The Studio – Jewelry Blog by Rio Grande

Vintage Jewelry Design—A Chronicle of Classic to Contemporary Design

Nov 23, 2011
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Cartier necklace with matching earrings—1924

My friend and Rio Supply Manager Spencer Baum handed me Vintage Jewelry Design with confidence. He knew I would drool all over this beauty of a book, ablaze with grainy black and white photographs of saucy women wearing miles of pearls, and in-your-face spreads of pop icons like Grace Jones strutting funky adornments.

Flipping through the pages of this book by Caroline Cox, I’m reminded why I love jewelry. Why as little girl I loved my grandmother’s sparkly gemstone brooches (and why I love them more now). Why I think anyone with two x chromosomes must own a strand of pearls. Why, in my opinion, Bakelite jewelry is the coolest thing since sliced bread. Why I see many of my sculptural, one-of-a-kind pieces as works of art.

I believe jewelry communicates. It speaks to an individual’s personality. It whispers of a by-gone era. It portrays culture, evolutions and transitions. It makes statements and it tells stories.

Vintage Jewelry Design is a chronicle of the last 100-plus years of jewelry design. From the “divinely decadent” 1890s (Art Nouveau) to “Hollywood glamour” of the 1930s (platinum & diamonds, “white on white”), from the “F for fake” 1940s (plastics and costume jewelry) to “future collectibles” of the present day (architectural and sculptural designs, and conversation pieces).

Pearls make a comeback in the 1950s—Grace Kelly, Jackie Kennedy, and Audrey Hepburn

Caroline covers each decade, discussing cultural, socio-political and artistic influences on jewelry design. She talks about the birth of fashion houses such as Tiffany, Chanel and Cartier and the birth of jewelry trends through experimentation and ingenuity.

The 224-page hardcover includes a shopping and collecting guide, tips on spotting a fake (diamond and costume) and how to care for vintage jewelry. Who needs this book? According to Caroline, “Quite simply, anyone who loves jewellery!”.

Left: In the 70s, jewelry was wrought out of simple metal shapes that adorned far larger areas of the body than any other decade; Grace Jones wearing matching armlets—1977. Right: Cox's book is a comprehensive treasure.

Oh, and did I mention? The photography is to die for!

Lesley Vik Waddell is known for large-scale conceptual pieces that reference the restriction of the body caused by corsets and neck braces or scold’s bridles.

It’s not hard to see Caroline’s love of jewelry fashion and culture. I wanted to hear about the process of putting together such a chronicle, especially from someone who eats and breathes fashion, and is recognized internationally as “an authority on fashion history.”

S: Tell me a bit about the inception of Vintage Jewelry Design.

C: I’ve always been interested in the relationship between the history of fashion and the body; jewellery is one of the earliest forms of body adornment so I have wanted to write about it for ages. It seems that the desire to decorate the body with fabulous jewels has always been a natural human preoccupation and the beauty of precious gemstones has been lauded since the beginning of civilization. It’s one of our oldest forms of currency and also a potent expression of the zeitgeist showing the changing role of women in society.

Francis Mertens’ body jewelry and earrings created for Swarovski’s Runway Rocks in 2008

S: Talk about the decades you cover in the book, and did you have a favorite?

C: I cover the Art Nouveau period through to the present day in the book, so 1890 on. The first chapter deals with the nature-inspired motifs of Art Nouveau; the second with the filigree settings and platinum and diamond pieces that are known as the ‘white on white’ style during the Edwardian era. The Art Deco geometry inspired by Cubism is covered in the third and from then on the book covers ‘30s Hollywood and firms such as Tiffany and Cartier, the showy designs of the 1940s with its faux gemstones and flashy metal settings and the coordinated couture looks of the fifties. A liveliness of design characterized the 1960s with experimentation with PVC and plastics; bohemianism and global influences marked out the seventies and a brash luxury in the 1980s. I conclude with a chapter on future collectibles. My favourite decade is the under-rated ‘70s with the huge influence of conceptual art on jewellery and the brutalist pieces of the Canadian jewellers such as Robert Larin.

S: What intrigues you about jewelry design?

C: From a personal point of view, I have been collecting all things vintage from a very early age because, for me, antique fashion including shoes, bags (both of which I’ve also written about) and jewellery are all fascinating. Essentially, jewellery for me is a form of portable sculpture that one can wear on the body. It is a three-dimensional shape that can achieve any form as long as it can be attached to the person in some way. It is a freer form that fashion because it is released from many of the demands of function.

Faux moonstone earrings & necklace—1950.

S: What IS it about jewelry? Does jewelry say something about its wearer? The culture? The time?

C: Adorning the body is a natural human preoccupation and always says something about the wearer whether it’s social status, wealth or simple taste levels. Like any form of fashion it reflects the zeitgeist; Marilyn Monroe singing ‘Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend’ fused our cultural obsession with gems on film in 1953 and the ups and downs of the love affair between Liz Taylor and Richard Burton was celebrated with ice. Industrially sized bling showed status in hip-hop – and on it goes.

S: What challenges do you think present-day jewelry designers face?

C: I guess in a recession designers have to think about the viability of selling incredibly expensive gems; they have to think about sustainability and the use of resources; I think questions should be asked about using diamonds because of the conditions under which workers have to mine in some countries. I think people will want jewellery that has more personal meaning in our troubled times which will be a boon for independent craftspeople rather than big brands or deluxe houses.

S: Based in your expertise in fashion history, what do you think we'll be seeing in jewelry design 10 years from now? What's the next step for the jewelry designer?

C: I think we will move from bling to more global influences – beadwork, stone and matte surfaces rather than shiny, flashy stuff. I think minimalism will take over from today’s maximalism in jewellery in the same way it is in fashion. 

S: Finally, what vintage pieces do you own that you would never part with?

C: I can let you into a secret—all the jewellery on page 169 of the book belongs to me! And no, I would never part with it!

Caroline Cox is an international authority on fashion history. Her books include Stiletto, Vintage Shoes, How to be Adored and Grown-Up Glamour. Originally an art historian, she moved into fashion theory and history in the 1980s, soon becoming Head of Cultural Studies at the London College of Fashion. She was later headhunted to become the International Trends Consultant at Vidal Sassoon's Advanced Academy in London. Caroline broadcasts regularly on fashion and beauty culture for the BBC and as a cultural commentator on fashion trends she appears regularly on radio and TV. For her outstanding contribution to Cultural History, Caroline was awarded an Honorary Professorship at the University of Arts, London.

I’m pretty hopeful that Santa is reading this and drops Vintage Jewelry Design under the tree for me. This luscious book reminds me why I love jewelry, and it’s a great idea generator for anyone who designs jewelry and is a part of this ever-growing, always evolving industry.

As for a vintage piece I would never part with? It’s gotta be the strappy faux pearl bracelet I picked up many years ago from a consignment store. The finish has chipped off some of the pearls and the base metal, but I care not! I feel like I’m right back in the 1930s when I wear it!

And you? Comment here and show us that one vintage piece you would never part with!





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