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The Jazz Age

The Jazz Age
June 21, 2017 Barbara Schwartz
Barbara Schwartz
In Jewelry History

If you love Art Deco as much as I do, you never tire of seeing jewelry created in this decorative style. I’ve just returned from a research trip to New York City, where I was fortunate to see the exhibition The Jazz Age: American Style in the 1920s, currently on view at Cooper Hewitt Museum. What a rare treat!

Setting the Stage: The 1920s in the U.S.

Before I tell you about this fabulous exhibition, let me tell you about its context. The second decade of the 20th century was an age of economic prosperity and industrial growth in the United States. Cities grew, as large numbers of people left rural areas for better employment opportunities. Telephones, radios, electricity, and automobiles – early 20th century innovations – became commonplace, especially in urban areas. Motion pictures, the most popular leisure activity, greatly influenced consumers by portraying the ideal lifestyle and promoting fashions and jewelry worn by movie stars on- and off-screen.

Social mores were changing rapidly. By 1920, women won the right to vote. Increasing numbers were working outside the home, entering new professions, and enrolling in higher education. Women’s hemlines rose and their hair got shorter as the decade progressed. Wearing make-up and smoking in public became widespread and socially acceptable. The flapper fashion silhouette and life style were in vogue. Because of the popularity of jazz music and dancing, this era was called The Jazz Age.

The Exhibition

“A creative explosion in design and art lit up the 1920s. The Jazz Age explores the dynamic changes in American taste and lifestyles during this period through a broad range of furniture, jewelry, fashion, textiles, decorative arts, and architecture, as well as art, film, and music. The influences that fueled this burst of innovation, exoticism, and modernity were manifold and flowed back and forth across the Atlantic. Jazz music, a uniquely American art form that sprang from African-American musicians who preserved and improvised on its historic roots, also found a ready audience in Europe. An apt metaphor for the era’s embrace of urbanity and experimentation, jazz captured the pulse and rich mixture of cultures and rhythms that brought a new beat to contemporary life” (from the museum’s introduction).

Photo Courtesy of Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

Through a display of more than 400 works from museum and private collections, the exhibition explores both European and American influences on 1920s design. Although the term Art Deco is not used, it was the predominant style of the decade. This aesthetic movement began in France before 1910. It was inspired by the geometric patterns of avant-garde art; bold colors and exoticism of the Ballets Russes; classical imagery of ancient Greece and Rome; motifs of African and East Asian art; and archeological discoveries (especially the opening of King Tutankhamen’s tomb in 1922). Art Deco combined modernism with exquisite craftsmanship and fine materials.

This style was celebrated at the 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris. Originally scheduled for 1915, the event had to be postponed because of World War I. Sixteen million people saw 15,000 exhibits from 20 countries. Although the U.S. did not participate, many Americans attended. A government committee selected 400 objects that traveled to eight museums across the country in 1926.

Wealthy Americans purchased fashion, jewelry, and other luxury items in the latest designs while travelling abroad. Department stores at home exhibited imported items and commissioned works by American companies. Many designers who emigrated from Austria and Germany before and after World War I helped to transport this aesthetic movement as well as their interest and training in industrial design. American architecture – most notably the skyscraper – was a significant American influence. The combination of talents from both sides of the Atlantic “created new energy and a style that might be called melting-pot modern” (from a museum label).

Jewelry Highlights

Photo Courtesy of Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

While all of the jewelry was gorgeous and a delight to see up-close and in person, I will discuss only a few highlights. You’ll just have to go to see the rest!

Tutti Frutti jewelry – pieces with multi-colored, Indian-style carved gemstones – was prominent at the 1925 Paris Exhibition. This platinum, carved ruby, and diamond necklace by Van Cleef and Arpels was made in 1929, the year the company opened its first shop in New York. The necklace is 16 ¼” long. The photo makes me think that the piece was designed to be taken apart to create a separate bracelet, using the top portions of the necklace. Several other tutti frutti pieces by Cartier were on display: a 1927 bracelet, a 1925 bracelet, a pair of clips, and a compact.

Two other designs caught my attention because I had never seen anything like them before. The first is a set of three necklaces and one bracelet in red and black lacquer on oréum (a gold alloy). It was designed by Maurice Coüet, Cartier, and Jean Dunand, and made by Société Oréum. You can see another Dunand set here. According to the museum: “Jean Dunand’s expertise in enameling extended to jewelry. His exotic Giraffe necklaces and bracelets of about 1927 were seductive and colorful adornments, especially when worn dancing”.

The other design that intrigued me is a pair of necklaces by Jean Deprés, ca. 1930. One is made from hammered silver and blood jasper; the other, from hammered silver and bone. According to the museum: “Després’s necklaces reflect the strong interest in the globe form that appeared across design during this period. The combination of the handcrafted look of hammered silver and the avoidance of gemstones in favor of less precious materials created an impressive statement when used in large scale”.

More About the Exhibition

On view at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum through August 20, 2017, The Jazz Age will be at the Cleveland Museum of Art from September 30, 2017 through January 14, 2018. For more information, go to Cooper Hewitt’s website. For a beautiful collection of Art Deco costume jewelry, visit the TruFaux Jewels website.

In case you’re wondering, the first image is called Muse with Violin Screen and is a stylized figure of Josephine Baker. You can read about the screen here.

Comments (2)

  1. Billie Tekel Elias 10 months ago

    Dear Barbara, I saw the show back in May and loved these two pieces:
    https://collection.cooperhewitt.org/users/billieelias/visits/3xp2f/114896279/ and
    https://collection.cooperhewitt.org/users/billieelias/visits/3xp2f/114896265/ Everything on display from the Neil Lane collection was astonishing.

    • Barbara Schwartz Author
      Barbara Schwartz 10 months ago

      You have exquisite taste! I, too, loved the same pieces. Do you think Neil Lane would consider adopting me?

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