Glamorous, bold and daring – three words which define the Art Deco period between the two World Wars. It was a time for excess and for pushing boundaries, both artistic and technological. The mood was optimistic and forward-looking, and the styles of the day reflected that outlook.
It’s easy to understand why, in the 21st century, people are still drawn to the “overboard” nature of the Art Deco era. And it’s easy to understand why all art deco pieces, particularly art deco engagement rings, are the most sought-after antique jewelry in today’s marketplace. “Non-traditional” and “vintage” are two of the biggest buzzwords among brides in the 2010s, and an Art Deco engagement ring fits squarely into both categories.
Before we focus on the many types of art deco rings you can choose from, let’s get a better understanding of this unique period in world culture.
The Art Deco Era
The Art Nouveau period, which ran until around 1910, was known for its harmony with natural form. Art, architecture and design during the era featured graceful flow and lines, along with a focus on plants, flowers, and other elements of nature.
Then came World War I and the beginning of the “Machine Age”, the time period during when the Art Deco period began and flourished. Understandably, designers’ focus shifted drastically from romantic and whimsical themes to ones based largely on industrialization, technology and the future. That meant a change from graceful to bold, from curves to angles, from asymmetry to symmetry.
The new style first was seen in France just before the first World War and gained real traction in the 1920s. It was dubbed “Art Deco” in 1925, after that year’s International Exposition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts held in Paris gave the world its first major look at the artistic approach – although the term wasn’t commonly accepted as a stylistic description until 40 years later. The late ’20s and early ’30s were the heyday of Art Deco, although it lingered until the end of World War II when the design world entered what’s known as the Retro Era.
The growing personal freedoms and innovation which were hallmarks of the “Roaring 20s”, along with the period’s pre-Depression free spending and dramatic changes in popular culture, also had impacts on Art Deco designers. From flappers to stock market booms, from speakeasies to talking movies, from jazz to Hemingway, it was an era of over-the-top partying, exploration, economic consumption and testing limits. That was the leitmotif which formed the cultural background of the Art Deco period, and the artwork, architecture and jewelry of the times all reflected the eclectic, daring and “anything goes” attitude prevalent at the height of the Art Deco era.
Austerities forced by the Depression and then World War II led to the decline and death of Art Deco for logistical emotional reasons; there was less money to spend on what was considered “excessive” design, and anything showy or luxurious was seen by many as inappropriate given prevailing economic conditions. Designs based on Art Deco principals continued to be produced into the 1940s, but the pieces created in the 1920s and ’30s remain the finest examples of the period’s works.
Art Deco Jewelry
There are two important caveats to remember when discussing art deco jewelry. First, not all pieces from the era were “Art Deco style”. Secondly, there were actually two different periods during the era: early Art Deco jewelry often showed graceful influences from earlier Art Nouveau styles, and later Art Deco pieces tended toward geometric shapes and austere designs.
That being said, there were many commonalities which defined the era. The use of color was dramatic; black and white was a favorite motif, as platinum or other white metals were dominant, diamonds or crystal were favored as stones, and black enamel or black stones like onyx were often used as accents. Many Art Deco pieces also included bold splashes of color through the use of colored gemstones alongside diamonds or crystal. Even in earlier period pieces which featured curves rather than straight lines, the representations were usually ovals or circles in keeping with the time’s focus on geometric shapes. Symmetry was important to Art Deco designers.
We’ve already mentioned the widespread use of platinum and diamonds in jewelry produced during this period. In addition to its bright white, lustrous look and modern feel, platinum was also favored because it was malleable, allowing designers to easily add all sorts of intricate geometric designs and patterns. (White gold was often substituted for platinum once the Depression began, because it was a more affordable option.) Both large diamond solitaires and small pavé diamonds were integral to the majority of Art Deco pieces, rectangular baguette cut diamonds were regularly used to add geometric sparkle to pieces, and the development of new cutting techniques meant that round brilliant stones could add extra flash to an Art Deco ring. However, there was also widespread use of colored gems. Precious rubies, sapphires and emeralds were most commonly seen, but many colored semi-precious stones were used as accent stones as well.
Other often-used materials during the era were pearls (as this was the period when cultured pearls were becoming quite common), enamel (often in red and black), and plastics (to satisfy the growing demand for over-the-top Art Deco costume jewelry).
The “anything goes” attitude of the era translated to the motifs used to design jewelry. In classic Art Deco pieces you may see classical designs borrowed from the ancient Greeks and Romans mixed with African-themed elements like elephant tusks and arrows. Asian symbols such as dragons can sit side by side with Egyptian symbols like sphinxes and pyramids (King Tut’s tomb was discovered in 1922 so interest in all things Egyptian was at an all-time high). And remnants of the earlier Art Nouveau movement can still be seen in the depiction of flowers and graceful animals. The only consistency in Art Deco motifs is that they’re quite inconsistent yet strangely beautiful.
Another major change from earlier periods defined the Art Deco period: dated items like cameos and hair combs were out, while showy long necklaces, pendants, flexible bracelets, double-clip brooches (which could be worn as one piece or separated into two) and ornate watches were in, along with the decorated cigarette cases and holders often seen as symbolic of the time. The most popular Art Deco piece of all, though, may have been the cocktail ring with an oversized center stone, as gala parties and balls were very much in vogue during the period. The boom in period rings meant that Art Deco engagement rings were seen everywhere. The focus on geometric shapes led to a surge in sales of diamonds with angular cuts like emerald, trillion and Asscher, to be used as the center stone of an Art Deco engagement ring.
Evaluating The Ring
Generally speaking, you use the same basic criteria to evaluate an antique Art Deco engagement ring or wedding ring that you would for any other ring; the actual value of the gemstones and precious metal, as well as the condition of the piece, are major components of a ring’s value. Be sure to get a full report on the stones before buying.
However, there are other subjective criteria which come into play as the workmanship, detail and style of a ring will also contribute to its overall worth. When considering an expensive Art Deco ring, your best bet is to have an authoritative and reliable appraisal done, since only an expert familiar with the period’s work and history will be able to tell you whether you are looking at a ring which is significant, or simply old. Most authentic Art Deco pieces will have a hallmark and maker’s mark on the inside, which establishes their legitimacy while also increasing their value. Unfortunately, some nations didn’t require those marks so their absence doesn’t guarantee that you’re looking at a knock-off or cheap period piece which was mass-produced. In that case, you’ll have to rely on expert opinions.
Buying Art Deco Rings
Experts say that the Art Deco period was the most influential era in jewelry design, eclipsing even Etruscan and Victorian styles. There have been a number of modern periods when interest in Art Deco jewelry has surged and the latest revival is in full swing today. That’s due in part to the renewed interest in all things antique, but also because parties attended by stylish flappers and speakeasies frequented by slightly shady yet very stylish women are often portrayed romantically in movies and on television. Many women feel drawn to the era’s rings, whether they want to own a formal Art Deco engagement ring or today’s equivalent of the period’s stunning cocktail rings.
There are two ways you can own an Art Deco ring today. One is to find a true Art Deco antique ring in a store specializing in vintage pieces, at auction, or online. The other is to purchase an Art Deco-inspired ring, designed in modern times but borrowing heavily from the styles of the 1920s and ’30s. Let’s take a look at each option in more detail.
We haven’t mentioned what might be the best way to discover a real treasure. Pieces from this era, including antique Art Deco engagement rings and wedding rings, are often considered valuable family heirlooms – as they should be. That means estate sales can be fruitful grounds for a search because families often don’t realize the value of jewelry in the estates they’ve inherited, or are simply in need of cash. Otherwise, you’ll need to haunt online sites, vintage stores and pawn shops in the hope that they happen to have Art Deco pieces available for sale. We say “haunt” because this jewelry sells extremely quickly; if you don’t find a piece soon after it arrives, it will likely be gone. A number of people have found their dream Art Deco ring on eBay, because there’s a special section there for Art Nouveau and Art Deco jewelry.
One important caution: know what you’re looking at before you buy it. There are many pieces being sold as antiques which were inspired by the Art Deco era but were really crafted during the 1980s, a time when the style was back in fashion. If you aren’t confident enough in your ability to know whether a piece is a legitimate antique Art Deco ring, you’re better off sticking with dealers who you can trust.
The final option for discovering Art Deco engagement rings is to attend estate jewelry shows or auctions, but be sure to bring your Platinum card with you. You can expect to pay a minimum of $2000 for a small, simple period piece and well over $10,000 for any sort of unsigned Art Deco ring. Elaborately-crafted, brand-name pieces often bring $1 million or more.
If you’re getting frustrated searching for an antique Art Deco engagement ring, or if they’re simply beyond your means, today’s designers offer enormous collections inspired by the look of true period pieces, and some allow you to choose your own specifications and stones. These antique-style Art Deco engagement rings usually feature diamond center stones cut in the designs popular in the 1920s for their geometric shapes or unique appeal, such as emerald cut, radiant cut or Asscher cut gems. Many will also have diamond pavé halo settings and/or diamond set shanks as well, with platinum or white gold shanks to match the predominant color used during the Art Deco era.
There are many other modern options inspired by antique Art Deco engagement rings, including the use of colored gems as side stones or accents, settings designed to show off bold, geometric shapes, or shanks which showcase fine, intricate scrollwork or filigree engraving. The hallmarks of Art Deco era jewelry were not only platinum, diamonds and gemstones, but the ostentation which came into play in both materials and design. That allows a bride to let her imagination run wild when creating her own perfect Art Deco engagement ring; after all, the best bridal jewelry captures the heart and soul of the bride. For any bride who wishes she had lived in the Roaring ’20s – or would at least like the option to visit from time to time – an Art Deco engagement ring, whether a true antique or a modern version, can be the perfect way to keep at least one foot anchored in that lavish era.