About Retro Jewelry

Retro Period - 1940 to 1945

The Thirties were a decade of Depression for both the U.S. and Europe. The American public looked to the movies as an escape from everyday struggles. The real-life "love story" of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor also captured the popular imagination. World War II began in Europe in 1939. When the U.S. entered the war in 1941, women joined the work force en masse to lend their support. Sweeping social, economic and cultural changes followed the war's end in 1945, as middle-class affluence boomed.

Gold: Yellow gold regained prominence during this era, as wartime restrictions made platinum unavailable to the jewelry industry. Retro jewelry is often multi-colored, combining gold alloys with rose, yellow, and even green overtones.

Semi-precious and Synthetic Stones
: Semi-precious stones and synthetic rubies and sapphires gained favor in the face of wartime luxury taxes and a scarcity of precious stones. New trade routes opened up South America as a bountiful source of large, semi-precious stones. Consequently, Retro jewelry often features colored gemstones like citrine and aquamarine, in rectangular cuts and massive proportions.

Romantic Motifs: Romantic motifs such as bows, flowers, scrolls, fans, ribbons and ruffles complemented the new femininity in fashion. In wartime, these jewelry pieces served as substitutes for such embellishments on clothing, which were severely restricted by the war effort.

Large Proportions: The taste for Hollywood glamour and drama called for jewelry of "larger-than-life" proportions. Cocktail rings, bracelets, watches and necklaces were massive and three-dimensional. The vogue for textured fabrics and an exaggerated silhouette further necessitated jewelry of a certain size and volume.

Machine Age Design: Glorification of the machine in 1930s and 40s America was reflected in jewelry elements that resembled pipes or plumbing, zippers, brickwork and tanktreads.

Patriotic Themes: Patriotic themes (like flags, eagles and military insignia) and colors (synthetic ruby and sapphire) were prevalent in wartime jewelry.

Charms: Sizeable, three-dimensional charms became popular as a very personal form of expression. They were often worn in great numbers on a link bracelet, chronicling the life and experiences of its wearer.

Earrings: Focus was on the lobe, as earrings sat close to the ear, instead of dangling below it. Popular motifs included flowers, scrolls and cornucopia. French (screw) backs and clips were prevalent.

Illusion Settings: Engagement ring designs were directly affected by the Thirties economy. Smaller diamonds were set in illusion settings; these elaborately carved, square white gold mountings gave the diamonds a much larger appearance. Such rings are very popular today with budget-minded consumers who care more for character than carat weight; beautifully-detailed engagement rings with a lot of "look" can often be had for around $500
Antique engagement rings from this time period are delicately-detailed, and quite popular. Highly collectible is the estate designer jewelry from this era, such as that made by Tiffany, Cartier and Van Cleef & Arpels.

The term "Retro" applied to jewelry is credited to François Curiel, the head of the jewelry department for Christie's Auction House in New York in the early 1970's.

Retro jewelry, or "Cocktail Jewelry" as it is sometimes called, originated in France with designs by Van Cleef & Arpels. They produced a collection of jewelry that was exhibited at the 1939 World's Fair in New York. When the World War II broke out, the jewelry remained in New York. It served as a great influence to American jewelry designers throughout the remainder of the war.

Retro jewelry is characterized by the bold, oversized and three dimensional use of rose, yellow and green, highly polished gold. Retro jewels often feature massive, emerald-cut aquamarines, citrines and amethyst, accented with smaller rubies, sapphires and diamonds. Retro bracelets, watches and necklaces reflected the glamour and enchantment that Hollywood inspired during times of crisis. The movies provided a wartime escape into a world of fantasy and romance that was "larger than life".

In 1936, Hollywood was upstaged when King Edward VIII stepped down so he could marry Wallis Simpson. The Duke and Duchess of Windsor (as they came to be known) were renowned for their collection of bold, unusual jewelry. The most famous of the Duchess' Retro jewels were made by Cartier and Van Cleef & Arpels.

Wartime restrictions, rationing and uncertainty brought about many profound changes, but the production of jewelry was only marginally effected during World War II. There was still much uncertainty about paper money. In times of economic skepticism precious metal and gems represent portable capital. Platinum was relatively unavailable during the war, but Retro Jewelry manufacturers used the gems and gold they had on hand to create their fashionable masterpieces. Huge deposits of gems were discovered in Brazil in the 30's as the result of geological excavations searching for industrial minerals to fuel the war. Hundreds of localities became known for Brazilian deposits of citrine, aquamarine, kunzite, topaz, chrysoberyl, tourmaline and amethyst.

The United States entered the War in 1941 after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Curiously, examples of American Retro Jewelry produced at that time were whimsical and delightful. Birds, baskets of flowers, dancers and other serene images were common motifs. Ballerinas, bows, animals, shells, birds and hearts were also recurrent designs in jewels of the period, often accented with sprays of diamonds and twists and spirals of calibré-cut precious gems.

Clips and broockes in the 40's were swollen to a spectacular scale. The ribbon bow was the most popular motif, often highlighted in the center with a calibré cut ruby or sapphire knot. The Retro jewels imitate three dimensional folds of fabric which easily seperates them from the two dimensional Art Deco clips or Victorian bows.

Retro jewelry has become very collectible. Until 1970, jewelry from the 40's and 50's was often sold for scrap value and melted down! The examples of Retro Jewelry that survive today are highly coveted. The value of Retro pins, clips, bracelets and rings has seriously appreciated in recent years, and the trend is not expected to crest in the foreseeable future.

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