Reviews Gems & Gemology, Winter 2017, Vol. 53, No. 4

Book Review: Jeweled Splendors of the Art Deco Era: The Prince and Princess Sadruddin Aga Khan Collection

Jeweled Splendors of the Art Deco Era: The Prince and Princess Sadruddin Aga Khan Collection Book Cover
By Sarah Davis, hardcover, 256 pp., illus., publ. by Thames & Hudson, New York, 2017, US$75.00

Jeweled Splendors of the Art Deco Era showcases the art and craft of jewelers, enamelists, lapidaries, and designers. It features 116 Art Deco masterworks, primarily cigarette cases, compacts and lipstick containers, and timepieces. Produced as a catalog for the April–August 2017 exhibition of the same name at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York, Jeweled Splendors is a book for any art collector or connoisseur of the jeweler’s art.

The works pictured are breathtaking in their craftsmanship, their ingenuity, and their astonishing use of color. Many exhibit perfectly smooth and glossy enameled surfaces. These are accented with either colored gemstones or platinum set with diamonds. Other surfaces are inlaid with hardstones and mother–of-pearl in painterly images. Some boxes are cut from a single block of agate or marble. The colors are bold yet harmonious. The term “feast for the eyes” is often overdone yet fitting here. Each image is clear and crisp, as if you could touch the object. The one thing missing is any way to experience the satisfying weight these gold objects must have in the hand. 

The glorious items and the lush photography make it almost easy to overlook the three essays interwoven with the images, which are compact histories of Art Deco in general and the place of these objects in that history. The essays might also be overlooked because of the delicacy of the typeface chosen. Although this was probably a deliberate choice, made to allow the images to take center stage, the fineness of the type makes it difficult to read in low light. If there’s any complaint about the book, it is this. 

The catalog text, written by Sarah Davis, an editor for the American Society of Jewelry Historians, is separate from the exhibit pieces. This is a welcome effort to avoid distracting readers from the beauty of the works. Yet the text is close at hand, placed at the end of each essay. Each entry is illustrated with a small color image—a pleasure for anyone who has tried to track down pieces at the back of a book by chasing catalog numbers. While Doug Rosa’s 348 magnificent photographs show each piece in exquisite detail and color, and make the book virtually impossible to put down, the three essays by three different curators are fascinating reading.

“East and West: Oriental Exoticism in the Decorative Arts,” by Evelyne Possémé of the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris provides a brief history of the European “discovery” of art from the Middle East, India, China, and Japan and how it affected European decorative arts, inspiring designers to first copy and then merge artistic elements from a number of cultures. Chinese motifs and carvings were combined with Islamic garden design and graphic decoration. Japanese inro influenced the shape and style of the vanities that held women’s cosmetics and cigarettes in the Jazz Age. And enameled surfaces echoed the lacquer work of China and Japan. “European artists continued to feast on differences and discoveries, creating an art that constantly renewed and original,” writes Possémé. Eventually the elements of many cultures were refined and combined to such an extent that the style became a new one altogether: Art Deco. 

“Feminine Elegance: Jeweled Accessories for the Modern Woman,” by Stephen Harrison at the Cleveland Museum of Art, examines the societal changes after World War I that contributed to demand for the kinds of objects featured in the exhibit. Mass-produced cigarettes became widely available, and cigarette companies promoted them as a sign of sophistication. Women, newly emancipated with their short, sleek fashions and bobbed hair, began frequenting jazz clubs with partners, and there they acquired the smoking habit. In fact, writes Harrison, women quickly became “the mainstay of a burgeoning tobacco industry.” They needed convenient cases, like men, to store and carry their cigarettes. But they also needed vanities to keep their makeup close by for freshening up. Cigarette cases became “artistic symbols of status, wealth and privilege” that embodied “taste, independence, and the means to achieve both.”

For designers, metalsmiths, enamelists, and jewelers, these containers provided much larger creative canvases than could be found in small jewelry pieces, and they pulled out all the stops in using those canvases to showcase “their finest techniques in jewelry setting, composition, artistic design, and mechanical innovation,” writes Harrison. 

“Jeweled Innovation: Design and Manufacture in Art Deco Masterpieces,” by Sarah D. Coffin at Cooper Hewitt is a wonderful examination of the use of color, and how the unique mechanisms for opening these objects lent their own mystique and desirability. As the great jewelry houses realized the demand for these accessories, they began to carry them in their showrooms. And they began to compete aggressively for the business of the ultra-wealthy. This meant commissioning works by the finest box makers, or even partnering with or annexing them. The best artists often worked for several of the jewelry houses, frequently signing their work. Coffin relates the greens of enamel and stones such as aventurine to the relatively new creation of public gardens in Paris, and its symbolism of growth, and freshness. Black enamel, as used in these objects, was no longer the color of mourning, but paralleled the “little black dress” worn by women as they “stepped out” in the evenings; it also provided an excellent backdrop to the platinum and diamonds that decorated the works. But as a sign of modernity, and as a result of the competition for novelty between houses, intricate mechanisms were engineered for these pieces. They might be jeweled or hidden in clever ways. Compartments opened or slid from recesses. Lids opened at the push of a button, allowing them to be opened with one hand. (Many a movie from this era shows a sophisticated man opening a case with one hand to offer a cigarette.) Cases opened like envelopes, or drawers. Catches wrapped the edges or pierced lids. It was during this period, too, that Cartier introduced its Mystery clocks, and these are represented in the collection along with pendant watches concealed in elegant necklaces. 

Jeweled Splendors of the Art Deco Era also includes an introduction by Princess Catherine Aga Khan, who received these beautiful gifts from Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, and Pierre Rainero, the image and heritage director of Cartier, the firm that created many of these objects. The understated and exquisite book design is by Judith Hudson.

This is a book to return to again and again, a book to treasure. It is a deeply satisfying opportunity to examine, close up, a noteworthy collection. 

Sharon Elaine Thompson is a Graduate Gemologist (GG) and Fellow of the Gemmological Association of Great Britain (FGA). She has been an instructor at the Gemological Institute of America, and has written extensively on jewelry and jewelry manufacturing for more than 25 years.