written by JC Blackburn
The Retro period followed the Art Deco period, so it lasted about 13 years, from 1937 to 1950.
Making it’s debut at the International Exhibition of Arts and Techniques in Paris in 1937, Retro was bigger and bolder than Art Deco. Mostly yellow and rose gold in color, Retro came just before World War 2 started and it’s evolution would be heavily influenced by the war.
Platinum was considered a strategic metal (it was used mainly as a catalyst to produce nitric acid to make fertilizer and gunpowder) so using it for jewelry was prohibited in the Unites States at the time.
Gold was also needed for the war. In order to make the gold stretch as much as possible for jewelry, additional copper alloy was often mixed in, which created a lower karat gold, while also giving the color a pinkish tone. Through this fusion, rose gold was born and marketed as a unique, soft tone that became popular among designers and jewelers.
Due to the large mines being closed around the world, precious stones were scarce. In their place, semi-precious stones from South America became popular. Aquamarine, Kunzite, Amethyst, Citrine in large sizes were set in large, yellow or pink gold rings, earrings and necklaces.
Innovations in goldsmithing brought about many different textures. Gold was worked into mesh, woven, braided and coiled, especially for making bracelets and chain necklaces. The gas pipe as well as snake chain was used to create gold belt style bracelets as well as large hollow necklaces.
Utilizing new techniques of milling and bending gold into thin sheets, jewelers could make jewelry hollow and appear to be much larger and heavier than it actually was.
Tank belt style links and tractor wheel patterns were influences that came straight from the battlefield and onto women’s necks and wrists. There is no doubt the war heavily influenced design in Retro jewelry.
Cartier even produced a pendant of a caged bird to protest Germany’s occupation of France at the time.
There was also great jewelry engineering innovation during the 40’s. Van Cleef and Arpels created the ballerina ring, which included dozens of specially cut baguettes, each one a different size and shape, set along the perimeter of the ring like a flowing ballerina’s dress in 3D. Whereas Art Deco utilized mostly flat surfaces, Retro was all about dimension, depth and flow.
Van Cleef and Arpels also pioneered the art of invisible colored stone setting. Precious stones, usually ruby or sapphire because of their hardness, were meticulously cut so they fit together like a puzzle on the underside and then set into a precise, grid-like metalwork setting so they perfectly aligned and showed no metal from the top. The effect was a beautifully matched wall of vivid color.
Maboussin, Mellerio, Boucheron, VCA and Cartier were just a handful of the myriad of designers who really embraced the 40’s style.
Large brooches that could be easily disassembled to make a stunning 3-piece set were engineered and manufactured. Necklaces that could be taken apart to make a neck and wrist set were created in a way that had never been done before.
Animals, especially birds, as well as organic themes like fruit, vegetables, hazelnuts and even corn motifs decorated brooches using colored stones. While these types of themes had been used before, they were now made in large, bold pieces and with rounded contours and in different colored gold like pink, yellow and green, and sometimes even combined all three gold colors on the same piece.
While Art Deco utilized the fine, beaded milgrain technique as well as engraving the flat sections of the jewelry, Retro jewelry had more of a sleek, shiny look on the gold surface, creating a mirror-like effect. There was still some use of filigree and beading the metal but it was used sparingly compared to the previous era.
Because Retro was so versatile in it’s design and engineering, it was wildly popular and lasted well after the war and pretty much ended by 1950.