Necklaces are one of the most ubiquitous forms of ornamentation in the world today and throughout history. Universal popularity has brought variety of design and widespread demand making necklaces some of our most valuable possessions.
Necklaces are worn for all sorts of purposes – for ritual, for displays of wealth, for allegiance, for fashion and to symbolise relationships. Necklaces have a real, emotional history to them.
Modern jewellery design was born at the turn of the 20th century with one of the most recognisable styles: Art Nouveau. Some very important names (and not just in the jewellery world) began making jewellery in this period, such as Louis Comfort Tiffany and René Lalique, and necklaces were amongst their favourite pieces to design.
Art Nouveau necklaces, like other forms of jewellery, placed silver front and centre with enamel, pearls and semi-precious stones being utilised for decoration. Natural forms were embraced by the movement as a whole; in sculpture his often meant the female form whereas in jewellery it often meant baroque pearls and a colour palette of blues and greens. Larger pieces like pendants allowed designers more freedom to express the forms of Art Nouveau than rings or bracelets.
Precious stones were used in Art Nouveau jewellery primarily to highlight design, rather than as the basis of a piece. Necklaces often featured semi-precious materials selected for their iridescence, but this whole style was to be radically overturned in the following decades.
Embracing the beauty of precious stones themselves was one major part of this emergent Art Deco. So sudden was the rejection of Art Nouveau, that many jewellers who had been making necklaces in that style would also be forced to change their techniques and styles, and in doing so produced some of their best work. Design remained a crucial aspect of many Art Deco necklaces and inherited the craftsmanship (and indeed the craftsmen) of the style which it displaced.
Necklace Design & Designers
It was in the Art Deco period that the likes of Cartier and Van Cleef & Arpels earned their names. Opulence as the order of the day in the ‘20s as Hollywood glamour and big money came to be expressed in necklaces. Precious stones were central to the most expensive jewellery, and diamonds especially to ‘all-white’ jewellery, but obviously ‘fake’ materials such as new plastics also became wearable in their own right.
Since the mid-20th century the limits of jewellery have been pushed more and more. Jewellery of all types were taken as new canvases for artist-jewellers in from the mid-century and this tradition continues today. While the big house-names continue to manufacture some of the most desirable jewellery for a mass market, the likes of Paul Derrez make jewellery first and foremost as visual art. There has been even more use of non-precious materials and abstract forms as modern necklaces become more experimental.
There is, though, nothing new about experimentation with materials and ornamentation. As we’ve seen, the styles of Art Nouveau and Art Deco offered something very new around the turn of the 20th century but there were just as many revolutions in necklace design and style over the previous century. New enamels, settings, techniques of granulation, mosaic and also those of machine mass-production began to be used in the 19th century, to name some examples.
Revival has also been an important part of the history of necklace styles and the techniques which accompanied them. The 19th century saw lots of revivals across Europe, including of ancient styles like cameos, and of medieval styles such as the Byzantine and gothic. ‘Holbeinesque’ pendants, for example, were among the most popular of the latter-half of the 19th century in Britain – inspired by the great renaissance painter Hans Holbein.
You might be surprised by how much antique jewellery is still wearable today. We’ve seen that Art Deco, a style that’s almost a century old, is now very popular and the same might be the case of even older necklaces.
Putting age into a bit of perspective, the majority of jewellery on the market today dates from the 19th and 20th centuries, anything from the 1600s or before will be rarer and likely a museum-worthy piece. 300 years of jewellery has led to great variety, some of which you’d be hard pressed to find today.
Just as we wear necklaces now for many occasions, so too was the case in the past. Especially in the 19th century, more formal, heavier necklaces could be an indicator of wealth and the kind of social engagements someone attended. This began the fashion amongst the middle classes to own more jewellery and in turn made it popular to wear jewels like garnets or amethysts which were more affordable than the precious stones. It was also in the 19th century that ‘paste’ jewellery that is, costume jewellery, really began to take off especially in novelty designs.
Whether you are looking for something to wear now, for a piece of history or just for an interesting oddity, antique jewellery may offer more than you’d think.