Jewellery historian and Bulgari specialist Amanda Triossi is perceiving a revival of the 1940s style. An era with a distinctive aesthetics, which celebrated gold and bold cuts.

Diotima Schuck
1st November 2023

While the 1920s jewellery was very colorful, adorned with diamonds set on platinum, the 1930s favored graphic, geometric lines. Slowly shifting to new tendancies, jewellery then became heavier and extremely precious, encrusted with numerous stones, signing the end of the Art Deco style towards the end of the 1930s to give way to the Retro period (1935-1950).

“All the rubies used in the 1930s came from Burma. Unheated, they were first-quality, incredibly precious stones.” Amanda Triossi

With World War II however, trade routes were closed between the West and gemstone extracting countries. Diamonds from South Africa and precious stones from Asia were no longer able to reach the jewellers’ workshops. High jewellery was forced to innovate to keep on creating the best quality items.

From Platinum to Gold

Noble white-colored metal, platinum offers resistance to abrasion and aging, characteristics that made it a preferred material by pre-war jewellery. Requisitioned by the armament industry, it became scarce and jewellery makers had to compensate the gap with new metals and alloys. The use of palladium, usually very rare, became more frequent during those years. Silver in colour, it is however much lighter and less resistant than platinum.

Still available, it is gold that then offered the most advantages for the manufacturing of solid and quality jewellery; it rapidly became the most used metal during the 1940s. To be made sufficiently hard, gold was alloyed with other metals, allowing control over its use and stocks preservation. “Its colour can be altered, explains Amanda Triossi. Rose gold contains more copper; green gold more silver. Yellow gold is a balance of both and other metals like zinc or nickel, depending on the periods.” Through these alloys, jewellery could present changing shades that craftsmen mastered to achieve the desired result.

This change of metal operated by the jewellery industry is, according to Amanda Triossi, not only due to the war: “I think there’s a kind of pendulum movement in the history of jewellery: we go from white metal to yellow metal, then white comes back. And the war contributed to this change, but it’s also because gold was slowly coming back into fashion.”

“It’s obvious that movements don’t start and end on a precise date. They appear gradually: there’s a peak, then a progressive end and a new trend slowly emerges. Thus, we could already see Houses using gold from the 1930s.” Amanda Triossi

A New Aesthetic

Before the war, coloured stones were associated with diamonds. Then, assembling coloured stones together became the norm. The shades were vibrant, the shapes, voluminous. Rings bulge, bracelets got wider and thicker. The geometric designs in vogue in the 1930s were replaced by a more naturalistic style, with a “clean” design with a bulky appearance. Gold jewellery surfaces were flat: there were few engraved ornaments or chiseling.

With the scarcity of precious stone resources and the impossibility for Houses to import them, jewellery craftsmen turned to other raw materials. Synthetic stones or imitations — such as fake pearls — were mainly used. Ornamental stones — or “semi-precious” — made a big comeback: citrine, amethyst, aquamarine, topaz…

“Jewellers used large stones, their size somehow compensating for their lack of value,” notes the jewellery historian. When they had the opportunity to work with precious stones, these were generally small in size and distributed on the jewellery in pavé or invisible set — a technique patented by Van Cleef & Arpels in 1933.

Also, the use of old cut stones was typical of the 1940s: “People wanted to have fashionable, modern jewellery. They brought their old pieces to be melted down, providing the precious stones and metal themselves. It is thus not uncommon to find, at this period, old cut diamonds, whose shape would have been set in a 19th-century jewellery,” explains the historian.

Houses in Wartime

Despite the war, high jewellery houses pursued their work, their creativity intact. And soon appeared jewellery inspired by the events of the time, such as the tank bracelet, a must-have piece of the Retro period that recalls the wheels pattern of tanks.

Jewellery, at times, also became a symbol of resistance. In 1942, Jeanne Toussaint, the artistic director of Cartier from 1933 to 1970, designed a brooch depicting a bird in a cage, as an echo to the German occupation in France. Later, the house responded to the liberation of the country with a new bird, this time freed, with the cage door wide open. In the same way, Mauboussin celebrated the end of the war in 1945 by creating a stylised yellow gold and platinum corsage clip, depicting an American jeep and a French flag adorned with sapphires, diamonds, and rubies.

“In wartime, one would tend to think that there is less jewellery whereas they can be a means, as in times of high inflation, to invest money, in gold,” notes Amanda Triossi. Moreover, some families enriched themselves through the war and amassed exceptional jewellery collections, allowing the Houses to continue to offer very high-quality, precious items, “still incredibly fine”, specifies the historian.

The end of the war marked the return of stones, which began to be transported and used again from 1946… with new stylistic evolutions and renewed possibilities for creators.

Pendulum Effect

When Amanda Triossi entered the world of jewellery at the end of the 1980s, she perceived a taste for Retro fashion: “At that time, jewellery from the 1940s was very in vogue. Everyone wanted to buy it because it was trendy to wear yellow gold. In the 1980s, everything had to be voluminous and bold and in a way, Retro jewellery fits into this spirit since they themselves are in yellow gold and quite substantial.”

The following decade, like in this pendulum movement described by the historian, fashion switched back to silver shades, preferring white and diamonds. Consequently, on the secondary market, auction houses offered more silvery jewellery as well.

Today, Amanda Triossi observes a craze for 1940s jewellery on the market. “There is certainly much more interest in these pieces than there was ten or twenty years ago. They are increasingly present today.” To this progressive return, Houses such as Hemmerle or Bulgari seem to respond with clean and sculptural designs.

With their unique design and gold colour, the 1940s truly embody this “vintage” spirit towards which jewellers and buyers are turning today. Redefining contemporary fashion, they are brought up to date by today’s creators. And GemGenève is also an opportunity for secondary market dealers to offer their most beautiful period pieces, found, recovered, and specially presented to the visitors of the show.