influence of this period for formal eveningwear, with ample skirts, tight bodices and plunging structured necklines.

Paris and New York remained the titans of the jewellery industry, but by the early 1960s other countries had started to compete. In Britain the end of the decade saw a flowering of the avant garde driven by the art schools and championed by Andrew Grima.

Around 1974, because of the first oil crisis, the West was plunged into a deep recession. The Middle East with its oil-rich nations and vast new revenues quickly dominated the jewel market which changed rapidly to accommodate their taste.

Impressive suites of jewellery – a trend which had not been seen in Europe since the previous century – were to reappear and began to fill the windows of the Place Vendôme and Madison Avenue. Mounted in yellow gold, and no longer platinum, and set with rubies, sapphires, emeralds and diamonds, these parures, all of which conformed to a strict somewhat monotonous design code, are somehow emblematic of the period. They illustrate that however creative a market may be, or think of itself as being, there are always economic imperatives that hold sway and these will ultimately dictate what is on offer.

In Europe, as a result of the recession in the 1970s and the early part of the 1980s, fewer grand jewels were being worn; instead, costume jewels were preferred even at society gatherings. There was a growing danger that jewels might become truly unfashionable and even socially unacceptable. The situation was exacerbated by the lack of a jewel production that suited western taste: the predominance of Middle East-inspired jewels in the high streets and the extended recession meant that ostentatious display of jewellery was somehow out of step with the austerity measures of the time.
During the late 1980s and early 90s, coinciding with the re-emergence of economic growth in Europe and America, a renewed interest in jewellery began to appear, nurtured by the new academic interest. A new important market for high-end jewels emerged in South East Asia and buyers from the former USSR started to emerge and become a new force driving the market.

One of the phenomena that was to take hold in the 1980s, sparked largely by the new buyers from the Far East, particularly Japan, is branding or merchandising. Cartier exploited their brand name by creating a diffusion line called Must de Cartier, specialising in watches and affordable decorative jewels with a strong recognisable design element drawing on classic motifs from the firm’s formidable archive.

Bulgari was to extend the use of the brand name to the ultimate level by incorporating it in roman capitals – BVLGARI – as a decorative motive on watch bezels and jewels.

Most of the other important jewellery brands were also to create diffusion lines with varying degrees of success.

The return to a more liberal jewellery ethic and the decreasing dominance of the Middle East market heralded the gradual return of white gold and platinum and a reappraisal of coloured gemstones. Gems that had been ignored for over a hundred years were suddenly rediscovered and justly celebrated: multi-coloured sapphires, precious topaz, apple-green peridots, strawberry-red spinels and raspberry red tourmalines among them. The end of the 20th century mirrored the previous fin de siecle in that some creative jewellers were exploring the boundaries of the tradition and questioning what was acceptable, using new materials such as titanium and rubber, to produce textures and a new lightness that quickly became popular, even in combination with the most expensive gemstones.

This extract was taken from the Book Club feature in the September issue of Professional Jeweller. Click here to read it online.