Retro jewellery, also known as ‘Cocktail jewellery’ originated in France and covers the period between the late 1930s and early 1960s. Inspired by Hollywood, it is characterised by its distinctive colourful, bold and elaborate designs. Van Cleef & Arpels produced a collection of jewellery for the 1939 World Fair in New York. This collection remained in New York when World War II broke out and became a great inspiration and influence to American jewellery designers throughout the war period.
As platinum was not available to goldsmiths due to its value in the war effort, gold became the metal of choice. Goldsmiths are known to have worked with over 20 different shades of gold. In the search for industrial minerals to fuel the war in the 1930s, huge deposits of gems were discovered in Brazil. Many locations became known for Brazilian deposits of citrine, aquamarine, topaz, kunzite, tourmaline, chrysoberyl and amethyst. Large gems were often used to reflect the scale of the jewellery. Oversized emerald cuts are often seen, sometimes emphasised with smaller stones.
The noted designers of this era were Van Cleefs & Arpels, Verdura, Oscar Heyman, Buccellati, William Russer, Boucheron, Chaumet among others. Design themes included big flowing ribbons and bows, as well as flowers and animals. Popular styles were wide gold bracelets, oversized dress clips and earrings that were worn high on the ear.
Up until 1970, much of the jewellery of the forties and fifties was sold for scrap and melted down. However, the examples that have survived are now very collectible and highly desired. Retro pins, clips, bracelets and rings have seriously appreciated in value in recent years, and this is set to continue for the foreseeable future.