Art Moderne jewelry flourished in the years between World War I and World War II, when a group of artistic jewelry designers broke away from the status quo and started responding to the rapidly changing world around them. Inspired largely by the Machine Age — and specifically by the gears and bolts of industry — these designers specialized in “wearable art” for the middle class, as opposed to gemstone-embellished pieces for the very rich.
So it’s not surprising that Art Moderne jewelry is enjoying unprecedented popularity today. Almost a century after its debut, the industrial chic of Art Moderne appeals to our technology-obsessed society…and to collectors who can afford its relatively affordable prices.
Art Moderne Jewelry at Auction
An 18K Gold bracelet by artist Jean Després was one of several Art Moderne highlights at Sotheby’s New York Magnificent Jewels Sale on April 21, 2015. According to the auction house, “The highly polished design composed of delicately balanced geometric forms is as chic and modern today as it was upon its creation circa 1935.”
Sotheby’s reports: “Després worked to manufacture airplane parts and engines during World War I, and the impact of this experience is illustrated vividly in this piece. The convex hammered links joined by golden columns are centered by alternating baton and floret-shaped decorations, calling to mind the propellers and wings of an aircraft.
The Art Moderne bracelet by Deprés was estimated at $75,000 to $85,000; it fetched $125,000 at the Sotheby’s sale.
A Brief History of Art Moderne Jewelry
At the 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoritfs et Industriels Modernes in Paris, a watershed cultural event, it became clear that jewelry design was undergoing an immense change. While large jewelry houses such as Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels, and Boucheron were busy displaying pieces with Far Eastern motifs, a small group of artist/jewelers were tapping into their local European surroundings for inspiration.
Gérard Sandoz, Jean Fouquet and Raymond Templier were the leaders of this group, creating pieces that favored artistic design over fancy materials. The silver cigarette case by Sandoz shown above, for instance, features bold geometric motifs of shifting gears and engine parts. In 1929 these three pioneers formed the Union des Artistes Moderne, and Art Moderne jewelry began to take off.
Throughout the 1930s the larger jewelry houses took note of Art Moderne’s rising popularity and incorporated the movement’s populist motifs into their collections. What started as a departure from the traditions of the established jewelry firms was mainstreamed by the leading houses by 1940.
What to Look For
According to the experts at Sotheby’s, Art Moderne pieces are known for their “bold nature, their use of unexpected materials and their allusions to modern society.” If Art Deco jewelers were masters of gemstones, Art Moderne designers celebrated form — molding and twisting metal in ways that were reminiscent of factory fabrications.
Designers of this period were not as concerned with the intrinsic value of their work as they were about making a statement. Today, savvy collectors value both the bold designs and the rapidly increasing value of Art Moderne period jewelry.