Style | Swellboy

Swellboy on… 1970s jewellery

Celebrating a neglected era of jewellery design

Swellboy on… 1970s jewellery

Image: Brijesh Patel

March 17 2011
Nick Foulkes

And so to New York to the Cooper-Hewitt museum to visit the retrospective exhibition of Van Cleef & Arpels jewellery. I was very gratified to see that a pair of gold and ruby cuff links, from 1969, comprising the famous reeded gold batons and small ruby-set hoops, formed part of the show. My pleasure was one of recognising an old friend, as they are identical to a pair that my wife got me for my 40th birthday – alas some years ago.

However, these were just about the most restrained items on show as the exhibition boasted some truly fantastic pieces of work – ribbons of diamonds tied in knots of Gordian complexity, and some utterly brilliant jewellery in coral, wood, and turquoise from the 1970s. I am delighted to see this period of jewellery design finally getting its due recognition.

When it comes to French jewellery there is a tendency to see the art deco period as representing the apotheosis of this particularly expensive branch of the decorative arts. And indeed there are some truly arresting designs from the period of flappers, Bugattis, foot-long cigarette holders and so forth. Perhaps it is something to do with excusable French chauvinism on the subject. The nation of snail-munching, Sartre-reading beret-wearers can claim art deco as a French invention; it was, after all, the 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels in Paris that kicked off the whole movement. However, surely enough time has passed for us now to be able to appreciate the innovative design of jewellery from the 1970s. I have a weakness for the period; for some reason since the early 1980s I have been a secret devotee of what I see as the glamour of the period – the high summer of the jet set and all that.

However my favourite piece in the show was neither from the 1970s nor the sepulchral deco period, but rather from 1908. Among all the bracelets, brooches and jewelled boxes there was a gold, silver, jasper, ebony and enamel model of a steam yacht cresting a viridian wave. It would look fabulous on my desk – what is more, it was practical, too; one of the funnels was a bell-push to summon one’s servants. It is the kind of thing I would love to own, not because I have any servants to summon, but because even though it is a piece of Van Cleef, I cannot really imagine my wife pinching it to wear herself. I think that even Lady Gaga would have trouble wearing it as a piece of jewellery.