I left off with the emergence of the art nouveau era in the late 1800s. This was a fabulous time to be alive. Jewelry not only had color, but flamboyance with class. Goldsmiths and jewelers such as Fabergé, Tiffany and Cartier were in their heyday; they could not make extravagant pieces of jewelry fast enough.
Everyone has heard about the Fabergé eggs created by Peter Carl Fabergé, commissioned by Czar Alexander III in 1885 to create the first very expensive Easter egg for his queen, “The Hen Egg.” More than fifty different designs would then follow, each more priceless that the rest. In fact, the world’s most expensive Fabergé egg that was previously unknown was found in a flea market here in the U.S.A., and its value is placed at $33 million. Not bad for $13,000, and the guy was going to sell it for scrap gold!Charles Lewis Tiffany oversaw the design of thousands of nouveau pieces that today fetch high prices at auctions and fine antique dealers, and procured many magnificent diamonds for his wealthy clientele.
Meanwhile in Paris, the Cartier family also kept pretty busy supplying exquisite jewelry to Europe’s crème de la crème. The founder, Louis-Francois Cartier created the first man’s wristwatch, “The Santos.” His son Alfred took over the company in 1898, and it was his sons who made Cartier what it is today.
Diamonds became very popular with high society (the larger the better) and were very expensive even then, and Cartier and Tiffany’s could deliver. Only very small “chips” that were in fact crudely faceted diamonds, were affordable to the average worker. This was a time of elaborate Tiffany gold pieces created with diamond and colored enamel combinations. Fairies, butterflies and angels were popular themes. I truly wish I was around and working in a Tiffany goldsmith shop during this time period.
It was also a renaissance for men’s jewelry, such as hand carved diamond rings, cufflinks, stickpins and exquisite pocket watches with chains and fancy watch fobs that were hung from the chain as accents with the watch. Part of a gentleman’s outfit could also include solid gold or platinum cigarette cases and money clips. If you were a gentleman named “Diamond Jim Brady,” you were the King of Bling back then. Diamond Jim owned thousands of diamonds; he wore them on his pocket watches, tie pins, shirt buttons, even the spats on his shoes were encrusted with the gems. He put diamonds on things never heard of. When he passed away in 1917 his jewelry alone was worth several millions back then.
Things in the jewelry business kind of went sideways, especially in Europe, with the war to end all wars, WWI. After the war, the nouveau style slowly morphed in to the Art Deco age, with a high point in 1925, especially in Paris, France that sponsored an international world’s art fair. The style of jewelry from there took on a streamlined, almost architectural look and was quite different from the preceding era. While not as flamboyant as its predecessor, the style was chic and beautifully made, and pieces from the top three mentioned above can still fetch a pretty penny. Just like today, there were inexpensive “knock offs” made of gold plated base metals that would mimic and even pass for the good stuff.
In the 1930s, while the film star bombshell Mae West was checking her coat in a ritzy restaurant, the hat check girl, seeing her now-exposed extravagant necklace, exclaimed “Goodness what diamonds!” Mae’s reply was, “Goodness had nothing to do with it!”
Next in the 1940s, WWII came and everything was rationed and in short supply, and glitzy gems were basically 1920s and ‘30s leftovers. I am sure most Brits refrained from wearing bling in crowded air raid shelters during the blitz.
Then came the fifties and sixties, folks like Elvis Presley and Liberace put the cha ching in bling. These guys loved jewelry, the flashier the better. In “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” Marilyn Monroe memorably sang “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend,” and she loved her diamonds in real life.
As the years progressed, extravagant bling was not just flaunted by movie stars and celebrities, but also by pimps and mobsters. Presently, music rappers, sports celebs and movie stars all seem to compete on who can wear the most outrageous (and sometimes darn ugly!) heavy pieces in platinum or gold, totally studded with hundreds of carats of diamonds. I guess it came down to, “My diamond is bigger than your diamond.” Send me back a hundred years, Mr. Wizard… when jewelry was created with style, beauty and grace, not like today – here’s some bling in your face.
Richard Alan is a designer/goldsmith plying his trade for nearly 50 years, and has been Marco’s Island Jeweler for 25 of them. He welcomes your questions and comments. He can be reached at 239-394-9275 or firstname.lastname@example.org.