#12 The Retro era (1939 – 1950) – an era of patriotism and statement pieces

#12 The Retro era (1939 – 1950) – an era of patriotism and statement pieces

With the Art Deco era coming to an end in 1939, we’re slowly getting closer to the time we live in now. The Retro era is the period between 1939 and 1950, and while this may seem like a long time ago, almost all of us know a person who was already alive during that time! You might think that, especially since WWII took place during this period, the jewellery of this period was modest and small. But nothing is less true! Patriotism was an important theme in times of occupation and even jewellery was used to express this. Wonder how? Read our blog below and learn everything about this bold and colourful era!

A fusion of past and present
Just like the Art Deco era got its name from an art exhibition, another exhibition played an important role in the birth of the Retro jewellery style. In 1937, the International Exhibition of Arts and Techniques in Modern life took place in Paris. Like for the 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes, there were some rules for the pieces that could be exhibited. However, it wasn’t allowed to refuse projects, except if they were clearly influenced by historical styles or nature. Despite this last remark, pieces with nature inspired motifs and decorative ornamentation were abundant and the new style for jewellery was born! In fact, the Retro jewellery style was a fusion of the past and present: the pieces often reflected a futuristic vision, like in Art Deco pieces, but with elements of preceding periods like the Art Nouveau period. This fusion of styles resulted in a wide variety of jewellery designs to choose from. A Retro piece of jewellery could be geometric and modern, but romantic pieces with floral motifs were also very much in vogue.
The general jewellery style of the era was bold, colourful and elaborate and pieces were often large and futuristic statement pieces. This was partly the case because women had started wearing more serious, masculine clothing like tailored suits. This ‘heavier’ clothing style required heavier jewellery styles as well. Large stones were highly desired and special illusion settings were used to make the stone appear even larger. The pieces did often resemble the geometric jewellery of the Art Deco era, but a major difference was that Art Deco pieces were usually flat, and Retro pieces were three-dimensional.

A need to be creative with gold and semi-precious gems
It was for the first time in decades that not platinum but gold was the most popular material for the creation of jewellery. This wasn’t the case because of aesthetic considerations, but because WWII had started. During WWII, platinum was used in the war effort and sometimes even forbidden to be sold, so jewelers made the switch to gold, or sometimes palladium. Because there was also a limited supply of gold, jewelers did their best to make the most out of the available gold. Because of this, low karat gold alloys with lots of copper were popular, which resulted in gold with a reddish hue. Sometimes, one piece of jewellery could even contain multiple shades of gold. Specific styles like thick ‘snake chains’ were used to create a chunky look without requiring much gold. Sometimes even only thin sheets of gold were used and backed with a non-precious base metal. This way, the pieces still looked big, but little gold had to be used.

Like platinum and other precious metals, gemstones were scarce during the Retro era. This was the case because the flow of gemstones from countries like South Africa, and India was intermittent or sometimes even nonexistent. As a result, semi-precious stones or even synthetic gemstones were often used in new jewellery designs. Gemstones such as citrine, amethyst, and aquamarine appeared in various shapes and hues. It wasn’t uncommon for these gems to be exceptionally large, since this matched the bold style of the time. Since precious stones like diamonds and rubies of a significant carat weight were extremely scarce, pavé and invisible settings were the preferred settings, because they allowed for the creation of a more massive looking piece from a collection of smaller stones. Especially Van Cleef & Arpels’ invisible setting is a true hallmark of the Retro period. Before WWII, it was common to pair diamonds with coloured stones to create graduated colour changes across a piece of jewellery, but after the onset of the war, diamonds were often left out. Sometimes enamels were used to accentuate the gemstones that were used and create the bold and bright designs that were so popular at the time.

Patriotism and ballerina’s
How can one express patriotism in times of war and occupation? By wearing the right jewellery! During the Retro era, patriotism formed a new inspiration for jewellery design, a famous example of which is the “Bird in a Cage” that Cartier displayed in their shop window during the German occupation. After the liberation, they replaced this piece with a new piece: the “Bird at the Door of its Cage”. Likewise, Boucheron contributed to this patriotism jewellery style with miniature French landscapes and figural brooches in regional costumes.
Not only Cartier’s caged bird was a very popular jewellery design, but so were various other birds. The creation of realistic birds was a specialty of multiple jewelers at the time, like for example Mauboussin and Van Cleef & Arpels. These birds were often adorned with large amounts of gemstones and enamel. Another popular Retro design in which as many coloured gems were used as in these birds, was the famous Van Cleef & Arpels ballerina clip. This design featuring a ballerina wearing a gem-set costume was immensely popular and soon imitated by a lot of other jewelers.


Like we explained before, another feature that a lot of Retro jewellery had in common, was the large size of the pieces. Big and bold rings were very popular and were often adorned with many coloured gemstones. These rings were also referred to as cocktail rings, since their exceptionally large size made them more suitable to wear only to a special occasion, like a cocktail party. In terms of size, Retro earrings were not far behind on the rings: they often came in the form of big clip-ons. Various earring designs were in vogue, ranging from floral motifs to large, individual step-cut gemstones. As women’s clothing styles became more masculine, there was a desire for accessories that provided a feminine touch. Brooches with elegant gem-set designs like bows and flowers appeared to the perfect solution and were created by multiple jewelers. Like in the preceding eras, convertible jewellery was still very popular, of which the clip brooch is an example. A clip brooch was made up of two small clips that could be connected to form one brooch or worn separately. Often, these clips were even designed to attach to a bracelet, necklace, or other piece. This was a great solution to make the most out of your jewellery, since resources were so sparce.

So, do you wonder if Retro jewellery is something for you? Are you a lover of big, geometrical designs? Then a Retro piece can be the perfect piece for you! Or do you prefer romantic, floral designs? Then a Retro piece might suit you as well! So, what we’re trying to say here, is that because of the unique fusion of past and present that took place during the Retro era, there is an enormous range of Retro designs to choose from, which makes Retro jewellery suitable for almost everyone. Take a look at our Retro section to see the variety of jewellery styles and find your perfect piece!

“Enjoy your search through the wonderful world of Retro jewellery and don’t hesitate to contact us if you need any advice!” -xxx- Sophie

Leave a comment

  • Diana

    Regular price $1,087.00 USD
    Regular price $1,647.00 USD Sale price $1,087.00 USD
  • Regular price $418.00 USD
    Regular price Sale price $418.00 USD