Ravishing Retro: The First Uniquely American Style

“Forties jewelry is big, but it’s very wearable, and it works well with a lot of clothes today-especially tailored clothes on tall women,” says Camilla Dietz Bergeron, a Manhattan-based dealer who specializes in Retro jewelry.

“You don’t have to do contortions to figure out a way to put it on, and, obviously, jewelry that people can wear is easier to sell,” Bergeron says. “Jewelry made in this period by Van Cleef & Arpels-without question one of the most important designers of the 1940s-looks just as contemporary as anything made today.”

Some say Retro was the first fashion look born in the United States. Cut off from war-torn Europe, Americans turned instead to the movies for fashion inspiration. Cartier began to shift its focus from occupied Paris to London and New York, eventually leading to regional distinctions and what became known as the “Cartier New York” look. Meanwhile, jewelers Paul Flato and Trabert & Hoeffer-Mauboussin had opened branches in Los Angeles, and by the ’40s, their designs were appearing on the world’s most visible beauties. Though Flato went out of business during the war, his innovative jewelry remained popular, and his designer, Verdura, continued to adorn Hollywood celebrities.

If you want to see the look females were emulating by 1941, rent the movie Blood and Sand and check out Rita Hayworth, awash in Flato. It’s all there: button earrings and swirling brooches, scrolled diamond necklaces worn close to the throat, chunky cocktail rings and bracelets.

While it was fashionable to wear jewelry in support of the boys overseas-military insignia, jeeps, Uncle Sam, anything red, white, and blue-there were other forces at work on women’s tastes. More women were in the workforce. They were dressing as much for themselves and each other as for the men in uniform. More women earning paychecks meant more women buying jewelry for themselves. The streamlined, strong, and sexy fashions being worn in the movies fit perfectly with the new feminine self-confidence.

“Jewelry very often follows the style in clothing, and with the war, clothes were trimmer, more tailored. The look of padded shoulders, nipped-in waists, and straight skirts needed big rings and bracelets, brooches worn high on the lapel, and close-fitting necklaces,” explains Bergeron. “Jewelry had to balance the clothes stylistically.”

It was also the era of the cocktail party, which during the Depression began to replace the dinner party as a way of accommodating more people with less fuss and expense. Cocktails called for cocktail dresses, which in turn called for dramatic jewelry and accessories. Along with heavy cocktail rings came elaborate gold versions of the compacts, minaudières, cigarette cases, and lipstick holders introduced in the Jazz Age.

Despite having more control over their income during the war, most women could not afford the baubles worn by the movie stars they were emulating. Thus, some of the most popular and innovative jewelry sold during this time either emphasized metalwork over gems or took a resourceful approach to stones. Paste jewelry reached new levels during this period, and even fine jewelry from the war years has to be examined carefully for synthetic gems.

Bergeron once purchased a jeweled Cartier watch bracelet, a popular item in the 1940s. When she had the watch tested, several synthetic rubies were discovered among the natural ones. “The presence of synthetic stones is not uncommon in jewelry from the war years, even big-name jewelry. Buyers should examine all Retro jewelry carefully,” she warns. “There’s nothing wrong with a few synthetic stones, but the price should reflect it.”

Even for those who could afford them, diamonds and other fine gems were difficult to come by. “Fine jewelry was a luxury industry at this point,” says Bergeron. Gold trading was suspended in many countries, and Europe was cut off from countries that produced precious gems. “In France, the jewelry houses didn’t have much in the way of precious material to work with. Obviously, not much was going in and coming out of Germany during this period.”

Semiprecious stones, on the other hand-especially citrine, aquamarine, and amethyst-began to appear in abundance. Colored quartz allowed designers to affordably produce the oversized cuts that the new cocktail look required-chunky rings and bulging cabochon centerstones in cuff bracelets, both of which Marlene Dietrich and Joan Crawford made famous. Semiprecious stones also worked well with the bold new look of mixed colors.

Probably the strongest identifier of fine jewelry from the 1940s is polished gold. American ’40s jewelry is usually made with 14k, often in hollow forms that used less precious metal and kept bulky pieces light enough to wear comfortably. Platinum, which had achieved new heights of popularity in the ’20s and ’30s, was now severely restricted because of its vital role in defense as a catalyst for fuel and explosives. (Jewelry from the transitional period before the war often has a yellow gold back and a white top.)

As Jimmy Stewart marched valiantly off to war, Mae West made her own headlines by selling off her collection of Art Nouveau-style platinum and diamond jewelry for the war effort. While yellow gold is the most common metal in Retro jewelry, rose and white gold also were popular, with all three often combined in one piece.

Fine jewelry of 14k gold is not always an easy sell today. “One of the things customers say the first time they see Retro jewelry is, ‘Oh, I only wear 18k,'” Bergeron says. “Well, Fabergé worked in 14k gold-and much of ’40s jewelry is very yellow, just like 18k.”

The look of wide gold bracelets and cuffs most closely associated with the term “Retro” actually was created by French jewelers in the 1930s as daywear but became bolder and more elaborate in the ’40s and began to appear in the evening as well.

The Rosie the Riveter generation embraced machine-like, flexible gold bracelets and necklaces that reflected a fascination with mechanical elements and the factory assembly line. Van Cleef & Arpels perfected the technique of “honeycomb” designs, patterns of hexagons or overlapping scales, sometimes with a gem set in each hexagon or scale, in a star-shaped recess. (The setting was borrowed from High Victorian jewelry, which also was popular at the time).

Flexible links also were typical of the 1940s-especially in bracelets-and they often took the form of “brickwork” or rows of polished gold tubes that resembled rods, pistons, or tank tracks. Such bracelets and the flexible gold rope necklaces known as stovepipe chains were balanced by ultra-feminine brooches shaped like floral sprays, bows, and ballerinas.

Rings and double clips were the most popular jewelry items of the ’40s. In cocktail rings, stepped and square-cut stones echoed fashion’s square shoulders. Clips on lapels and pockets added color and curve, softening the efficient look of turned-up trousers and severely tailored clothes.

Double clips, introduced in the ’20s, began to replace pins in the ’30s and were almost a necessary extension of the lapel by the ’40s. They offered versatility as well as engineering prowess (in the form of a spring fastener), which was much admired in the ’40s. Most double clips consisted of two mirror images designed to be worn together to form one large brooch, or individually for a more casual look. They could be worn on necklines, pockets or lapels, or on berets or cloche hats.

Today, clips often are sold separately, having parted long ago from their mates. That doesn’t bother most buyers, since clips look dated worn as a full-size double. Retro brooches still look best when worn high-as they were originally-in line with the collarbone.

The double clip typified the 1940s taste for convertible jewelry. Many jewels from this period were designed to come apart, allowing the wearer several looks for the price of one piece. Often bracelets or necklaces came with a central piece that detached to be worn as a brooch. Women often used clip earrings as brooches, or double clips as hair ornaments.

In reaction to the austerity and heightened sense of drama and mortality brought by the war, jewelry design seemed to embrace a sense of carpe diem, taking on a new exuberance and whimsicality. Along with shooting stars and fireworks, quirky Disney-like figures and cartoonish birds and animals became the rage.

John Rubel, one of many Europe-based jewelers who settled in the States during the war, made a name for himself with his “Dancing Flowers” line, inspired by the dancing flowers in Disney’s 1940 animated film Fantasia. Another highly collectible “fantasy jewel” from Rubel & Co. is the ballerina, a design widely copied in paste and other fine jewelry. Rubel’s ballerinas have rough-cut diamond faces and were inspired by Spanish flamenco dancers performing at a Greenwich Village cafe.

Flato’s whimsy was expressed in the form of a Surrealist line that included corsets, boxer shorts, sign-language and astrological symbols, ambulances, feet, and phones. Joan Bennett wore a typically ironic Flato piece in the 1940s called the Hand of God-a polished-gold open palm radiating diamond-set stars.

Of the many birds that alighted on feminine lapels in the wartime era, the most famous and sought-after today is the caged bird that Jeanne Toussaint designed for Cartier. Days after Paris was liberated, a new version of the popular piece appeared in the shop windows on rue de la Paix: the bird poised for flight with the cage door open. Needless to say, this image delighted the newly liberated window shoppers of Paris-and eventually flew throughout Europe and the United States. “Those are so prized they almost never come on the market. I’ve only seen a couple over the years,” Bergeron says. “Not only are they beautiful, but they really captured the spirit of the time.”

Toussaint was known for her outrageous parrots and birds of paradise, a particular preference of her high-profile customer, the Duchesss of Windsor. Wallis Warfield Simpson had become famous worldwide not only for her marriage to the Prince of Wales but also for her adventurous sense of style. Her penchant for wearing exotic jeweled creatures was widely copied, as was her style in general. Though she could afford the finest jewelry, she seemed less interested in intrinsic value than in unique design and color, as typified by her preference for diamond-set blue chalcedony.

Like all trendsetters, the Duchess was quick to pick up on what was exciting and new in fashion, and she was one of the first prominent women to embrace the new palette. After a decade of economic depression and the black-and-white craze of the previous decade, women seemed hungry for color. Van Cleef & Arpels’s invisibly set rubies and tiny square-cut sapphires typify high-end jewelry of this period, but even more prolific were the graduated tones of citrine, from buttery pale to deep amber, and the icy blue of aquamarine.

In 1947, Christian Dior launched what became known as “the new look.” Pads were removed from shoulders for a more rounded line, breasts were more defined, and skirts went to calf length. More floral motifs began to appear in jewelry, and platinum returned.

Overall, the decade of the 1940s was a dramatic and glamorous era that produced some bold, exquisitely engineered jewelry. “It all comes down to design,” Bergeron says. “Some of those cocktail rings are really sort of ugly-too enormous to wear-but others were wonderful. And those little bow clips I find very useful and wearable. I like to wear just one little clip on a jacket. They’re typical of antique jewelry but more accessible to the general public.

“Forties jewelry is not for the frou-frou customer. It doesn’t work with full skirts, frumpy clothes, or lace and frills,” she says. “The key to wearing it is to dress very simply. The necklaces look great, for example, if you wear just a nice jacket and no other jewelry. With the right clothes, jewelry from the 1940s looks fabulous.”

Cathleen McCarthy, a Philadelphia freelance writer, specializes in articles about jewelry design, collectibles, retailing, and travel.