The term "Retro" as applied to jewelry is credited to François Curiel, the head of the jewelry department for Christie's Auction House in New York in the early 1970's.
Retro jewelry, or "Cocktail Jewelry" as it is sometimes called, originated in France with designs by Van Cleef & Arpels. They produced a collection of jewelry that was exhibited at the 1939 World's Fair in New York. When World War II broke out, the jewelry remained in New York, serving as a great influence to American jewelry designers throughout the remainder of the war.
Retro jewelry is characterized by the bold, oversized and three dimensional use of rose, yellow and green, highly polished gold. These pieces often feature massive, emerald-cut aquamarines, citrines and amethyst, accented with smaller rubies, sapphires and diamonds. The bracelets, watches and necklaces reflected the glamour and enchantment that Hollywood inspired during times of crisis. The movies provided a wartime escape into a world of fantasy and romance that was "larger than life".
In 1936, Hollywood was upstaged when King Edward VIII stepped down as King of England so he could marry Wallis Simpson. The Duke and Duchess of Windsor (as they came to be known) were renowned for their collection of bold, unusual jewelry. The most famous of the Duchess' Retro jewels were made by Cartier and Van Cleef & Arpels.
Wartime restrictions, rationing and uncertainty brought about many profound changes but the production of jewelry was only marginally effected during World War II. There was still much uncertainty about paper money and in times of economic skepticism precious metal and gems represent portable capital. Platinum was relatively unavailable during the war, but Retro Jewelry manufacturers used the gems and gold they had on hand to create their fashionable masterpieces. Huge deposits of gems were discovered in Brazil in the 30's as the result of geological excavations searching for industrial minerals to fuel the war. Hundreds of localities became known for Brazilian deposits of citrine, aquamarine, kunzite, topaz, chrysoberyl, tourmaline and amethyst.
The United States entered the War in 1941 after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Curiously, examples of American Retro Jewelry produced at that time were whimsical and delightful. Birds, baskets of flowers, dancers and other serene images were common motifs. Ballerinas, bows, animals, shells, birds and hearts were also recurrent designs in jewels of the period, often accented with sprays of diamonds and twists and spirals of calibré-cut precious gems.
Clips and brooches in the 40's were swollen to a spectacular scale. The ribbon bow was the most popular motif, often highlighted in the center with a calibré cut ruby or sapphire knot. Retro jewels imitate three dimensional folds of fabric, easily separating them from the two dimensional Art Deco clips or Victorian bows.
The most popular gemstones seen in Retro Jewelry are aquamarine, citrine, topaz, large cabochon-cut rubies and sapphires (including star stones), golden beryl, peridots and tourmaline. Most of these gems were exceptionally large to reflect the scale of the Retro Jewel. During the war years, smaller faceted sapphires and rubies (both natural and synthetic) were most often used as accents for the larger gems. Diamonds were plentiful. The demand for diamonds in Art Deco jewelry left most of the Retro Jewelry designers with more than ample reserves of small to medium size calibré, round and baguette diamonds.
In the mid thirties, Van Cleef & Arpels designed a flexible interlocking honeycomb bracelet with a large ornate buckle. It was named the "Ludo" bracelet after its designer Louis "Ludovic" Arpels. It was actually inspired by some of the early Victorian gold mesh garter bracelets. This would become one of their most popular signature pieces. It was copied by many other jewelry manufacturers and continued to be in great demand throughout the forties.
Fine examples of Retro pins, bracelets and rings were produced in the United States by firms such as Oscar Heyman, Verdura, Black, Starr & Frost, Bailey, Banks & Biddle, Shreve & Company, Rubel and Ruser. In Europe, Van Cleef & Arpels, Cartier, Boucheron, Chaumet, Trabert & Hoeffer-Mauboussin, Buccellati and Bulgari all created jewels in the Retro style. Cartier particularly excelled in the style of "animalier". Birds, dogs, cats and horses were created by their craftsmen and set with a variety of colored gems.
Retro jewelry has become very collectible. Until 1970, jewelry from the forties and fifties was often sold for scrap value and melted down. The examples of Retro Jewelry that survive today are highly coveted. The value of Retro pins, clips, bracelets and rings has seriously appreciated in recent years, and the trend is not expected to crest in the foreseeable future.
The French jeweler Mauboussin had said, "The jewellery of the Forties was the jewellery of an age of crisis, so it is only logical that it should come to an end with the crisis itself" (M. Gabardi, The Jewels of 1940 in Europe, 1982).