Lecture by Vivienne Becker, jewellery historian and author – Long Read
Modernism is a hundred years old, but it is still very much alive and is driving jewellery into a whole new mood of avant-garde conceptual, abstract sophistication. There are distinct parallels between the 1920s and the 2020s, between the original modernist movement and our 2020s vision of modernity.
Vivienne Becker’s lecture explores these parallels through the major artistic and cultural influences that shaped a whole century that illustrate how Modernism evolved through time.
Modernism – the beginning
Modernism officially started in the 1920s. The emphasis on jewellery design was on abstract forms, on geometry, on simple compositions of shape, form, colour and texture – in stark contrast to the Belle Epoque garland style and to the naturalistic shapes and forms of Art Nouveau jewellery.
The beginning of the XXth century was characterised by huge technological innovations and increased trade relations that opened the doors to a wealth of cultural exchanges across countries and continents. Therefore, one of the most important influences on jewels of the 1920s is Orientalism.
Fashion was changing dramatically after 1910. The couturiers of the time changed the female silhouette. They freed women from their corsets, and they were obsessed, like everyone involved in design and fashion at the time, with Orientalism. Part of Orientalism was the interest in exotic, foreign cultures, and this ushered in the concept of the famous Panther by Cartier. The panther motif is an abstract interpretation of the Panther’s skin, and the way it was designed also paved the way to the craze for black and white jewels deriving from the suppression of colour and the use of white diamonds and black onyx. Another relevant influence came from the Islamic art. Many of the building blocks of Art Deco came from Islamic art and design, so that the geometry of Islamic decorative design of architecture could be represented, for example, into a vanity case.
Colours were particularly important, too. The first performance of the Ballet Russe in Paris was in 1910, with the Scheherazade, and that performance evoked the idea of colour that was introduced into jewellery.
The early phase of Art Deco.
Art Deco can be divided into two main styles. The first one was Art Deco and its interpretations of the classical motifs that came from the Belle Epoque: the neoclassical motives, the motives from French 18th century revivalist style, like the vase or the urn. During the Art Deco, these motives became stylised, flattened, and the naturalism of Art Nouveau tended to geometry. Another important influence came from African art. This came from the colonies, from travelling, from the fascination and understanding of foreign lands and distant cultures. Artists and designers including Picasso were particularly fascinated by African masks, by tribal art and jewellery. The mask played an important part in ceremonial ritual and the attraction for this object is at the origin of mask jewels, which were so popular at the time. From Africa to Asia, as the Asian one is another strong influence on jewellery design.
Jean Fouquet designed a Chinese mask jewel, a famous jewel of the period with turquoise beads. And what is interesting about this jewel is the change of shape and form: the focus of the shape changes from the horizontal to the vertical in line with the fashion of the time.
Another strong influence on Art Deco came from the Egyptian art, which was so popular in these years, particularly because Tutankhamen’s tomb was discovered in 1922 (exactly a hundred years ago). Jewellers like Cartier used antiquities in their Egyptian revival jewels which became highly sought after by collectors (as they are today, partly because they used authentic Egyptian antiquities around which the jewels were designed). Furthermore, Cubism and Futurism played an enormous role in the development of Modernism, thanks to their focus on geometry. Futurist art encapsulated the high energy and speed of modern life and modern world of science, technology, and industry, of travel, particularly of cars, planes and trains, and an urban idea of living. So, Futurist Art stood for the new urban living.
Thinking of which, one could find parallels to today. Artists and designers were turning their backs on the past, on nostalgia. And women, too, were enjoying a whole new way of living. There is a whole new world order at that time after World War One. The social order had changed: women had taken on men’s jobs during the Great War; they were driving, they were dancing, they played sports, they drank cocktails, they smoked, and clothes had to suit their new lives and lifestyles. Here came the flapper dresses, with long, lean silhouettes with bear arms, which cried out for bracelets. Women wore their hair short requesting long earrings. The result was the elongation of the silhouette, echoed in jewellery.
And jewels had to evolve because they had to reflect the new ideals of femininity. The geometry of modernism was also captured in the new diamond cuts. Progress had been made in diamond cutting and the favourite cut of the day was the baguette, a little geometric bar of light, together with the emerald cut, which was used to construct those angular, geometric outlines that were part of Modernism by using the kind of rigorous geometry that Mrs Becker calls “gem architecture”.
From Art Deco to Modernist Jewels
In the 1920s, a group of talented artists introduced what Vivienne Becker defines as the “true modernism” to jewellery. These jewels are opposed to, or from, Art Deco jewellery. It is a quite different aesthetic; the jewels were made in a different spirit. The jewellers, many of whom came from long established families of jewellers, took a very radical approach to the art of the jewel. And these include artists like Jean Fouquet, the son of George Fouquet, Raymond Templier, Gerard Sandoz… And Raymond Templier was perhaps the most radical of them all, as he created startlingly modernist jewels for Hollywood – as pictures of the diva Brigitte Helm, famous for her role in Metropolis, show – the beginning of the relationship between jewellery and Hollywood, which was to have a really important influence on jewellery design.
After 1925, after that burst of exuberant bright colour and arresting colour combinations (such as the “Tutti Frutti” jewels by Cartier), colour was suppressed. After 1925, jewels became monochrome, in black and white, or all white. Jewellers loved the use of reflective metallic surfaces. They played with light and light became a primary part of the jewel, along with gemstones. The design was a pure composition of light in form and shape. Nothing figurative, everything was abstracted. However, the most important influence, particularly for this group of artists-jewellers, came from the machine and, as Templier said “as I walk in the streets, I see ideas for jewellery everywhere, the wheels, the cars, the machinery of today”. This gave him and his colleagues a whole new visual language and an aesthetic where strong, powerful forms replaced any intricacy or representational motifs and compositions. And in fact, in 1925 the modernist artists (not only jewellers, but decorative designers and artists alike), set up their own “Union des Artistes Modernes” – with the jewellers joining in, this union became a real driving force.
In all this, technology was central. It was technology that created the modern world as it is today. The advance of technology today is fast and is radically affecting our lives. Therefore, we could say that there is a new modernist movement today. And back in the 1925 the machine represented liberation and this new world represented travel, work was easier as it was mechanised. The assembly line industry was thriving. Artist-jewellers saw the real beauty in the machine as they did in other mechanical shapes like metal tubing, crankshafts, all sorts of elements of machinery. This reinforced the monochrome trend, and it is interesting to observe how Cartier was able to anticipate it back in 1914 with its Panther skin motif – quite avant-garde at that time.
Geometric jewels flourished, with artists like Gerard Sandoz mixing different metals with unusual or less precious materials in the same creation. Lacquer was also frequently used. This was probably because these artists wanted to launch a message about perceived preciousness. They wanted to elevate the jewel to a true work of art, so they downplayed the intrinsic value as they wanted to change the emphasis in the jewel – from a status symbol to work of art. These were artists playing with the preciousness of materials, introducing non-traditional, humble materials like lacquer, using metal tubing as a decorative feature with very sharp, very graphic motifs. Of course, the mainstream jewellers also took onboard modern life and the new modernism infiltrated the big Maisons, with Cartier leading the way.
From 1925 to the end of 1930s
There was a marked change towards the end of the 1930s. And one can pin this change down to the year 1937, when there was another Paris exhibition, the “Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques dans la Vie Moderne”, which shows how the expression “modern life” was a key expression of the period.
Women became increasingly active, taking on men’s jobs, and they started influencing jewellery design. One of the greatest examples in this sense was Suzanne Belperron. She designed very modernist, very mechanistic jewels. However, midway through the 1930s the jewels, while still being abstract, and still very modernist, started to become more rounded, a little bit more feminine.
The Retro Style
The year 1937 marked a milestone: it was the start of the so-called “cocktail era”, also known as “retro modern”, or the 1940s style. Jewels designed in the late 1930s are still mechanistic, strong, abstract, still based on geometry, but they are more plumped up, more voluptuous, showing a sort of “frozen movement”, as Vivienne Becker said.
From a social point of view, one has to consider that in this period the economy was not at its highest, and with the Second World War the most noble and precious metals and gems were no longer available. Therefore, these circumstances led to bold, curvy jewels that used volumes to appear precious. That was a “big look for less money”. And again in 1939, the world’s fair in New York captured the “tomorrow” as well – the theme was “tomorrow’s world”. Some of the jewels exhibited in those jewellery pavilions illustrated the cocktail style of the late 30s going into the 1940s, which again is another interpretation of modernism.
The 1960s and 1970s
This was another great time of social, cultural and artistic change, of social revolution. It was a time that looked to the future, which was obsessed with perhaps not so much modernism, but with futurism – a time of space and scientific exploration. And that, combined with the social revolution, with the New World order, generated a new mood of modernism in jewellery design which was to prove enormously influential once again.
History repeats itself, and the inspirations came once again from the machine, from technology, and jewellers like Jean Dinh Van, a French Vietnamese designer who had studied in Paris, wanted to bring a new expression to the art of the jewel, drawing on everyday industrial objects. Dihn Van’s favourite motifs were locks and razor blades and handcuffs. His creations show the enduring influence of the 1920s machine age and the original modernists, and the connexion of jewellery to the radical art of the 60s and 70s.
One of the most representative designers of this time was Aldo Cipullo. He was famous for saying “I designed for today thinking of tomorrow. I believe in tomorrow” and his whole focus was on modernity, bringing jewellery into modern day life, making it relevant. He had a love for the hardware store, he moved to New York from Rome and, in 1969, he offered Cartier his design for the love bangle, for which he had been inspired by the hardware store as well as – as the story goes – by a broken love affair. His hardware components, the nuts and bolts and screws, they all seemed tough and industrial. But to Cipullo they owned a particular warmth: the warmth of brass in the hardware shop. They also represented connectivity, the strength of bonds, that interconnectedness of relationships that he craved. But, he said, people forget each other. So one can look at the bracelet and think of the person who gave it to you, obviously because it came with a little screwdriver, and the screw heads were screwed into place so you couldn’t take it off without the screwdriver, which was intended to be held by your loved one or by your partner.
Therefore, Cipullo, while wanting something strong and geometric, was also looking for an expression that was warmer, embracing and he focused on the circle, which is the purest of geometric forms. According to Cipullo, this was not in response to a need or desire that he felt, he picked up on instinctively for more gentleness in life. He wasn’t influenced by fashion, but by picking up so beautifully on the mood of the moment, his jewels definitely became part of fashion.
Fashion, in the 1960s, subtly changed from modernism to futurism. It was all about space age. Jewels had to reflect modern life. The woman in the 1960s was even more liberated (think of the mini skirt). And, if Suzanne Belperron was the buzz word between the 1930s and the 1940s, Elsa Peretti became the epitome of the modern woman in the 1960s and 1970s. Although her jewels were not strictly modernist, as we think of modernism today, they were incredibly modern at that time, and they changed the course of jewellery history.
In the 1960s and 70s designers did not feel they had to come from a traditional background. They did not have to be traditionally trained. And this of course brought new, dynamic, and creative energy into the industry. Once again, the modern movement came from a small group of artist-jewellers which began and found its home in London, led by Andrew Grima. He was not traditionally trained at the bench, but he had the opportunity and the talent and the vision and imagination to bring a whole fresh look to high jewellery. His style was very much in response to new wealth, to a new generation of young, wealthy potential jewellery lovers who had a different lifestyle, and wanted their jewels to reflect that. Such a lifestyle was freer, less formal, had to be more casually opulent and not ruled by outdated traditions. Grima is famous today for his textured gold work. He cast a lot from nature as well, but he used those ridged lines of gold soldered together to bring a new, organic feeling to jewellery. Grima was also famous for introducing coloured stones, those semi-precious stones that had been looked down on, and he also was not afraid to use uncut stones, geodes, crystals. In Grima’s jewels one can feel the movement, the energy, dynamism of this new generation of jewellers.
Contemporary Modernist Jewellers
Looking at some of today’s jewellers who work in the Modernist style Hemmerle, in Munich, comes to mind. This is a story of a family jeweller with a new generation taking over and wanting to change things, to move in time, in the spirit of the moment. When he took over the traditional family business, Stephan Hemmerle introduced a whole new look that really harked back to the geometry and stylization of the 1920s and was particularly connected to contemporary art, focussing on compositions of shape and colour. Everything was reduced in line and form, through new explorations of unusual materials, such as iron and bronze, together with many different coloured stones.
Everyone is moving in tune with today’s modernism. Even the grandest Maisons are applying innovative technologies to create volumes and stylised, geometric forms to reinterpret designs from their past – once again, Cartier’s Panther is the perfect example.
An example are the jewels by Fabio Salini, jeweller in Rome, who had experimented for some 20 years to find a whole new expression for the art of the jewel that he felt was relevant to today. He works in pure geometric forms, striking compositions of colour and shape, and he uses reflective surfaces as the artist-jewellers did in the 1920s to create an illusion. Fabio Salini’s jewels show the juxtaposition of classic precious materials with more unconventional ones, such as the carbon fibre. His designs show tribal contaminations, and combine sophistication with the ethnic element of art.
Today is not only characterised by the influence of new techniques, but also by new materials, particularly titanium, which is the space age material, very strong and light. Huge progress has been made in the last decade in working in titanium, which can now be shaped, moulded, and sculpted. More experimentation involves materials such as concrete, siberium; designs are influenced by contemporary art designers and by the use of layered perspectives to reach a three-dimensional appeareance.
Jewellery design is cyclical. It is time for a change and, according to Vivienne Becker, we are moving into a new, more graphic, more geometric look. This could be a new interpretation of the organic look, perhaps of that representational view of nature that we have become so used to over the past few decades, that is possible today by new technology, by new materials and of course by highly skilled craftsmanship.
 In the Belle Epoque, women had a S-shape silhouette with their busts pushed forward, their hips put back but pushed back. They were tightly corseted, so it is a very curvaceous style, and the emphasis was on the corsage and jewels were vertical and huge in shape.