Design Inspiration: Historic Jewelry

All that was old is new once more – at least when exploring historic trend-setting jewelry styles of the 19th and 20th centuries. Today’s jewelry designs often reflect the same gems, shapes, and motifs of bygone eras, according to GIA (Gemological Institute of America), the leading authority in gemology. This review of eras illustrates remarkable resemblances between the epochs.
Victorian, 1837-1901
During the reign of England’s Queen Victoria, a variety of distinct styles were popular – the Early Victorian period (1837-1861) was characterized by romantic, natural pieces; the Mid-Victorian period (1861-1880), following the death of Prince Albert, brought about mourning jewelry with black stones like jet; and the Late Victorian period (1880-1901) saw lighter, more delicate jewelry. Cameos were customary. Some Victorian jewelry was a revival of past cultures, and was inspired by ancient Assyrian, Greek, Etruscan, Roman, Egyptian, Gothic and Renaissance themes.
Art Nouveau, 1890-1914
French for “new art,” Art Nouveau was a radical departure from historic revival styles. Inspired by the natural world, it was characterized by imaginative and sinuous artistic expressions. Flowers, animals, butterflies and insects were common, along with fantasy figures, such as fairies and mermaids. Themes of women being transformed into exotic creatures prevailed, characterizing the beginning of women’s liberation. Actress Sarah Bernhardt was a patron of Art Nouveau. René Lalique’s jewelry designs are also a prime example of this genre.
Edwardian, 1900-1915
Also known as the “Garland” style, Edwardian jewelry typically featured garlands of flowers tied with ribbons and bows. It was luxuriously flaunted among the affluent to purposely display wealth. Prominent society women, such as Princess Alexandra of Wales, wore jewelry in this decorative fashion, derived from 18th century ornamentation. Platinum often replaced silver – a result of technological advancements allowing jewelers to work better with the metal. The greater availability of diamonds, in addition to improvements in faceting, placed new emphasis on gem quality. Phenomenal gemstones – opals, moonstones and alexandrites – were favored, along with exceptionally fine diamonds and pearls. Rare and expensive fancy colored diamonds in platinum mountings of exceptional workmanship distinguished the Edwardian theme.
Art Deco, 1920s and 30s
Emerging after World War I, Art Deco jewelry demonstrated a strong reaction against the ethereal sensuality of Art Nouveau and the delicate elegance of the Garland style. Strong geometric patterns in bold, contrasting colors [especially white (diamonds) and black (onyx), or white with blue (sapphire), red (ruby) and/or green (emerald)] reflected post-war pragmatism. Platinum was a popular metal during this period. Abstract features in sleek, streamlined designs were the trend until the outbreak of World War II in 1939. Designs of the time were also influenced by Mughal carved gems.
Retro, 1940s
Marked by a short supply of gems, and with platinum conscripted for military use, Retro jewelry was typically fashioned in gold, or rose gold, in the early 1940s. Bold, sculpted curves were often featured with sparingly set small diamonds and rubies (often synthetic) or less expensive larger gems such as citrine, amethyst and garnet. The late 1940s reflected the post-war return of prosperity, and more opulent uses of colored stones were seen. Designs were inspired by mechanical objects such as bicycle chains and padlocks. In contrast, floral and bow motifs expressed the feminine side.
New Millennium, Present
Today’s jewelry incorporates many of these historic themes all over again. Exceptional gemstone carvings, such as the superb works of Idar-Oberstein, are still appreciated. In fact, a number of modern artists specialize in using gemstones as a medium for abstract art, similar to the imaginative Art Nouveau era.
Prosperity in the 1990s, similar to that of the Edwardian period, renewed the fascination for rare diamonds and unusual gemstones. New high-tech cuts such as the princess and radiant cuts were introduced, and a revived interest in antique cuts – briolette, rose cuts, and old mine cuts – emerged. The 1990s also ushered in new techniques for mounting gemstones, such as invisible and tension settings for diamonds. A unique mixture of gemstones in pavé settings was introduced in the late 1980s. Motifs of butterflies and dragons, and a slightly less-fantastical version of Art Nouveau, returned.