f there is one decade that profoundly marked and even revolutionised high jewellery, it was the 1920s to 1930s. “This is one of the great eras of jewellery,” says François Curiel, Chairman of Christie’s Europe and Asia. “The great houses of Place Vendôme – Boucheron, Cartier, Chaumet, Van Cleef & Arpels – were extremely active in this period. Everyone wanted to create the best. Until the 1929 crisis hit, the economy was booming: success- ful industrialists were buying jewellery for their wives, and the jewellery business was flourishing.”
“The great houses of Place Vendôme – Boucheron, Cartier, Chaumet, Van Cleef & Arpels – were extremely active in this period. Everyone wanted to create the best.”
Place Vendôme, the new epicentre of fine jewellery
“Although there were also some lesser-known names, such as Black, Starr & Frost, the first American jewellers, Yard or Charlton, which have not survived to the present day, the great jewellers of the time were in Paris,” continues François Curiel. And specifically, in the Place Vendôme.
Previously, the jewellers of Paris were located mainly around the arcades of the Palais Royal – with the exception of Mellerio, which opened its boutique on Rue de la Paix, not far from the Paris Opera House, in 1812. Boucheron’s move to 26 Place Vendôme in 1893 shifted the centre of gravity of high jewellery to the 8th arrondissement of Paris (where Rue de la Paix was located).
- Exceptionally rare multi-gem Egyptian revival sautoir, Van Cleef & Arpels, sold by Christie’s Geneva in 2018 for CHF 4,332,500. Old and rose-cut diamonds, rubies, emeralds, onyx, platinum and gold (French marks), 1924.
Before the 1920s, jewellery was a reflection of the romantic spirit of the 19th century. It tended to follow the direction of the arts of the time, with a marked taste for orientalism, naturalism and history. The advent of Art Nouveau at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries opened up new avenues of expression for jewellery, with its ornamental forms, arabesques and floral abundance.
After the First World War, everything changed
The First World War changed everything, including the decorative arts. The style, or rather styles, that emerged in the 1920s were the result of several factors.
First of all, the horrors of war generated a need for beauty and a frenzy of desire, whatever the cost. The discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922 led to a taste for exotic cultures. The 1925 International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts saw the emergence of a new style: Art Deco, whose pure geometric forms sounded the death knell for the organic flourishes of Art Nouveau. Finally, we must not forget that, during the war, women had taken on many of the roles traditionally occupied by men, which gave them a strong sense of freedom and possibility. Let us explore some of these influences in more detail.
The 1925 International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts saw the emergence of a new style: Art Deco, whose pure geometric forms sounded the death knell for the organic flourishes of Art Nouveau.
- Scarabée brooch, Cartier London, 1925. Gold, platinum, Egyptian blue earthenware, old and 8/8 round diamonds, ruby and emerald cabochons, citrine cabochons, onyx cabochons. Originally, this brooch could also be worn as a belt buckle. Nils Herrmann, Collection Cartier ©Cartier
1922: discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun
If there was one event that influenced the jewellery and decorative arts of the 1920s more than any other, it was the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun by Howard Carter on 4 November 1922. “From 1923-24, we began to see jewellery coming out of the workshops with motifs inspired by Egypt,” explains Lise Macdonald, director of heritage and exhibitions at Van Cleef & Arpels. “In fact, we asked specialists at the Louvre if they could recognise the hieroglyphics engraved on our jewellery and period objects, but the experts told us these motifs had come from the designers’ imagination, and were devoid of Egyptological meaning.”
- Jacques Cartier with stone merchants. Photograph from his travel diaries of 1911
This infatuation with Egypt soon spread to other distant lands, including Japan, China and India, as is perfectly illustrated by Cartier’s Tutti Frutti of 1925. “The first contacts between Cartier and Indian jewellery date back to 1902, the year of the coronation of Edward VII,” explains Pierre Rainero, Cartier’s Director of Image, Style and Heritage. “His wife, Queen Alexandra, had received many gifts from Lord and Lady Curzon, the Viceroy and Vicereine of India. These included jewellery. As we had a supplier’s patent for both Edward VII and Queen Alexandra, she entrusted these jewels to Cartier, to be reassembled in the House style. In the winter of 1911, Edward VII died and George V became the new king. Jacques Cartier was invited to Delhi in December 1911, to celebrate the coronation of King George V and Queen Mary in Britain a few months earlier. He established an office in Delhi to buy Indian engraved stones and export them to Cartier in Paris and London. Tutti Frutti is linked to the existence of this stock of engraved stones.”
- Tutti Frutti Bracelet, Cartier Paris, 1925. Platinum, diamonds, sapphires, rubies, emeralds, onyx, black enamel. Sold to Mrs Cole Porter. Nils Herrmann, Collection Cartier ©Cartier
But it’s impossible to talk about Tutti Frutti without mentioning the presence of Jeanne Toussaint at Louis Cartier’s side. “He hired her between 1919 and 1920. Louis Cartier signed the drawings but we think he was strongly influenced by Jeanne Toussaint. When you see the parallel lines of the first Tutti Frutti bracelets of 1925, you immediately think of the Tank watch, with its two parallel stretchers. But in this figurative profusion, we can also guess the style that Jeanne Toussaint would later cultivate. The two figures came together to create a very innovative object,” says Pierre Rainero.
This infatuation with Egypt soon spread to other distant lands, including Japan, China and India, as is perfectly illustrated by Cartier’s Tutti Frutti of 1925.
- Jeanne Toussaint photographed by Baron Adolph De Meyer, c. 1920. ©Cartier
1925: the delayed birth of Art Deco
“The 1920s was a richer decade than one might imagine,” continues Pierre Rainero. “This Art Deco period saw the advent of a new creative approach marked by two essential aspects: on the one hand, the influence of geometry, or even abstraction; and on the other, a great curiosity for distant cultures that conveyed a different image of what we thought was beautiful.”
- Brooch, Cartier New York, special order, 1925. Platinum, one 15.12-carat cabochon-cut emerald, one 3.83-carat cushion-shaped diamond, coral, black enamel, diamonds. Nils Herrmann, Collection Cartier ©Cartier
This idea of drawing inspiration from other territories – China, Japan, the arts of Islam, Russia and India – can be found at Cartier: “The House proposed aesthetic shocks, new associations of colours and shapes, as well as new ways of wearing jewellery. In reality, this interest in other cultures and the eruption of geometry into the field of jewellery dates back to the beginning of the 20th century. And if its echo was greater after the war, it was precisely because of the conflict. The famous ‘Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes,’ held in Paris in 1925, should have taken place in the early 1910s. This prospect had stimulated the imagination of the designers and made them want to show new things, but their creative work could not be unveiled until 1925. Following this exhibition, Art Deco became one of the first international styles,” explains Pierre Rainero.
“The Art Deco period saw the advent of a new creative approach marked by two essential aspects: the influence of geometry, or even abstraction, and a great curiosity for distant cultures that conveyed a different image of what we thought was beautiful.”
Women were emancipated, and so was their jewellery
While the men were at war, women replaced them, working in factories, driving buses and ambulances, and many other activities. And in order to be able to do this, they had to throw away their corsets. “Even if, from a legal point of view, women did not enjoy the same freedom as today’s women, in terms of behaviour they were freer: they cut their hair into boyish styles, danced the Charleston and changed their silhouette, and jewellery accompanied these changes,” Lise Macdonald points out.
The appointment in 1926 of Renée Puissant, the daughter of the founding couple of Van Cleef & Arpels, as artistic director of the House is a fine example of the new power of women. She worked in collaboration with René Sim Lacaze, a genius designer: “This alliance allowed the House to take off,” continues Lise Macdonald. “Renée Puissant was someone who dared to create new combinations and in the 1920s she steered the House towards more refined, geometric, architectural forms.”
- Embracing Flowers bracelet, red and white roses, 1924. Platinum, onyx, rubies, emeralds, yellow and white diamonds. Van Cleef & Arpels Collection
“In the 1920s, people wanted to turn their backs on the war and indulge in all the pleasures of life,” emphasises Pierre Rainero. “Hence a certain extravagance. Women would wear many bracelets stacked together, and long necklaces. They owned beauty kits.”
“Minaudières” or vanity cases were born at that time and have not survived. “I love the ones that Charles Arpels created in the 1920s for Florence Jay Gould, the wife of philanthropist and businessman Frank Jay Gould,” says François Curiel. “Before accompanying her to a party, he had seen her slip her cigarettes, a comb, a tube of lipstick and some money into a simple metal box, because she didn’t want to bother with a handbag. This gave him the idea of creating a precious minaudière, so that she could slip all her accessories into it.”
The appointment in 1926 of Renée Puissant, the daughter of the founding couple of Van Cleef & Arpels, as artistic director of the House is a fine example of the new power of women.
1927: Creation of Europa Star
The Europa Star publishing house was born during this creative decade, in 1927. If one had to pick out a flagship jewellery piece that appeared that year, it would probably be the Chinese Magician watch created in 1927 by Van Cleef & Arpels, says Lise Macdonald: “ This piece is equipped with a Breguet movement with a double retrograde display: one of the magician’s arms gives the hours and the other the minutes. What is important is the technicality of the piece and above all the influence of Asian art. One of these watches belonged to the Maharani of Baroda and another to Mr Breguet.”
- Chinese Magician pocket watch, 1927, yellow gold, osmior, enamel, Breguet movement, Van Cleef & Arpels Collection.
“Jewellery from this period is the lifeblood of today’s auctions,” notes François Curiel. “Clients look for these pieces because they are set with stones that are almost impossible to find today: Kashmir sapphires, diamonds from the Golconda mines, untreated emeralds...”
“Jewellery from this period is the lifeblood of today’s auctions.”
- An exceptional Art Deco bracelet by Cartier sold by Christie’s Hong Kong in 2016 for HKD 56,120,000 (USD 7,256,316) set with eight graduated cushion-shaped sapphires (10.53 to 3.38 car- ats) and four-stone diamond gallery, 1923, set in platinum.
But the value of the stones is not the only reason why customers are so keen on Art Deco jewellery. With its clean lines, balanced geometry and flawless colours, this style has endured throughout the intervening century. Traces could be seen at the last Watches & Wonders exhibition, which was held in Geneva in April 2022. The style was very present in the Chinese Tank watch, in gold and lacquer, unveiled by Cartier. It was also expressed in a versatile necklace by Piaget with a yellow diamond and spinel, which can be worn in nine different ways. Or in the long necklace with a pendant featuring Gabrielle Chanel on the front and a precious watch face on the back, which would not have looked out of place around the neck of a woman in a flapper dress, dancing the Charleston at the Cotton Club...