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October 1999

From the Vault

Forties' Golden Glow

An endless variety of chunky bracelets are as salable today as they were 50 years ago

After three decades of platinum's cool dominance, the warmth of gold returned to jewelry fashion in the late 1930s. This may have been partly because women became a stronger part of the workforce, and the informality of gold suited this lifestyle. Certainly gold's affordability was another consideration during the Great Depression. The cocktail party, introduced by a budget conscious society as an economic way to entertain, inspired the design of dramatic gold jewelry big enough to be visible in a crowded, smoky room. Soon "cocktail style" gold jewelry was all the rage.

With the declaration of war in 1939, platinum was conscripted for the war effort and prohibited for jewelry use. Gem mines were closed and gem supplies were cut off. Jewelers enlisted in the armed forces or turned their talents and workshops to manufacturing wartime supplies.

The mood was patriotic, serious and determined. Women wore "military chic" suits and dresses with square padded shoulders and narrow, short skirts that conserved fabric.

Effect on Jewelry

Jewelry followed suit with utilitarian and mechanistic motifs that reflected the serious side; stylized floral motifs satisfied the need for a softer look.

Women wore fewer pieces of jewelry but chose larger designs to compensate. These pieces were surprisingly light. Sculpted to give a big look, cast pieces were hollowed out in back, and fabricated pieces were of thinner gold sheet in shallow "box" construction.

To conserve metal, 14k or 15k gold became standard for fine jewelry, and colored gold alloys were immensely popular. Rose gold, with a high percentage of copper, was especially favored, green gold was used widely as an accent and white gold was the accepted substitute for platinum.

Large expanses of unadorned polished gold made up for the unavailability of gems. When gems were used, they typically were small calibrated diamonds, rubies and sapphires. Synthetic rubies were used frequently because natural ones were in limited supply. After peace was declared in 1945, small stones were supplemented with large citrines and amethysts from Brazil and by pale yellow and blue sapphires from Ceylon.

Wrist Fashion

Of all the jewelry that survives from the Forties, bracelets are probably the most salable. Chunky gold bracelets were made in endless variety throughout the decade. Some motifs such as the "tank tread," "gas pipe" and "bicycle chain" show a preoccupation with war and mechanics. Others such as the "wave" and the "fish scale" bracelets reflect natural subjects. Also popular: wide gold cuff bracelets with decorative gem set motifs on top.

Gold bracelets continued to evolve in the post war recovery of 1945 to 1950. The fashionable belt or jarretiere (garter) bracelet, rediscovered from the Victorian era, is a wide, flexible strap with a decorative buckle from which the fringed strap end dangles free. Some were made with flat supple links in a rectangular "brick walk" pattern. Hexagonal "honeycomb" link bracelets, which Van Cleef and Arpels introduced in the Thirties, also made a comeback. Known as the "Ludo Hexagone," they have large decorative clasps often invisibly set with rubies or sapphires and diamonds.

Today, we are drawn to the strength Forties bracelets represent. New owners find the bracelets' golden glow projects an armor like protective quality that's especially welcome in our fast paced, competitive world.

by Elise B. Misiorowski

Industrial motifs are typical in 1940s gold bracelets as illustrated by these three examples. Courtesy of Neil Lane Jewelry, Beverly Hills, CA.

Copyright © 1999 by Bond Communications.


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