Brave New World: developments in design from the Post War era to the 1970s

Justin Roberts, Jewellery Specialist, Historian and Lecturer, explores how the audacious 'New Look' in fashion broke with the geometricism of the 1930s and provided the catalyst for fresh jewellery designs

Left: Design for Oiseau en cage, 1942, Cartier | Right: Oiseau liberé, 1944, Cartier

On 25th August 1944 the German garrison surrendered Paris to the Allied Command and the following day saw a victory parade through the streets to celebrate the defeat of the occupation. In the same year, to commemorate France’s liberation, Jean Toussaint, Cartier’s Creative Director, created her iconic brooch designed as a bird in an open cage, poised for flight, representing Liberty, Fraternity and Freedom.

This symbolic jewel was created after Toussaint had produced a similar piece in 1942, at the height of the occupation, where a caged bird represented the imprisoned and suppressed French nation, steadfastly resisting their German aggressors. The red, white and blue of the released bird fittingly represented the national colours of France, Great Britain and the United States. By popular demand, a new era in jewellery design was ushered in, characterised by a bright palette and a sense of playfulness – in reaction to the long, grinding years of the War, austerity and rationing.   

Christian Dior's silk shantung and pleated wool 'Bar Suit' from his Spring-Summer 1947 collection | Denver Art Museum, USA

Christian Dior presented his first haute couture collection, named ‘Corolle’, in Paris in February 1947. At the end of the show, the Editor-in-Chief of Harper’s Bazaar, Carmel Snow, enthusiastically exclaimed: ‘It’s quite a revolution, dear Christian! Your dresses have such a new look’. The name stuck, and thereafter Dior himself used the term ‘New Look’ to define his own, widely imitated style, of the years from 1947 to 1952. He used an extravagant quantity of fabric combined with an emphasis on ultra-feminine silhouettes  which moved away from the severe, masculine look of the Art Deco era and the years of severity that were to follow. In outline Dior harked back to the decadence of the 18th century with swathes of material reminiscent of the gowns of the Ancien Régime and the crinoline dress of the Victorians, but with a modern interpretation.

A spectacular necklace created by Van Cleef & Arpels, 1949. It encapsulates all the distinguishing features of 1950s high jewellery: a lavish display of diamonds, white metal setting, and a fluid and feminine design.
The necklace can be worn in a smaller format by detaching the lateral ribbon bow, which, in turn, can be worn as a brooch with or without the tassels and pear-shaped drops. The two pear-shaped diamond drops, weighing respectively 40.72 and 58.61 carats, can be worn as rings with the supplied mounts | Illustrated, David Bennett and Daniela Mascetti, Understanding Jewellery, (Antique Collectors' Club), plate 661, page 364

Jewellery design followed on from Jeanne Toussaint’s liberated bird brooch and also adapted to a more feminine ideal. Gone were the brutalist geometric forms of the 1930s, instead ribbons and bows, floral motifs and a softer asymmetrical outline found favour. Although war time restrictions continued and in spite of a heavy purchase tax on new jewels there was a still the desire to move away from the past and what it had come to represent.

A fine diamond brooch designed as a bow, Bulgari, 1950s, set with brilliant-cut and baguette diamonds. Universally popular in jewellery throughout the decade, asymmetrical knots and bows are very well represented in Bulgari production of the time in the form of brooches, earrings surmount and side elements of necklaces | Illustrated, Understanding Jewellery online, Introduction: 1940-1960

In England, purchase tax had been introduced in 1940 with the aim of removing wastage on raw materials and was initially levied at 33% but would increase with the degree of ‘luxury’, with jewellery inevitably being heavily taxed. As a result many old jewels were re-modelled and adapted. Brooches modelled as floral bouquets tied with gem-set bows were  widely seen, fashioned in diamonds and coloured stone alongside the warmer hues of gold.

A diamond brooch by Van Cleef & Arpels, circa 1950. Note the fluidity of the looped ribbon design | Illustrated, David Bennett and Daniela Mascetti, Understanding Jewellery, (Antique Collectors' Club), plate 713, page 387

A natural pearl and diamond brooch, Van Cleef & Arpels, Paris, 1950s. A brilliant interpretation of the floral cluster and tassel motif and a very feminine jewel | Illustrated, David Bennett and Daniela Mascetti, Understanding Jewellery The 20th Century, (Antique Collectors' Club, published 2021), page 160

To some degree these advances highlighted the slow evolution in stylistic change that could be traced back to the late 1930s. One of the most significant examples of these developments was the larger-than-life floral ‘Hawaii’ brooch from 1938 commissioned by the Duke of Windsor for the Duchess of Windsor from Van Cleef & Arpels. At 8 inches in length it was the largest piece from Van Cleef’s signature collection ever produced, set with 24 blue and yellow sapphires weighing in total over 100 carats.

A gem set and enamel brooch, 'Bouquet Dentelle', Van Cleef & Arpels, Paris, 1945. A very influential design that was much imitated by many contemporary jewellers | Illustrated, David Bennett and Daniela Mascetti, Understanding Jewellery The 20th Century, (Antique Collectors' Club, published 2021), page 157

The brooch was immortalised by the artist Gerald Brockhurst (1890-1978), appointed by the Duke in 1939 to paint a portrait of the Duchess wearing the brooch. The painting was later to hang in Government House, Nassau. Mysteriously, the Duchess was only ever seen wearing the brooch in public twice, and on both occasions in the Bahamas. Soon after the brooch seems to have disappeared never to re-surface, although it is possible that the Duchess had it remodelled later.

Gerald Brockhurst's portrait of the Duchess of Windsor wearing her Van Cleef & Arpels 'Hawaii' brooch, 1939

Nevertheless the ‘Hawaii’ brooch heralded the move away from the era we were later to label Art Deco, to a more whimsical naturalism in jewellery design. The ‘New Look’ was already brewing at the end of the 1930s, however the rigours of the second World War made its application more profound, this was not just a stylistic change but a marked break with the pain of the recent past and emblematic of the yearning for a positive future.

A sapphire and ruby necklace/bracelet/clip combination, 'Passe-Partout', Van Cleef & Arpels, circa 1940. Note the gold tubular linking and the detachable flowerhead brooches | Image: Sotheby's

The jewellers Van Cleef & Arpels were in the vanguard of the ‘New Look’, embracing the dynamism of the multi-coloured 1940s and 50s. Various ingenious creations stemmed from the adoption of the design of the gas pipe. The humble flexible metal and rubber pipe, used to feed gas into the home, was the basis for a new range of colourful jewels in the 1940s – a confident demonstration of the ability to create and the acceptance of high end jewels informed by mass produced, domestic conduits. Modelled in gold, the gas pipe’s fluidity was deployed in necklaces and coiled bracelets, facetted by gem-set floral clasps, and easily convertible to brooches and ear clips.

Left: A gold wristwatch, Bulgari, 1970s, a variation of the popular snake bracelet-watch on a sleek coil of flattened gas-pipe linking | Right: A gold 'Tubogas' choker, Bulgari, 1980s. By the 1980s they had become an iconic Bulgari motif, wrapped around the arm in the form of bracelet-watches or encircling the neck in single or multiple rows, as in this example
Both jewels illustrated, David Bennett and Daniela Mascetti, Understanding Jewellery The 20th Century, (Antique Collectors' Club, published 2021), pages 240 and 273

Such was the familiarity of the gas pipe tubular linking – a style that dates back to the 19th century – that it retained its usefulness throughout the ensuing decades. It was adopted by Bulgari in their ‘Tubogas’ range, first introduced in the 1970s – the name literally translates as gas pipe – and it became an icon of 1980s fashion and retains its popularity today: the acknowledgement that industrial products can demonstrate their own attractive aesthetics too.