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WHAT IS THE RETRO PERIOD?

Much like the Art Deco period, the Retro period was brought about by a major global war involving countries on every inhabited continent.

The beginning of the second world war, inevitably slowed down the production of jewelry in Europe and the Americas. Metals such as platinum and gold were now becoming tightly rationed due to the war effort. The Banque de France (Bank of France) completely outlawed the sale of all precious metals. Newly created pieces of jewelry had to come from a metal which was already owned, and if it was melted, then 20% of the fine content was required to go to the state. Despite the lack of production, the overall jewelry industry slowed very little relative to other industries. The wartime environment brought about an economic skepticism which encouraged many people to trade their paper money for other physical alternatives.

A turquoise, ruby and diamond sea star brooch
A turquoise, ruby and diamond sea star brooch, made by John Rubel, circa 1940’s

HOW WWII LED TO A CHANGE IN OVERALL FASHION

Much like in the Art Deco period of the 1920s, women’s dress attire became more comfortable for their new found working environment. Skirts became shorter and the delicate, feminine clothing so popular in the 1930s was traded in for tailored suits with tight jackets and padded shoulders. Shoes were also becoming much more comfortable to allow for women to work longer hours, adapting to use a cork sole instead of leather.

Although the dress was far more masculine, women kept their sense of femininity through a short neckline and small hats, which were often decorated with brooches and/or flowers. Large, chunky jewelry stayed popular with this new fashion of dress, and brooches were commonly worn on jackets or lapels to enhance certain outfits.

WHAT HAPPENED TO THE FAMOUS PARISIAN JEWELRY HOUSES DURING WWII?

While English jewelry houses were storing their stock and preparing for all-out war, French jewelry houses in German occupied Paris continued crafting jewelry, creatively compensating for the lack of jewels and precious metals. Old pieces were broken up and converted into new designs, and stock piles of metals and stones, accumulated before the war, were used sparingly.

Arguably the most famous French jewelry house, Cartier, was fortunate enough to plan ahead and safely move many of their more precious items to safer locations in Allied occupied countries, such as the United Kingdom. During the war, Cartier employed the symbol of a caged bird in new designs, as a symbolic tribute to France’s hopeful liberation. The bird was freed and designed using red, blue and white gems (French national colors) in their famous brooch which was released shortly after the liberation of France.

COMPENSATING FOR A SHORTAGE OF STONES AND METALS

Despite the shortage of all materials required to make jewelry, big jewels were still in fashion. The shortage of precious stones led to the use of more semi-precious stones, such as citrine, amethyst, topaz and aquamarines. To compensate for the lack of metals, many pieces of jewelry made during WWII were hollow. Jewelry manufacturers also increased the amount of copper in 9, 14 and 18 karat gold, giving the gold that distinguished rosy color that is commonly associated with retro jewelry. Palladium, the lightest member of the platinum family, was first used in jewelry during this time as well.

AN END TO WAR AND THE SHORTAGE OF PRECIOUS GEMS AND METALS

When the war ended, fashion quickly reacted to the end of this forced austerity. New French fashion houses, such as Balmain, Givenchy, Balenciage and Christian Dior changed the look of fashion with more feminine dresses, featuring low cut tops covered up by bolero-style jackets. Colors and fine materials, previously unavailable, made a sharp comeback, as did the feminine silhouette, abandoned during the war.

The Panthère clip-brooch
The Panthère clip-brooch, made special for Wallis Simpson, the Duchess of Windsor, by Cartier in 1948. This was a milestone piece, the world’s first 3-dimensional piece of jewelry.

HOW JEWELRY ADAPTED TO CHANGING FASHIONS

The jewels of the post-war Retro period were characteristically designed with naturalistic influences and free-set precious stones. Jewels were made to emulate exotic flowers, leaves, snowflakes and animals. In 1948, Cartier changed the world of jewelry when they produced the first three-dimensional brooch. The piece was a golden panther, coated with spots of black enamel, outstretched on a large cabochon cut emerald, with vivid emerald eyes. Created for the famous Duchess of Windsor, this was the first in a long line of “great cat” jewels which became symbolic of the House of Cartier.

AMERICA’S ECONOMIC BOOM

The end of World War II led to an unprecedented economic boom in America; a desire to rebuild what had been destroyed in a bigger, bolder manner characterized the jewelry produced during this time. Televisions were starting to become a common household fixture and owning a car finally became a luxury the average American could afford. Consumerism was at its highest. Curved designs, inspired by the sports cars and home appliances of the day, replaced the straight edges found in Art Deco jewelry.

A DIAMOND IS FOREVER

Among the most important factors influencing the jewelry industry during the retro period was a marketing campaign by diamond conglomerate, De Beer’s, centering around the slogan, “A Diamond is Forever”. The aim of this marketing campaign was to make diamonds the only choice for a center stone in an engagement ring, and it was wildly successful. By 1965, 80% of American brides wore a diamond engagement ring.

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