While in most areas, including fashion, Retro might refer to nostalgia for the recent past, this is not exactly what we refer to when we talk about Retro jewelry. In the world of jewelry, there is a different meaning to the word. Retro jewelry has a unique, recognizable style of its own.
Like everything in the world, it grew from and relates to what went before (the Art Deco era), but it makes its own unique statement. Also, like everything else, it reflected the world at that time, so we cannot ignore the historical and social environment that produced Retro jewelry.
The Retro era broadly falls between the 1940 and 1980's. We must therefore refer to Retro jewelry as 'vintage' and not 'antique' jewelry because it is not yet 100 years old.
The Retro era can be divided into 2 distinct periods. Not only on a time-line, but stylistically, there are differences in Retro earrings of the 1940 and 50's and those that came after 1960.
The Retro period opened during World War II, which influenced availability of materials and taste for at least 5 years and most of the first decade of the period. Yellow gold was used while platinum was reserved for military needs. Many women went to work for the first time and became a growing force to be reckoned with. Now, women had needs and wishes that could and would be fulfilled.
This was the age of Hollywood Glamour in its truest sense. Film stars shone, glittered and glowed. Today, it's difficult to conceive of the levels of glamour and decadence in the lives of celebrities, many of whom are largely forgotten by most people, today. These people were not shy about showing off their new-found wealth and status. This is where 'bigger is better' really came into its own as a driving concept. Over-the-top, lavish jewels screaming opulence and celebrity status were emulated in costume by the working girls who couldn't afford the real thing.
It was during this period that Costume Jewelry became very popular. While few of us can afford the exceptional jewelry worn by the mega-wealthy, Retro jewelry in costume materials is widely available as it was truly made for the masses. It is often of a great quality, very lovely and highly affordable. Designers also used costume jewelry to make a fashion statement when they could as easily have designed only in fine gems and valuable materials.
As the world calmed down after WWII, there was growing prosperity, especially in the USA. Every suburban housewife expected to own at least some nice jewelry.
It was at this time that so many of the best designers from Europe made their names, big time, in the USA. Designers such as Jean Schlumberger who worked for Tiffany, Raymond Yard and Verdura. These jewelry designers were so famous that they themselves became part of the jet set and best of friends with the rich and famous.
In addition to jewelers, a number of famous artists lent their hand to designing and making jewelry. Names such as Picasso, Alexander Calder and George Braque, more recognizable as painters, also designed jewelry.
During this early part of the Retro period, a number of rich and famous women added to their renown by putting together fabulous jewelry collections. These women were no passive collectors, but worked hand in glove with designers and influenced what was made and that filtered down to every level of popular jewelry. Such women as Wallace Simpson and Elizabeth Taylor will not be forgotten in the world of jewelry. It was Wallace Simpson (like her or not), who began the craze for panthers in jewelry and after that, almost every designer included a menagerie in his repertoire.
During the Retro era, there was a strong influence 'from the East' in both costume and fine jewelry. Ernle Bradford discusses this in his book on Four Centuries of Jewellery. Today, jewels with a Chinese flavor or made for the Chinese market are highly sought after.
Emerging from the Art Deco era, the Retro period could not help but draw and grow from those earlier decades. Indeed, it can be a little confusing when looking at a clearly archeologically influenced jewel. Many times we see incorrect attribution to the Deco era, when the earrings were actually made a while later. It is not difficult to distinguish between the periods: during the Art Deco period, jewelry was more delicate and finer. Retro jewelry, while also archeological and geometric in shape and form, was much stronger in design, with simpler lines and less fuss. Retro jewelry has a monumental quality which does not exist in the earlier and finer Deco era.
Earrings were very big and bold during this period. They usually had screw or clips to hold them in place.
Many earrings were made to sit on the ear lobe. Think Mabe pearls surrounded by accent diamonds or gold. When earrings were in the form of pendants, they were enormous and the mind boggles at how women actually wore such heavy weights on their ears. I think it was at this time that earlobes stretched down to women's knees, but by that time, they were really old, so they didn't care.
Yellow gold was the most commonly used metal as platinum was reserved for the war effort. Much gold used in Retro earrings of this earlier stage was molded in unusual surfaces: corrugated waves, pleats and folds added interest or formed the entire theme of the large earrings of the day.
Shapes included fans, bows, hoops, shells.
Brightly colored semi-precious stones were extremely popular. Aquamarines or citrines of enormous proportions adorned the fingers, lapels and lobes of wealthy women. Brightly colored tourmalines and other gems of lesser value were also incorporated by the best and most fashionable designers such from Verdura to David Webb.
The height of the Retro era in jewelry is probably the 1940's. This is the time of huge, glamorous statements.
The second part of the Retro period includes the years from 1960 to 1980. Jewelry from this period is often referred to merely as 'vintage', sometimes as Modern or Modernist jewelry with specific associations to those terms and also as 'Mid Century American', which is wildly popular with furniture and interior design enthusiasts.
The 1960's Age of Aquarius - the decade conjures up memories of the space race and social unrest in a wealthy USA that was rushing ahead of the rest of the world in almost every sphere. Revolution in society, civil unrest and the psychedelic drug age with hippies and the love theme, expressed directly or indirectly in the jewelry worn during this time.
We are still within the definition of the Retro era, but jewelry took another course at this time.
Most notably, it regained sensible human proportions, shrinking to more realistic proportions.
Materials of all sorts were available, so there were less restrictions on jewelers during this time and the only limits were those imposed by the mind.
At this time, Retro jewelry was often sculptural in form; vintage jewelry influenced by kinetic and mobile art might have moving parts. The space age is reflected in rocket-like curves and projections. The hippy and psychedelic world echoed in concentric rings, swirls, dangly bits and words 'LOVE' and 'PEACE' expressed directly in one form or another.
We see bows, flowers and sprays, but with a difference - they swirl, they swing, they move and the burst forth, like rockets.
Natural materials became popular in high end jewelry. For example, there was a craze of wrapping sea-shells in gold and other precious metals. To this day, so-called Turbo Earrings with matching rings and brooches made by Seaman Schepps are avidly sought by fashion-conscious women. They were also made by other companies from Verdura to David Webb.
Indeed the idea of wrapping jewelry was popular and lots of jewelry was made with wires of gold and other metals encasing gems as in a gift-wrapped parcel.
While imitation and synthetic stones and paste have been used in jewelry for thousands of years, during the Retro period, many high end jewels included a mixture of natural and synthetic stones.
Let's not forget that costume jewelry was very popular during this time and a lot of costume jewelry was made in the Retro style. It is still widely available today and can be very reasonably bought.