How The Art Deco Movement Shaped Contemporary Jewellery As We Know It | Verve Magazine
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April 30, 2020

How The Art Deco Movement Shaped Contemporary Jewellery As We Know It

Text by Anandita Bhalerao

In conversation with Marie-Cécile Cisamolo, jewellery specialist at Christie’s in Geneva, on the lasting impact of Art Deco jewellery

Art Deco, an art and design movement that originated in France shortly before World War I, is widely known for its contributions to the field of architecture, with Mumbai being home to the world’s largest collection of Art Deco buildings. Few are familiar with its lasting influence on jewellery. The movement derives its name from the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes (International Exposition of Decorative Arts and Modern Industries), which took place in Paris in 1925. The exhibition was the first to showcase Art Deco jewellery by master jewellers such as Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels, Raymond Templier and Fouquet. Jewellery from this period broke the rules of everything that came before it, from the introduction of colour to sleek, geometric designs.

In a webinar conducted by Christie’s earlier this month, Marie-Cécile Cisamolo, jewellery specialist at the Geneva office, charted the various periods of Art Deco jewellery: the shift towards abstraction, Orientalism, Egyptomania or Egyptian Revival, and Modernism. A lawyer by profession, Cisamolo fell in love with art history as a child vacationing in Greece and Turkey with her parents every summer. “I had the opportunity to learn about the Greek and Egyptian cultures for 4-5 months every year. After I finished my law studies, I realised that this didn’t have to be just a passion, it could be part of my work”. After years of experimentation, she chanced upon her true love, gemology, when an opportunity arose as an administrator in the jewellery department at Christie’s, London, where she was working at the time. In 2015, she moved to the Geneva office as a cataloguer. Below, she discusses Art Deco jewellery’s Indian connect, the makings of a muse, and how contemporary designers keeping the Art Deco spirit alive.

If you had to pick two pieces of jewellery symbolic of the Art Deco movement, what would they be?

That’s a tough one! I’d say first of all would be—quite easily for me—the Georges Fouquet pendant. To me, that’s striking Art Deco — clean lines, emerald, onyx, diamond, boom! Also, it was presented in 1925 Exposition des arts décoratifs in Paris, the exhibition that literally gave its name to the Art Deco Movement. The second piece I would choose would be the Tutti Frutti Daisy Fellowes necklace that was created by Cartier. It’s important because it’s been remade several times according to her desires, and that shows that jewellery is always moving and changing with the times.

What made a woman like Daisy Fellowes a muse for jewellery designers at the time? How much value did they add to the jewellery?

I’m really passionate about the ladies from the Art Deco period—Daisy Fellowes, Coco Chanel, Elsa Schiaparelli—that played muse to jewellery designers. I like to close my eyes and imagine them. Usually, they were aristocratic people because they had money, and for jewellery you have to have money, as simple as that (and unfortunately for the poor person). They also had to be educated and forward-looking people. At the beginning of the 20th century women were supposed to stay at home and learn how to sew clothes, get married, have babies, and that was it. Well, that’s not the people jewellery was made for. The people that jewellery was made for went out, got drunk, partied in jazz clubs, learnt about progressive literature. And of course, those were the people Coco Chanel was making dresses for. The ones who had the opportunity not to work—to study, read literature, go to the theatre. And this group of the intelligentsia was who jewellery was really created for. As for the value they added, jewellery for some people is provenance and history, and for others, it’s only stones. For the people that value the stone above all else, that it comes from Princess Margaret or the Queen of Sheba does not make any difference, they will break it apart and use the stone in it. But there are also those, like me, who are truly passionate.

Why is tracing the history of these people so important to understanding the jewellery?

Jewellery is a decorative art, so in everyday life it is treated as a luxury. It differs from a painting or a piece of furniture in that sense. Jewellery is very emotional, since it always has to be worn by someone — it’s not something you put in the corner of the room and cover up if it doesn’t please you. And then, particularly for the Art Deco period, jewellery was created for one person in particular. So it’s definitely important to have the provenance and connect it to the people who it was made for. It’s like being a detective, tracing its origin and history. Provenance also adds value, which is important for our business. The best example of that is the Elizabeth Taylor auction, where you had a pair of diamonds called the Ping Pong diamonds that were supposedly bought by Richard Burton after losing a game of ping pong to Elizabeth Taylor. It was worth 7000 dollars during the auction and ended up selling for 300,000 dollars because of the fact that it was bought by Richard Burton.

What can today’s designers learn from them about creativity, experimentation and originality?

The Modernists were crazy inventive. Think about the mix of culture that tutti frutti jewellery brought about. It’s so important to value other people’s culture even if it may seem strange to us. You always make magic when you mix cultures—it can take some time and it’s not perfect immediately, but when it’s magic, it lasts forever. And that’s tutti frutti and Egyptian revival. I’m very partial to Modernist jewellery from the Art Deco period precisely because the jewellery that was created in 1929 by Raymond Templier or Georges Fouquet is avant-garde even nowadays. And it will be the same in 10 or 20 years, because they were drawing so far out of the margins.

We have some amazing contemporary jewellers, and my favourite is Viren Bhagat, who is based in Mumbai. What he does is he takes inspiration from his own culture. And what you need for contemporary jewellers nowadays is obviously, to have a knowledge of history, but also, and perhaps more importantly—you need to work with something that’s close to your heart. And that’s why it worked for Modernist jewellery. They were in the mid-1920s and thought no one was paying attention to them, so they went ahead and developed jewellery that was close to their hearts. Viren Bhagat is from a family of jewellers in Mumbai. He’s developed something that’s brilliant and is going to stand the test of time, because you can tell that it’s close to his heart and he’s gone back to his roots for inspiration.

For contemporary jewellers, of course there’s going to be some inspiration from the Art Deco Movement because it’s the most important Movement, whether it’s the Modernist tutti fruity or Egyptian Revival. But I think most importantly it’s an art and it’s emotional – it needs to be inspired by something that speaks to you. And if you are passionate about—I don’t know, Peru, for example, and you start to make jewellery that is inspired by Mayan jewellery, I think, and I want to believe that if you are talented this will pass the test of time, even if this hasn’t been done before.

What does borrowing from cultures look like when the world itself seems to have become one amorphous culture because of globalisation?

It’s funny that you say that, because I was asking myself the same question. Globalisation has made everyone so blasé about going to the other end of the world for a week, whereas at the time, jewellery carried a little piece of a foreign culture that was perhaps inaccessible to many of its wearers. But what’s happening now is people are travelling back in history. One of the most famous examples is from the 80s, the Monete by Bvlgari, where they used an ancient coin in their jewellery. These days there are many more contemporary designers using history and historic artefacts in a way that is very, very modern, because history is accessible to anyone. The change has been really interesting to see.

Regarding the Asian influence you mentioned, who were the Indians who had an impact on Art Deco jewellery?

At the beginning of the century, all the Indian royals travelled to Europe to be educated, often in England. But they also stayed in Paris and the South of France quite a lot. If I had to choose, the Maharaja of Indore is my absolute favourite. He was the most stylish man I’ve ever seen. Even now, the palace contains so much Art Deco furniture. When you see you have people like Coco Chanel, for me, the Maharaja of Indore is right there with them — as important for Art Deco jewellery.

There’s also the Maharaja of Bikaner that worked a lot with Boucheron, and the Maharaja of Patiala obviously. There’s the Maharani of Baroda who I would be absolutely in love with!—she was well known for her pearls. She moved to Europe at the end of her life, and there’s a funny story. One of the most expensive pink diamonds ever sold is called the ‘Princie’. And it’s called the Princie because she was a patron of Van Cleef & Arpels, and she was at the opening exhibition in Paris at their shop, when they mentioned that they didn’t have a name for the diamond, and she said “Why don’t you call it Princie, the name of my son?” And that’s what they did!

The French jewellers at the time went to seek them out, because they had the money. And just as nowadays, as you know, if you want to do business and make a lot of money, you go towards China—or at least you did before this pandemic—you go where the market is. And then, the Maharajas fell in love with Art Deco jewellery and started commissioning designers at the French maisons, but it was the other way around to begin with. We courted the Indians.

“It’s less about what the jewellery reflects to other people, but it’s more about what you want the jewellery to show of yourself.” Do you think that this new conception of jewellery brought about in the Art Deco period influenced future generations of designers and wearers as well? 

Absolutely. It freed the world. Before, if you had an event and the queen was present, you had to wear a tiara. So if you owned a tiara, it meant that you had been in the presence of the Queen. But this is not something that people on the street could see, it only between a small circle of people. From the Art Deco period, people started wearing jewellery with a purpose. And the purpose could be as simple as, “I’m going to have fun. With my short hairdo and jazz music and dangling earrings”—even though they were considered a sign of promiscuity at the time. With the explosion of colour and more playful designs like birds and flowers, the Art Deco period made jewellery wearable for anyone and everyone. And obviously when new material like plastic was invented—I think if Art Deco hadn’t happened, maybe there wouldn’t have been costume jewellery as we know it. That’s why it’s so important to people as well, because you start out wearing costume jewellery from H&M or Zara, and then you get interested and think,  “Oh, maybe I could get the real stuff.” And people always go back to Art Deco, because once you study jewellery, this is where you realise it all started.

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