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Three Key 20th Century Jewellery Movements You Need to Know About
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Three Key 20th Century Jewellery Movements You Need to Know About

Three Key 20th Century Jewellery Movements You Need to Know About

As you may have seen in our Lillicoco University guides, we cover a breadth of antique jewellery history, including Georgian, Victorian, Art Nouveau, Edwardian and Art Deco. But other than Edwardian and Art Deco, what other jewellery movements and styles were there in the 20th century? 

In the last 80 years, the artistic and jewellery community evolved to new stratospheric heights, with new technologies, materials and art schools becoming increasingly available for all backgrounds. Not to mention, there was a range of social and political movements which impacted creativity and inspiration, including the aftermath of the first and second World Wars, the second and third wave feminist movement, and the civil rights movement. These vintage wartime Vogue prints below illustrate the extent of which women and men's home life was impacted. 

It’s not just through consumer cultural commentators like Vogue that show the range of cultural change. You can also get just a glimpse by looking at the range of artistic movements, which impacted painting, sculpture, dress, literature and of course, jewellery design.

  • Expressionism
  • Fauvism
  • Cubism
  • Dadaism
  • Surrealism
  • Abstract Expressionism
  • Pop Art
  • Post Modernism

Within each movement artists explored and experimented with subject matter through their own personal lens and lived experiences, culminating in some of the greatest and most revered works of art and artists that we know today..... Salvador Dali, Pablo Picasso, Piet Mondrian, Frida Kahlo, Jackson Pollock, Georgia O-Keeffe, Francis Bacon, and Andy Warhol to name a few!

With this in mind, unlike the former eras, jewellery codes and fashions were not as rigid. There were two kinds of jewellery emerging on the scene, the experimental, sculptural and purely artistic kind, but also the mass-produced consumer culture kind.

The former was approaching and challenging the question “what is art” as well as engaging with the artistic movements above, whereas the latter was jewellery that was produced in cheap materials and manufactured widely, so people from all walks of life could wear glittering pieces. 

So, for the avid vintage jewellery collector, we decided to compile together three key 20th-century jewellery movements that we think you need to know about! Art and Modernist Jewellery, Surrealist Jewellery and Mid-Century Jewellery.

And next week, we will be exploring the jewellery trends of the 1970s, 80s and 90s, so stay tuned for these!

Art Jewellery and Modernist Jewellery

Art jewellery stemmed from the Arts and Crafts movement (1880-1920), a movement that rebelled against the Victorian industrial revolution using nature-inspired motifs. Today, Art jewellery is a term used to describe jewellery made by small independent studios and craftspeople rather than big brands. 

Art jewellery emphasises creative expression and artistic freedom and is stylistically characterised by a variety of materials, especially those of lower economic value. These are specifically used to counteract jewellery that is made from valuable materials, making us question - what is the inherent value of jewellery? 

Art Jewellery is linked to Studio jewellery, a movement that was sweeping England and America in the 20th century. Like Art jewellery, Studio jewellery is crafted from independent artists who handle chosen materials directly to create one of a kind or limited production jewellery. The jeweller is both the designer and the fabricator, and the work is created within a small private studio rather than a large factory. 

Sam Kramer Silver Lover's Brooch, c.1949, Source - Museum of Fine Arts Boston

Art jewellery was largely a critical movement, criticising the norms of preciousness surrounding the jewellery industry and the relationship between jewellery and the body. It was, and still is, perceived that the value of a piece of jewellery lies within its materials. In the 1960s, Art jewellers widely incorporated easily available and new materials like Acrylics and Aluminium into their designs which challenged jewellery’s historical role of being a status symbol and sign of wealth. 

Sam Kramer Silver Cuff Bracelet with Glass Taxidermy Eye, c.1950, Source - Museum of Fine Arts Boston

Art jewellery also challenged the concept of WHO would be wearing the jewellery. Up until this point, jewellery was largely exclusively worn by women rather than men, and played a key role in the dressing of upper-class women. Using cheaper materials and abstract shapes created a deliberately ambiguous piece that is both affordable and unisex. 

Margaret de Patta Silver Turquoise Pendant Necklace, c.1930, Source - Oakland Museum of California

One of the reasons why Art jewellery was so popular amongst jewellers is because it appealed to amateurs and those just starting out on their careers. To create Art jewellery, you only needed to invest in a few materials and tools and have a small space to work from, so it was attractive to those from all economic backgrounds. 

Despite originating from the British Arts and Crafts movement, there was a key distinction that separated Art jewellery from its predecessors. In our Liberty & Co Arts and Crafts movement blog, we detail that the Arts and Crafts movement revolved around uniting both art and labour, emphasising hand-making pieces rather than using machinery. It was the belief that the satisfying aspect of labour would ultimately create both a better piece and better person overall.

On the other hand, Art jewellery, especially in America, focused on uniting art and leisure. It was believed that the act of creating was a relaxing and recreational activity and was an antidote to life’s trials and tribulations.

Art jewellery evolved into Modernist jewellery, which originated in the 1940s, during and after World War II. There was plenty of fear and uncertainty during this period, from the atrocities of the war, to the trauma of the Holocaust, the fear of the bomb, the politics of prejudice based on race and class, and the sweeping effects of both industrialization and commercialism. Like Art jewellery, Modernist jewellery was created to celebrate the hand of the artist rather than the market value of the material. Modernist jewellery was so popular as it was an attractive concept amongst all of the uncertainty. Plus, these pieces were more affordable and a marker of personal identity.

Famous modernist jewellers included Margaret de Patta, Ed Weiner, Alexander Calder, Jacques Lipchitz and Richard Pousette-Dart. Each artist had their own take on the Modernist jewellery movement, incorporating styles from overlapping artistic movements like Cubism, Primitivism, Biomorphism, Futurism and Dadaism. 

During and after the 1960s, the Modernist jewellery movement snowballed. This was largely due to the promotion of jewellery making as physical therapy for World War II veterans as it strengthened arm muscles, improved physical coordination and helped with their mental concentration. This continued to provide a stimulus and funding for the arts by the governments, allowing its national continuation. 

Surrealist Jewellery

Surrealism was one of the most bizarre artistic movements of the 20th century. A visual feast for the senses, Surrealism emerged after World War I and was largely influenced by Dadaism, another avant-garde artistic movement. Deliberately provocative, Surrealist art sought to fuse uncommon imagery with illogical scenes and the everyday. According to Andre Breton’s Surrealist manifesto, the key characteristics of Surrealism were the liberating power of chance and unconsciousness in the creative process. Surrealism perfectly fused with the roar of the 1920s yet also contrasted with the inherent and old-fashioned rigid societal norms. With this in mind, Surrealism was one of the most revolutionary art movements in history. 


One of the most associated and well-known artists of this period is Salvador Dali. Not only did Salvador Dali make mind-bending art, but he also made Surrealist jewellery too. Dali completely turned jewellery on its head, challenging its relationship with the body. Dali’s first collection was crafted in a collaboration with Duke Fulco di Verdura who previously had worked with Coco Chanel. From this one collection, many more came to fruition. 

Each piece was one-of-a-kind, mechanical and was crafted from a myriad of glittering jewels and precious gemstones. For instance, one of the pieces was a Ruby encrusted brooch that was in the shape of a human heart, and with one slight motion, the piece would beat just like a heart itself. Another was a fully articulate starfish that would go limp when picked up but would cling to a wearer’s arm. To sum up, Dali’s jewellery style was explosively anthropomorphic; you could pin bejewelled eyes and mouths onto your dresses, scarves and blazers. 


However, Dali’s inclusion with the Surrealist movement did not last forever. In fact, he had been annexed by the Surrealists in the 1930s and 1940s, although his style is still included by revisionists. Dali rather viewed himself as a cross-disciplinary artist much like those in the Italian Renaissance. 


Interestingly, Dali’s jewellery was not well-received by critics. His pieces were reviled as his descent into commercialism, rather than pursuing true art. Yet, this never deterred Dali’s practises. In fact, he wrote, “to history, they will prove as objects of pure beauty, without utility but executed marvellously, were appreciated in a time when the primary emphasis appeared to be both utilitarian and the material”. 

Dali approximately made 40 pieces between 1941 and 1970, and these are wildly sought after by collectors and curators today. Although most are housed within the Salvador Dali museum. In May 2014, Sotheby’s sold one of his most famous pieces the “Eye of the Time” brooch for a staggering $1,055,000. 

It wasn’t just Salvador Dali who created Surrealist jewellery, other modernist artists including Meret Oppenheim, Max Ernst and Man Ray also dipped their toe into metalwork. The idea of “chance” translated into loose fluid doodle-like designs that could be worn as necklaces, brooches, belts and earrings. Surrealist jewellery also embraced unorthodox found materials, which transforms the piece as a whole. One of the most famous pieces was Meret Oppenheim’s fur bangles which inspired her  “fur breakfast” (1936) assemblage artwork. 

Meret Oppenheim collaborated with Elsa Schiaparelli, one of our jewellery influencers through time. Schiaparelli's designs quickly made her the face of modernity, and she was especially successful after the first World War. However, after the second World War Schiaparelli struggled to keep up with Paris fashions, especially with the dominance of Christian Dior’s “New Look”. In her time Schiaparelli made few but standout novelty costume jewellery, as well as creating unusual fastenings within her dresses. Her most famous piece of jewellery was a 1938 Rhodoid clear necklace that was studded with metallic insects, giving the look that bugs were crawling all over the wearer’s skin. Schiaparelli closed her business in 1954, yet in 2007 it was acquired by Italian businessman Diego Della Valle, and was formally revived in 2013 with the appointment of Marco Zanini as its principal designer. 


Most recently, in Paris Haute Couture Week 2020, jewellery was at the centre of Schiaparelli's collection. From Gold teeth and Pearl chokers, designed to mimic the Edwardian ruffled collar, to enamelled eye earrings, over the top rhinestone chandelier earrings, sculptural Gold glasses, and skeletal antique jewellery embellished gloves, Schiaparelli showed that it had not forgotten its original Surrealist roots.

Perhaps this is proof that surrealist jewellery is coming back? A hallmark of strange and uncertain times...

Mid-Century Jewellery 

Mid-century jewellery emerged in the 1950s and was rather a defined style than a “movement” per se, but it heavily impacted mid to late 20th-century design and shopping. 

Although Christian Dior’s “New Look” sadly brought the demise of Schiaparelli's brand in the 20th century, it catapulted a new jewellery style. Christian Dior’s “New Look” debuted in 1947, just two years after the Second World War. 

The "New Look" was considered to be an optimistic sign of the changing times, which was probably why it was so successful and integral to the history of fashion. This look contrasted with the strict austere rations and dress codes of the Second World War and the liberating fluid lines of the 1920s and 1930s fashion. His pieces were considered to be radical in their femininity, including cinched in jackets, padded hips, and a-line skirts. Rather than create practical clothes for the everyday woman, he sought to sell the dream of the “good old days” before the war where women could look and feel glamorous. Although these designs were abhorred by new wave feminists, they were still incredibly popular amongst all classes. Plus, the longer lengths of fabric were a sign for the end of government restrictions and unabashed indulgence. 

This elegant and old-worldly style inevitably trickled into the 1940s, 50s and 60s, jewellery. This jewellery style is called “mid-century” from a 1984 book called “Mid-century Modern: furniture of the 1950s”. This book showed that the go-to design of the times was elegant, clean and simplistic, which accorded with all tastes and all price points. With these two major influences, mid-century jewellery took two separate paths. Many established jewellery houses like Harry Winston, Cartier, Boucheron, Van Cleef & Arpels and Tiffany’s created jewellery that echoed traditional designs, with the emphasis on materials and gemstones. A far cry from the Arts and Modernist jewellery. 

On the other hand, there was also distinctly Modernist jewellery which was clean lines and geometric shapes. Costume jewellery was also very popular, which was dominated by large faceted or polished beads, cheaper materials, faux pearls, and new materials like Bakelite, Diamante and Lucite. One of the most pivotal and sought after gemstones were Swarovski’s Aurora Borealis gemstone, which was iridescent and sparkling. 

Mid-century rings were large and bold, which created the “cocktail” ring trend, a sign of people going out and enjoying drinks, dancing and leisure with jewellery to match. 


For casual every day, chunky Gold brooches and woven or twisted Gold chains were preferred. This voluptuous and bulbous look contrasted with the sharp architectural lines of Art Deco. On the other hand, for the evening, the “Diamond look” was highly fashionable. This was at the same time of the De Beer’s 1948 advertising campaign “Diamonds are Forever”, which made Diamond jewellery available for all price points. 



Jewellery designs were whimsical and overtly feminine, featuring flowers, animals and celestial starbursts. Van Cleef and Arpels iconic Ballerina jewellery is a prime example of this elegant yet quaint style. The cultural explosion of Hollywood cinema meant that many wanted to wear and emulate the styles of Hollywood actresses like Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelly, Marilyn Monroe, and Doris Day, these styles were sexy, glamorous, sophisticated and elegant. 


It was also this time period where women jewellers like Jeanne Boivin, Suzanne Belperron, Coco Chanel and Jeanne Toussaint became highly respected in their field. Their fine jewellery designs epitomised the glamorous aesthetic of Mid-Century jewellery. 

Overall, these 20th-century jewellery movements were catalysts for the fashion and cultural showstopper of the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. Jewellery was quickly becoming a stylistic hallmark of identity, as well as becoming a profession that all could access. Stay tuned for next week’s blog post where we uncover this more!

If you liked this blog post, why not check out these too? 

Let's Play Dress Up: A Guide to Costume Jewellery

Liberty & Co and the Arts and Crafts Movement

Women Jewellers Throughout History

Jewellery Influencers Through Time

That's all for now!

Love, Lillicoco xo


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