1920s jewelry took a turn to simplicity and Art Deco “modernism” in all styles from rings to necklaces, and bracelets. Out were the fussy Art Nouveau styles. Out were the pressures of society to wear your wealth. Out were expensive precious stones. In were cheaper semi-precious stones and fake plastics. To wear any jewelry at all was to dress up. It was perfectly acceptable to wear none for day to day life. This was a drastic change from the wealth driven society before WWI, and one that forever changed the jewelry industry.
Jewelry was not based on function. No longer was design determined by the cost of the materials. “In addition, by focusing attention on the design rather than the intrinsic value or materials, the Art Nouveau movement of the late 19th and early 20th century had already suggested that jewelry need not act as a three dimensional bank statement, but instead could be worn purely for its decorative qualities.” – A Collectors Guide to Costume Jewelry, by Tracey Tolkin
As fascinating as the history of jewelry in the 1920s is, I want to focus on the most common or at least most iconic jewelry styles of the 1920s. This will be more helpful to you when creating a 1920s costume or inspired style.
Long pearl necklaces. These are the most iconic of all ’20s jewelry pieces. Not all pearl necklaces were long or worn in a single strand. It was popular to wear layers of them in various lengths from 60 inches on up. Longer pearls were fashionable in the early twenties and were getting shorter as the decade progressed. 18,20 and 22 inches were common lengths.
Coco Chanel was a big promoter of pearl necklaces, including wearing fake ones. Coco wore a necklace or two around her wrist, giving the look of several bracelets messily thrown on. The quality and affordability of cultured “fake” pearls during the decade made them an item every woman could afford. Fake pearls now came in light pastel colors instead of plain white. Pastel pink green, blue and gray were especially popular with teens.
Long beaded necklaces were equally as popular as pearls. They had round faceted stones in the popular Art Deco color palette – black, red, white, and green. Stones were saturated with color. It did not matter if they matched your outfit– clashing colors were in vogue! Beads made of Bakelite or Lucite (plastic) and glass made jewelry affordable to the masses. From first glance, it was nearly impossible to tell what was real or fake.
One popular long necklace was the Sautoir. It usually had a tassel hanging at the bottom or a large single gemstone pendant. It was not always worn down the front of a dress. It could loop to one shoulder or drop all the way down the back. The back drop drew attention to an open back dress– sexy sexy indeed! The twenties were not just about new styles of jewelry but also new ways to wear them!
Dog collar necklaces were the other main style of 1920s neckwear. Large square, triangle, trapezoid, or pointed oval stones set in heavy casings wrapped snugly around the base of the neck. Some call these chokers, but they were a bit too low on the neck to be true choker necklaces. A more modern term is the bib necklace.
Bold Art Deco colors, especially black onyx, were popular. Inspired by cubism, the designs did not have to look like anything realistic. Simple shapes by themselves or abstract representations in a cubist-like suggestion of a flower or dragon or automobile were all the rage. The need for anything fast — fast cars, fast dogs, fast boats, and fast gazelles — were the only non-abstract designs found in Art Deco jewelry. They were stylized, yes, but not abstract. Read more about Art Deco jewelry.
1920s Drop Earrings
Because of short hair and cloche hats around the ears, women’s necks were now fully exposed. What better way to draw attention to the naked neck than with dangling drop earrings? They were long columns, about 2-3 inches with small diamonds or rhinestones set in a filigree design.
Diamonds were for formal evenings only. Wearing them during the day was seen as vulgar. They were still a sign of good wealth, although a diamond field discovery in South Africa made diamonds more affordable and plentiful. Gems for the day were semiprecious stones like jade, coral, turquoise, marcasite, onyx, agate, and carnelian set in pure white, clear or silver casings. If silver was unaffordable, sterling silver, silver plate, nickel, and zinc could be used to look like white gold. Yellow gold was out of fashion except in Egyptian revival jewelry.
For formal occasions, earrings usually matched the hair clip or headband a woman was wearing. If an evening hairstyle was long enough to cover the ears, it was trendy to pull one side back and wear only one earring. During the day, a brooch pinned to the cloche hat could coordinate with earrings.
As for bracelets in the 1920s, the more bangles that were climbing up her arm, the better. Thick or thin wood, bone, shell, metal, or plastic bracelets with inset gems in the center came in colors and patterns mimicking African tribal art.
F Scott Fitzgerald writes in The Great Gatsby: “When she moved about there was an incessant clicking as innumerable pottery bracelets jingled up and down upon her arms.” There is some confusion over what Fitzgerald meant by “pottery” bracelets.
One thought is that brown Bakelite bangles resemble ceramic pottery. Another possibility is symbols of Egyptian artifacts such as pottery were carved or painted onto the bangles thus making “pottery bracelets.” In either case, bangles were certainly seen and more importantly heard by surrounding company. Some slave bangles in the shape of snakes circled the bicep giving a nod to the Egyptian style goddess — Cleopatra!
Other Egyptian designs found their way onto bracelets, rings and necklaces, too. Images of a scarab, mummy, pharaoh, pyramids, obelisk, sphinx, vulture, asp, cobra, lotus, and various hieroglyphics. The most popular symbols were scarabs and falcons. They had a revival in the late ’50s and ’60s, too. Classic color combinations were black/red, cream/black and red/green.
Other bracelets styles were filigree or “white on white” diamante. They were not only worn around wrists (several at a time) but up on the bicep.
Although many rings took on Art Deco shapes, the popular Art Nouveau style of filigree casings around precious stones– diamonds– still ruled most of the 1920s. Stones were, however, cut in less traditional cuts and more likely to be square, rectangle or oval shapes. Some stood taller on a finger, especially when worn ungloved. A naked hand tickling the neck or tapping an earring was a not so subtle way of flirting. Birthstones instead of diamonds were very popular every day rings.
Where to Buy 1920s Style Costume Jewelry
I was happy to see a resurgence of 1920s style Art Deco jewelry and colors this year (2013). Some of the revival styles also lean towards the late ’60s and ’70s, when the boho look captured the tribal and Art Deco styling once again. Avoiding any “hippie” looks, there is plenty of ’20s style jewelry to choose from.
Locally and online I find great (affordable) costume jewelry at Forever 21, Charming Charlie, and 1928. For higher quality Art Deco jewelry, look no further than the USA site TruFauxJewels and UK site Sheryl’s Art Deco Emporium. Her jewelry provided most of the pictures in this post.
Art Deco era jewelry is highly collectible today. I haven’t found any with a price tag that makes me want to fork over my cash. To be honest, I don’t know enough about identifying jewelry designers and materials to make an educated purchase. With the exception of borrowing my grandmother’s jewelry, I usually wear cheap costume jewelry– that way I can always afford to wear something new with each outfit. True to the 1920s– that’s what most women did, too– including fashion designer Coco Chanel! Why have one beaded necklace when you can have two or three for each outfit you own?
Selecting jewelry for your outfit comes down to personal preference. The 1920s didn’t overdo jewelry like later decades so keep it simple. One piece for daytime and up to three for evenings, including a headband.
- Daywear: Pearls / bead necklace or bangles (not both). A wristwatch watch, if you want to add one more piece.
- Cocktail: Necklace of choice, drop earrings
- Evening: Necklace, drop earrings, and several bracelets or one arm cuff
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