Art Deco Jewelry Shimmers At Auction

(Peter J. Theriault is president of Northeast Gemlab, an independent jewelry appraisal company in Camden, Me. He enjoys tracking results of the jewelry, collectible watch and silver auction markets and has written for the Maine Antique Digest, Silver Magazine and International WristwatchCollector USA.)

One of the most viable ways to track estate jewelry prices is to follow the auction market. Tens of millions of dollars are traded annually in this highly charged, international marketplace. At auctions, savvy and egos cross paths as jewelry changes hands for as little as a few hundred dollars and as much as a million dollars or more at the drop of a gavel.

Heritage would like to offer you a front row seat to this spectacular arena and help you with your estate and appraisal departments with periodic reports on auction jewelry and watches in mid- to moderate price ranges. The focus in this review is on Art Deco jewelry.

Art Deco: What comes to mind when you hear the term Art Deco jewelry? Soft-focus images of sultry actress Jean Harlow in the 1931 movie Platinum Blond, diamond bracelets cascading from her arm? Rows of carefully calibrated, invisibly set sapphires and diamonds draped across the wearer’s neck, producing a sensational flowing fabric of gems? The signature of a famous Parisian jewelry house? Whatever the image in your mind, Art Deco jewelry is one of the most desirable and collectible of all period jewelry. It’s diverse enough to fit with today’s styles, yet graceful and sophisticated enough to satisfy those yearning for a return to the elegance of an earlier time.

The term Art Deco refers to two decades of jewelry design that culminated in the 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris. Its credo — form follows function — justified an absence of ornamentation, but still found celebration in technological achievements. Factors affecting jewelry designed during this period included the mass entry of women into the work force during World War I and an interest in Egyptian motifs in connection with the discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb in Egypt. Leading Art Deco jewelry designers included Cartier, Van Cleef and Arpels, Tiffany & Co., Marcus & Co., Black, Starr & Frost and Oscar Heyman.

Reasons for popularity: Jewelry experts at major auction houses, who work with hundreds of pieces of Art Deco jewelry, attribute its popularity to its value. “When you have a fine piece of Art Deco jewelry, you have a piece of art,” says Kathryn Bonanno-Patrizzi, FGA, PG, a gemological consultant with Antiquorum, headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland. “The quality of workmanship is not commonly found today in terms of the detail on the front and the back; it’s very labor-intensive.”

Nostalgia is another factor, says Brett O’Connor, jewelry consultant at Philip’s New York gallery. “Many collectors have fond memories of their mothers or grandmothers wearing this jewelry,”says O’Connor. “It truly represents a diverse age, ranging from elegance to uninhibited values.”

Wearability is another attraction. “We see more and more career woman wearing small brooches and stickpins,” says O’Connor. “And many brides are opting for Art Deco diamond rings.”

Demand, prices: The Art Deco period produced some of the first true “designer jewels,” an important factor in quality and design recognition in today’s collectors market. Many pieces of the 1920s and 1930s were numbered as well as signed. The archivists at many companies — including Tiffany & Co., Cartier and Oscar Heyman — can trace the original date of sale, price and owner.

“The finest signed pieces with extraordinary design and workmanship are increasingly difficult to find,” says Simon Teakle, fine jewelry director at Christie’s New York. “Any signed piece of the finest quality and design is going back to strong prices. It is not quite [at the level of the] 1980s, and I’m glad of that. I’d rather see a level where prices are strong but stable.”

Prices have increased steadily overall for six years, says Gail Brett Levine, GG, editor of the AuctionMarket Resource, a quarterly publication that reports jewelry auction market data to appraisers, dealers and collectors. “In the past year, anything Art Deco, especially signed pieces of better design, brought more than expected at auction,” she says. “Even unsigned pieces brought higher prices than anticipated if they were sensational designs.”

The current popularity of Art Deco jewelry may have origins in the sale of theDuchess of Windsor jewels in 1987. “That renewed widespread interest in some big designer names of the 1920s and 1930s,” says JohnBlock, head of the jewelry department at Sotheby’s NewYork. “The jewels were so popular that knock-offs are still made.”

The Duke of Windsor spent hours with Jeanne Toussaint of Cartier and Renee Puissant of Van Cleef & Arpels, actively participating in the creation of jewelry for his wife. Though designed in the 1930s using the components and techniques of this period, the jewelry was considered avant-garde for the time. The Windsor jewels may be remembered most for an invisibly set ruby and diamond leaf clip or a sapphire and diamond “marriage bracelet,” an interesting situation because these pieces show that not all jewelry designed during this period was geometric.