One of the most overused terms in the jewelry realm is Art Deco. Whether jewelry is misidentified, or the phrase is simply employed to attract attention to a sale listing, this erroneous attribution is seen over and over again.
One of the confusing aspects about Art Deco – a term that wasn’t widely used until the 1960s and later – is that this style has been “revived” a number of times. And, elements of Deco style have pulled into more modern designs over and over again. So, there are times when a piece has all the style elements of Art Deco, but it is actually much newer. True Art Deco pieces will date to the 1920s and ‘30s for the most part (although some influences were seen a bit earlier overlapping with the Edwardian era and spilling over into the 1940s.)
That doesn’t mean that you can’t learn to discern true Art Deco pieces from other styles, and date them correctly. It does take practice, however, and studying pieces that are true Art Deco originals as often as possible.
Art Deco Basics
Art Deco, Art Moderne, Art Nouveau – with so many similar terms floating around, no wonder this is confusing to beginners.
First, remember that Art Deco and Art Moderne are quite similar. Art Deco really references a European influence that is a bit more refined, while Art Moderne is the American version of Deco with a little more verve. The term Art Deco is used most often these days anyway, so you might not want to get caught up in trying to distinguish American from European at first. Concentrate instead on recognizing authentic pieces from this era in general.
Also remember that Art Nouveau is something entirely different. Deco is all about machine-age circles, angles, and linear design, but Art Nouveau is very organic with curvy, flowing, feminine lines. Art Nouveau also predates Art Deco by a couple of decades as a subset of the Victorian era so they’re not really related at all.
One good way to begin evaluating a piece as Art Deco is to see if you can visually divide it in half and see a mirror image. This will often be the case with this style. That’s not to say that some older (or even newer) Deco jewelry won’t pass this test, but it’s a good place to start.
Look at the materials, colors, and construction of the piece next. Is there age appropriate patina? Is the piece finished with plating that wasn’t common during the period? Are the stones and beads too new for that era? All these clues will help you determine whether your item is true Deco or a revival piece produced many decades later.
Art Deco Themes in Costume Jewelry
Many of the themes incorporated into Art Deco pieces are timelessly cool. That’s why they have been revived over and over again, and influence modern designers even today.
Think about sleekness like that of a prowling panther or a long, lean canine. Imagery that reflects speed like airplanes and bullet trains were used in all types of Deco pieces, including costume jewelry.
And you’ll also see world influences such as Greco-Roman and Asian elements incorporated, as well as Egyptian. The opening of King Tut’s tomb in 1923 led to many different Egyptian styles of jewelry, including Deco designs.
Angular lines, zigzags, and pyramid shapes were frequently used in Deco jewelry design. This means there may be no figural representation of the era present, but you’ll still see that mirror imaging mentioned above in the geometry of a piece.
And again, look for signs of age and learn to recognize the materials and construction techniques that would have been employed from the 1920s through the 1930s. This will be the final key in learning to recognize true Art Deco costume jewelry.
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