Two hundred years ago the English poet and playwright Colley Cibber commented “One had as good be out of the world as out of fashion.” That’s a little extreme, but being fashionable is a feel-good thing.
Jewelry is fashion. Like all fashions it expresses the time and place in which it was made. Jewelry can also be fun, fabulous, fanciful, fascinating: you get the picture. And unlike many other expressions of fashion, fine jewelry doesn’t wear out or lose its intrinsic value. Great-grandmother’s gold bangle bracelets, unlike her bustle, are highly wearable today.
Periods of rapid change such as we are experiencing right now can be exhilarating. They can also create anxiety that makes us nostalgic for the past. One response is the renewed interest in antique and vintage jewelry.
This is why pre-World War II jewelry, especially Georgian, Victorian, Edwardian and Art Deco pieces are increasingly sought-after. Scarcity, as well as individuality of design and workmanship, gives older jewelry a distinctive personality lacking in more recent mass-market creations.
As a bonus, the colored stones in antique and vintage jewelry are much less likely to have been artificially enhanced. The use of heat, radiation and chemical treatments to improve color and clarity became common after the 1950s. Strong natural color, especially in emeralds, sapphires and rubies so much in vogue today, considerably increases value.
The unisex trend in society and fashion in general continues in jewelry, too. One crossover item is the watch chain. Instead of being draped across gentlemen’s waistcoats, paper clip and curb fob chains are winding around women’s necks and wrists. The trend for wearing multiple and longer chains is bringing these heirloom pieces back into the spotlight.
Repurposing and recycling have become an important part of contemporary living. These ideas find their reflections in fashions in jewelry. Combine several vintage pins on a lapel or neckline, or place an antique brooch in an unexpected place, such as at the waistline or the back of the neck (a great look on the dance floor).
Then there is the fashion for what might be termed the multiplier effect. A single pretty ring with a modest stone is,well, a single pretty ring. A stack of three or four or more is a fashion statement.
The same can apply to earrings. As piercings multiply, they offer more scope for displaying beautiful ear wear. The bonus here? If you lose a treasured earring, you can still wear the orphaned item.
Though “fashionisto” is less in vogue than fashionista, men are fashion-forward, too. The current event for men’s fashion in jewelry is undoubtedly the wristwatch, an accessory that’s both practical and eye-catching. The micro-second accuracy of a smartphone can never replace the casual elegance of an heirloom Nivada or Wakmann timepiece.
The continuing trends in men’s watches are another proof that what’s old is new, or at least newly desirable. The quartz revolution started in the 1950s with the development of electronic movements that enabled mass-production of extremely accurate battery-powered quartz watches. Many Swiss watch companies failed to adapt and went out of business. Their finely crafted mechanical watches, especially their complex, highly accurate chronographs, are fashionable again today. Vintage “tool” or sport watches from the pre-quartz and pre-digital eras are favorites, especially when they still have their original dials and mechanical parts.
At its best, jewelry is also art in a personal and portable form. Many famous figures whose work is usually associated with the fine arts also created notable jewelry. A painting by Picasso or Salvador Dali or a sculpture by Max Ernst or Alexander Calder is out of reach for most people. It is still possible, however, to find artful adornments created by these iconic figures, at a fraction of the price of their larger and better-known pieces.
Fashion is always changing; that’s what makes it fashion. But fortunately, fashion in jewelry is self-renewing, too. What’s old eventually becomes what’s new, and now is the time when many of the liveliest and loveliest old fashions in jewelry are shining again.
This piece was written by Skinner New York Regional Director, Katie Banser-Whittle, for WAG Magazine in 2020.