Professional Jeweler Archive: Lasting Luxuries

March 2000

From the Vault


Lasting Luxuries

Jewelry designs represent a connection to the past


Luxuries are taken for granted today, but this hasn’t always been the case. After the stock market crash of 1929, luxuries were clearly recognized by their absence, out of reach for all but the fortunate few who had escaped financial disaster.

In those hard times, jewelry was appreciated as much as a tangible asset as for its beauty. Fine jewelry was considered an investment, and those with means bought well. However, even the wealthy stretched their dollars. Multipurpose jewelry allowed them to get double use out of one piece, converting a brooch into double earclips or separating a long necklace into bracelets. They also chose less-expensive but otherwise fine gems such as aquamarine and peridot instead of pricier rubies, sapphires and emeralds.

The War and Fashion

Following hard on the heels of the Great Depression, World War II drove luxuries even further out of reach. Women’s apparel in the early 1940s was military chic: tailored suits with squared shoulders and short, narrow skirts that conserved fabric.

Fine jewelry, out of place in a society living with blackouts and rationing, was tucked away for a happier future or, in extreme cases, exchanged for necessities. In its place, jewelry made of lower karat gold alloys sparsely set with small stones became the style. Normal channels for gem supplies were cut off, gold became scarce and costly, and platinum was conscripted for war use.

Several European jewelry companies relocated their main branches to the U.S., and many talented jewelry designers, – such as Fulco Duc de Verdura and Jean Schlumberger – emigrated to escape the war. As a result, the center for jewelry design and manufacturing shifted from France to the United States.

Return to Luxury

After the war, recovery was gradual but steady. As the world economy strengthened, so did the appetite for luxuries. There was a return of femininity. Dresses by Christian Dior featured heart-shaped necklines, slender waists and full skirts. Women embraced jewelry with new enthusiasm. Designs popularized in the late 1930s, such as flexible gold link bracelets and gas pipe chains, were revived as practical and stylish.

Until supplies of precious metals and gems reached their prewar levels, jewelry design continued to conserve metal and incorporate alternative gems. Pale and fancy colored sapphire, moonstone, aquamarine, citrine, amethyst, turquoise, tourmaline and coral accented with small diamonds, rubies, emeralds and sapphires are typically found in jewelry of the 1940s and early 1950s. Designers also made a little metal look like a lot with gold wire formed in airy settings or woven into mesh, as well as thin gold sheet pierced or hollow-formed.

Of Men and Machines

Jewelry motifs during the postwar reconstruction of the late 1940s and early 1950s reflect a reverence for industry and machines, including ball bearings, bicycle chains, tank treads, gas pipe and brick work. Stylized natural subjects representing the joys of freedom include exotic birds, big cats, domestic pets, ballet dancers and floral bouquets. Cornucopias spilling their bounty and displays of fireworks demonstrate a celebratory mood.

Intermingled with these are a few motifs that hint at an underlying mistrust in the stability of life. These jewels portray whirlwinds, snowflakes, cascades and waterfalls – all natural forces that have a wild beauty but an unpredictable intensity. They are a subtle reminder life can change quickly, intimating we should take pleasure in our jeweled luxuries while we can.

–by Elise B. Misiorowski

This 18k whirlwind brooch and matching earrings set with diamonds remind us of life’s unpredictability. By Sterle, Paris, circa 1950. Courtesy of a private collection.

Copyright © 2001 by Bond Communications