Mention Art Deco and most people think of architecture—from the Chrysler Building in New York City to the hotels and residences of South Beach in Miami.
For investors, however, the most alluring and "pocketable" legacy of the early-20th-century design movement is its jewelry—largely because of its unmistakable geometric, almost architectural, look.
“Of all the periods, Art Deco’s value has held its own the best,” says Ann Lange, vice president and director of jewelry at the auction house Doyle in New York, of the era that began in the teens of the 20th century and lasted into the early 1940s.
“It’s [the jewelry is] very wearable, it’s classic, it’s stylish, and the workmanship is extraordinary.”
Art Deco fit into the time when commercial air travel was young and women were shedding their frilly, constricted duds and complicated hairdos and replacing them with sleeveless chemises, such as flapper dresses, sporting bobs, and adorning themselves with sparkly bangles and long strands of pearls.
The jewelry, handmade with the most exquisite of materials—diamonds, rubies, sapphires, emeralds, pearls and onyx, usually set in platinum—suited that new era of speed, freedom and experimentation.
Where To Look
Today you can find Art Deco pieces in a number of places, including on eBay.com, from jewelers who deal in vintage jewelry and at the auction houses, like Christie’s, Sotheby’s, Bonhams and Doyle.
Prices can hit $100,000 plus, but the starter collector can get in for $1,500. Truly exceptional pieces—made with precious stones and crafted by top designers—can go for much higher.
“Art Deco represents the pinnacle of jewelry,” says Rahul Kadakia, senior vice president and head of the jewelry department at Christie’s New York.
Rarity also accounts for its enduring cachet, says Kadakia, noting that in the course of a year, only 100 to 150 truly memorable items go up for sale.
For instance, at a September auction at Doyle, jade-and-diamond pendant earrings, set in platinum, from 1930 and signed by Parisian designer Janesich, sold for $43,750—more than $13,000 above auctioneer’s top estimate. That same month, an emerald ring, circa 1920, made with a stone given to Cartier by a royal family of India, commanded more than $100,000.
On the lower end are items such as a man’s dress set, which are cuff links, a tie bar and shirt studs, in one of the most identifiable and popular Art Deco designs—black and white geometric. It went for $3000, double the top estimate. The set’s individual pieces are medallions of black onyx, edged by tiny diamonds, with a larger diamond in the center, and set in platinum and gold.
Art Deco designing was at its height during the 1925 world’s fair in Paris, called the Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes, an event set up by the French to showcase what they viewed as their supremacy in creating luxury goods and avante-garde position in industrial design. Everything from jewelry to small personal items, such as vanity sets and decorative boxes, to furniture was on display there. It was later that the period became known as Art Deco, shortened from the words arts decoratifs in the fair’s name.
Need To Know
When evaluating Art Deco jewelry, there are several factors to keep in mind.
“So much depends on quality, the strength of the design. And if the pieces are signed, the prices go up,” says Lange.
Top designers include Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels, Boucheron, Mauboussin, who are French, and the Americans Tiffany, Yard, J.E. Caldwell, Schlumberger, David Webb and Marcus and Co.
Other key factors in establishing value are a dog’s head stamped inside a piece, employed by French designers only, and for all, the visibility of scant metal on the underside of bracelets, necklaces and earrings. The less metal used, the more skillful the artisan, and the more valuable the piece. Pieces made with jade are especially valuable today too, due to interest from Asian collectors.
Within the larger Art Deco category are subcategories, including Egyptian and Japanese revivals, which mimic the urbane aesthetic of those cultures, the American streamlined design, which is another name for American Art Deco, and Tutti Frutti, a style in which precious stones of contrasting colors—rubies, emeralds, sapphires and diamonds—were used. Cartier, who created the style, nicknamed it tutti frutti because he thought the colors mixed together resembled fruit salad.
The legendary 20th-century French clothing designer Coco Chanel also created Art Deco jewelry, but hers was costume quality to be worn with her ensembles, according to Jane Adlin, curator in the Metropolitan Museum's Department of Nineteenth-Century, Modern, and Contemporary Art.
The museum is now exhibiting Masterpieces of French Art Deco,which showcases a dress ornament of jade, onyx, diamonds, enamel and platinum, designed in 1923 by Georges Fouquet.
Perhaps, the design most widely connected to Coco Chanel from the Deco period is the original Chanel No. 5 perfume bottle—a sleek, clear square that epitomized the clean lines associated with the period. According to the company Chanel, Coco Chanel designed the bottle in 1921. It remains the world’s most recognized perfume bottle, and an icon of luxury and style—just like Art Deco jewelry itself.
After considering different Art Deco pieces to buy, it's wise to remember that the buyer's own senses ultimately will tell her or him which jewelry is the best.
According to Christie’s Kadakia: “Look at the workmanship and the balance of the design and the stones and colors, and run your fingers over it. And, in the end, see how it looks on you.”