Skip to main content Skip to navigation Skip to site search

Vintage Inspiration: Is This Deco or Nouveau? Or Something Else?

A look at design movements through the 20th century

Shape, color, shine, line — when it comes to jewelry, there are particular elements that catch your eye and lure you in. Do you love delicate, highly ornamented pieces? Or are you more into streamlined and sleek? Here’s an overview of some of the key design influences of the 20th century that jewelry designers still draw from today.

Those Victorians: how fancy

Victorian design came to be during the reign of Queen Victoria in England and spanned the mid-1800s until the turn of the century. You can identify Victorian design by its highly decorative ornamentation and eclectic mix of historic motifs. Victorians lived by the motto “more is better” and decorated their living spaces with layers of pattern and bric-a-brac. Victorian jewelry is also highly decorative and romantic, with dangling pendants, colorful stones and beautiful and delicate wirework.  

Arts & Crafts: hand-made

The Arts and Crafts movement was a response to the excess of the Victorian Era and the rejection of the mass production of goods that began during the Industrial Revolution. Spanning from the mid-1800s through the first decade of the 1900s, Arts and Crafts design is defined by high craftsmanship as well as simpler forms and less ornamentation than the Victorian period. Stylized nature motifs and natural materials dominate, as well as Gothic- and Islamic-inspired designs.

Art Nouveau: Inspired by nature

Art Nouveau was the creation of an international style that looked to the natural world rather than history for inspiration. Art Nouveau is characterized by dramatic curving, elongated flowing lines and stylized, sculptural organic forms like flowers, leaves and roots. Other motifs, including peacock feathers, dragonflies, butterflies and the female form, also were popular. Art Nouveau jewelry is highly artistic and expressive, featuring enamel, opals, glass and semi-precious stones. The short period, from about 1880-1910, was a golden age for jewelry makers.

Art Deco: Embracing technology

Proponents of Art Deco sought to create a modern, urban, mass-produced style through reinterpretation of historic styles in the Machine Age. Designs drew from historic Europe as well as Egypt, Africa, Asia and Meso-America (like the Aztec culture). Defining elements of Art Deco are symmetrical geometric and abstract shapes, bright colors and exotic and shiny materials like ebony, silver, ivory, pearls, mirror, chrome and bakelite. Art Deco jewelry often features white metals like platinum and white gold, as well as colorful gemstones – the more vibrant, the better. Also, cocktail rings became popular during this period, particularly at the height of the Roaring ‘20s.

Modernist: Rejecting traditionalism

The Modernist movement, spanning the 1930s through the 1970s, encompasses various design aesthetics. Overall, however, “modernist” is characterized by design that rejects traditional and historic styles. Modernist pieces feature simple forms (both organic and geometric) with few or no decorative elements applied. If you spot modernist jewelry, you’ll note that metal is prevalently used, with some accents of natural materials like semi-precious stones, glass, colored enamel and gemstones.

1950s American Kitsch: Fun and out-of-this-world

After World War II, design began reflecting the country’s newfound optimism and opportunities to achieve the American Dream. Jewelry designs were exuberant, colorful and often dramatic or whimsical, depicting natural themes such as flowers and animals. Gold dominated and jewelry pieces featured lots of sparkling gemstones – real or glass. Space exploration and the Cold War also influenced jewelry design during this “Atomic Age,” with forms referencing Sputnik, planets and stars and pieces made from industrial materials such as titanium.

Drawing on the past is a fun way to add some spark to your jewelry wardrobe. To get the vintage look you love, there are many contemporary jewelry designers who reference elements from these design styles in their work. Or, check out live auctions, auction websites, flea markets and estate sales to find pieces dating to the eras that most interest you. 

Was this article helpful?

Share the wisdom

Email this Article

* Required Fields

More on this topic