The History Behind … Mid-century Modern jewelry

TrendsJul 22, 2015

The History Behind … Mid-century Modern jewelry

National Jeweler’s latest installment of The History Behind delves into the where, why and how of jewelry crafted in the 1940s and 1950s.

A bracelet by jewelry designer Earl Pardon, one of the most-well known Modernist designers; this piece was included in a recent exhibition of Pardon’s work at the High Museum in Atlanta. (Photo courtesy of the Aaron Faber Gallery)

New York--Mid-century Modernism is marked by clean lines and bold, abstract geometric shapes; think the furniture in Sterling Cooper’s first office on Mad Men.

Right now, the simple shapes of Mid-century Modernism, a movement that peaked in the 1950s, are enjoying a renaissance in home décor and furniture, yet the jewelry of this period hasn’t come back into style with the same force.

That doesn’t mean the designs are lost forever. Jewelry created by artists such as sculptor Alexander Calder still sell for hundreds of thousands at auction, and brands like Georg Jensen continue making pieces with the same clean aesthetic.

Patricia Faber, who has co-owned the Aaron Faber Gallery in New York with her husband since 1974, discussed these designers and more with National Jeweler for the latest installment of The History Behind.

To what time period does Mid-Century Modernism correspond? Although well-known jewelry artisan Margaret De Patta was making jewelry in a Modernist style in the late 1930s, Faber said it really became a movement in the 1940s after the end of World War II.

Prior to this, there was the era of Art Deco design and, following that, the period that came to be known as Retro Modern. Faber said the Retro Modern era was all about over-the-top, heavy designs, many of which were crafted in rose gold because of war-time restrictions on silver and platinum use. Designers turned to copper because its supply was not limited, alloying it with gold and ultimately creating a lot of rose-colored jewelry.

Faber referred to these Retro Modern pieces as “Joan Crawford jewelry” in reference to the movie star known for wearing big, bold jewelry--mostly her own--in films of this era.

What does the transition from the style of Retro Modern to Mid-century Modernism tell us about what was going in society at this time? Like all movements in fashion, including jewelry, “It’s a rejection of the last thing,” Faber observed.

Designers in the United States, as well as those from Scandinavian countries and the silversmiths of Mexico, went for sleeker designs in an effort to distance themselves from the heavy statement pieces popular in the early 1940s.

In the U.S., the fresh designs of Mid-century Modernism also represented a “new freedom,” Faber said.

Prior to World War II, there was the Great Depression, which forced families to stay together, perhaps sometimes longer than they would

have liked. Then the war came, and people watched their loved ones leave not knowing if they’d ever see them again.

When World War II ended, it set people free from these concerns and also marked the beginning of a period of perhaps-unparalleled prosperity in the U.S. “They had money and they had a real freedom to make their own life, (to) not be so beholden to not having money,” Faber says.

There was a new economy, relationships and mobility in America during this time, and a new look in jewelry to go along with it.

Who bought Mid-century Modern jewelry?  Like Art Nouveau jewelry, the pieces crafted in this era appealed to a very specific consumer; they were not for everyone.

The designs were strong, as the pieces were created from the point of the view of the designer. “It is not jewelry to fulfill a function. It’s not bridal jewelry or necklaces for Mother’s Day,” Faber said. “It is coming from a design perspective.”

Geometric designs were a key theme in Mid-century Modernism. Most of the jewelry was crafted in silver, partly due to Scandinavian influence (Scandinavian jewelers traditionally have worked in silver) but also the Bauhaus movement, which called on art in all forms to be affordable. 

Is there one decade that was considered the peak for Mid-century Modernism? The 1950s are considered the peak for this kind of design in jewelry.  Faber said that while Mid-century styles have come back en vogue for furniture and lighting through the years, the jewelry designs of this era have not enjoyed the same resurgence.

How can jewelers add Mid-century Modern jewelry to their inventory? This jewelry can be sourced through basically any of the marketplaces that deal in estate pieces, including antique and estate jewelry shows and auctions.

“I so strongly recommend jewelers who are selling contemporary jewelry combine something old and something new,” Faber said, adding that antique and estate pieces are “incredible conversation starters.”

It’s something Faber and her husband do in their New York gallery, which focuses on the work of studio jewelers. They find that the two categories, old and new, support each other.

“It puts that story visually on display for people walking in: where is (the design inspiration for) today’s jewelry from, why is it interesting.”

Michelle Graffis the editor-in-chief at National Jeweler, directing the publication’s coverage both online and in print.

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