Professional Jeweler Archive: Eastern Exposure

February 2001

From the Vault

Eastern Exposure

An interest in Asia spawned a colorful explosion in jewelry art

European fascination with Asian decorative arts grew stronger in the mid-19th century as trade and diplomatic interaction increased between businessmen and politicians in the East and West. This cultural cross-pollination had a tremendous impact on the evolution of European jewelry design. As the Art Nouveau movement of 1890-1915 derived much of its inspiration from Japanese ornament, the styles of India, Persia and China became embedded in the Art Deco movement of the 1920s and ’30s.

Royal Remounts

Exposure to Asian jewels, textiles and decorative objects stimulated great interest, and Asian court dress was incredibly exotic to Westerners. Indian Maharajas cut particularly dazzling figures in the European social arena with their lavish displays of jewelry. In the early 20th century, many of these Indian princes brought their jewels to Europe to have them reset in contemporary styles. Companies such as Cartier, Boucheron, Mauboussin and Chaumet were kept busy with these commissions. Seeing Indian jewels in their original state and working with the owners to devise satisfactory remounts gave these jewelers an appreciation for the Indian jewelry aesthetic. As the commissions were completed, finished pieces were frequently put on display, increasing public appreciation.

This heady occidental exposure prompted a demand for jewelry incorporating a rich mixture of Asian design motifs, gem cuts and color combinations. In imitation of traditional Indian jewelry, there was a new appreciation for fine emeralds, rubies and sapphires cut en cabochon. In addition, lesser-quality rubies, emeralds and sapphires of strong color were carved into leaves and flowers or fashioned into beads. Set with faceted diamonds in platinum jewels, these “barbaric” gems were elevated to “haute” jewelry status and heavily sought after.

Evoking Time and Place

The contrasting color combinations that characterize the Art Deco period were inspired also by exposure to Asian decorative arts. The 1910 Ballets Russes production of Scheherezade, its sets and costumes ablaze with primary colors, was an early manifestation; soon after, Western jewelry began to incorporate colored gems in bold combinations inspired by the exotic East. Green with black or red with black, for example, were especially evocative of China, and the juxtaposition of red with green or blue with green was derived from India or Persia.
Always on the cutting edge, Cartier was one of the first jewelers to use blue and green gems together in 20th century jewelry. For example, the company created a slim lapel pendant brooch set with turquoise and jade accented with cabochon sapphires in 1913. Soon, other pieces followed in pleasing “peacock” combinations. The meld of emerald with sapphire was particularly successful; jewelry set with a mix of these two gems continued to be made well into the 1930s.

The Art Deco period ended definitively with the beginning of World War II in 1939, and jewelry made in Europe and the U.S. during the war years and after had a completely different character. Today, with the renewed popularity of Art Deco jewelry, understanding the Asian roots of this style enhances the allure of these exotic treasures.

– Elise B. Misiorowski

The use of cabochon emeralds and sapphires in this double clip brooch by Mauboussin is a subtle reference to India’s influence on European jewelry in the early 20th century. Brooch courtesy of S.H. Silver Co., Menlo Park, CA; (650) 325-9500.

Copyright © 2001 by Bond Communications