When Natalie Portman took to the stage in 2011 to accept an Academy Award for her performance in Black Swan, she shone in an off-the-shoulder, deep-plum Rodarte gown, but it was her charming rubellite earrings by Tiffany & Co that made the look. This moment marked the resurgence of tassel jewellery, says Frank Everett, vice president and sales director of Sotheby’s jewellery department in New York.
“With the movement of the tassels – especially in the form of earrings – these pieces bring light and life to the wearer,” enthuses Everett, highlighting a coquettish pair of c1970 ear clips by Van Cleef & Arpels. With their coral-bead tassels suspended from fluted-gold surmounts, they fetched $18,750, over an estimate of $5,000-$7,000, at Sotheby’s last October.
The earliest vintage examples available today are largely from the Victorian period, when jewellers, inspired by motifs and forms from India, were creating such stately designs as the c1870s earrings (£4,950) being offered by London dealer Bentley & Skinner, with cabochon garnets set in rose and yellow gold, culminating in substantial chain tassels. If Victorian tassels were most often wrought in precious metals, by the 20th century beaded drops had come to the fashionable fore. “The most recognisable tassel jewellery arguably comes from the art deco period,” says Susan Abeles, head of jewellery at auction house Phillips. “Cartier, Boucheron, Van Cleef & Arpels and Fouquet all created tasselled sautoirs to complement the current fashion.”
One such swishing art deco design is being offered by Burlington Arcade jeweller Susannah Lovis, combining a necklace (£16,400) of sapphire beads and pearls with a tassel pulled together by a diamond-set cap. “King Tutankhamun’s tomb was unearthed in 1922, and his beaded jewellery was an inspiration to designers of the time, as, of course, were flappers with their long sautoirs,” says Anthony Freund, director of fine art at 1stdibs, which has an elegant art deco seed-pearl tassel necklace ($18,850) and a pair of Tiffany & Co pearl earrings ($23,000) with tassels topped and tipped with black onyx from the 1960s – another fertile period for these designs, which continued to swing through the midcentury into the 1970s and beyond. Freund adds that the adornment can also be found on bracelets (a 1950s gold-mesh version, $6,415) and even rings – an elegant 1950s example ($3,457) of which comes from the house of Mellerio, featuring braided strands of gold knotted at the top by a line of turquoise beads and dangling to the palm.
When these adornments combine with iconic jewellery houses and designs, prices can skyrocket. Take the Van Cleef & Arpels Zip necklace, created in the 1950s; when Sotheby’s sold a tasselled version in Geneva last May, hung with a generous tuft of golden threads clasped in a gold dome rimmed with rubies, emeralds, sapphires and diamonds, it fetched SFr507,000, about £392,000 (with a set of earrings) – 10 times the SFr50,000-SFr65,000 estimate. Another name that commands consistently high prices is Fabergé; a dazzling late-1950s illustration of the famous Russian jeweller’s use of tassels can be found at Belgian antique dealer Epoque Fine Jewels, on a gold rope-chain necklace (€150,000) set with coral and diamonds and featuring a lavish tuft of coral beads.
“Mid-20th-century brooches with tassels of delicate woven-gold mesh are interesting to collectors too,” says Emily Barber, head of jewellery at Bonhams. On a c1945 Boucheron clip brooch ($29,750) available at New York dealer Kentshire, such fringing is eye-catchingly suspended from interlocking rings and a pavé-diamond surmount, while for Charles Whitaker, founder of the eponymous Pennsylvania fashion and textiles auction house, his greatest find was “a 1920s Cartier pearl and coral tassel brooch we discovered under a television set at a client’s house and sold for $241,000”.
Cartier’s collections generally feature tassels, says Pierre Rainero, director of image, style and heritage. “There is something gourmand about them that makes them a permanent success.” A pair of Cartier gold panther-head earrings ($32,000) from the 1990s, with fierce peridot eyes and a modernist tassel design, can be found at Yafa Signed Jewels. And at Bulgari, jewellery creative director Lucia Silvestri finds the house’s vintage tassels of small coloured diamonds to be “very soft and pleasant to the touch” – an important element of the tassel’s appeal. FD Gallery in New York recently sold a fetchingly mismatched c1980s pair of earrings, one set with emeralds, the other with amethyst beads, by the Italian house.
Buying tassel jewellery, nevertheless, requires a discerning eye. “These pieces need a high standard of manufacture to ensure the tassels have mobility and remain intact,” observes Abeles. The state of the strings – which can be silk, golden thread or a synthetic material – should be considered; third-generation jeweller Wagner Eleuteri advises collectors to check that the tassel is part of the original design and not a later “add-on”. But they don’t need to be wrought from precious gems to have that all-important swish. One fan of vintage costume jewellery versions is New York-based Jean Z Poh, founder of online jewellery boutique Swoonery. “I love the swishing sound – like a lover whispering in my ear,” she says of her favourite pair of earrings by Hobé, a name synonymous with Hollywood glamour from the 1920s onwards. “I have six pairs and tend to wear them with bare shoulders.”
Dangling and jangling, tassel jewellery certainly never goes unnoticed, says Everett. “These pieces denote self-assurance in the wearer and may even inspire it.” Which is the case for one Singapore-based managing director who owns about 20 pairs of tassel earrings. “Most are from the 1970s, some are bejewelled,” she says. “For daytime I often wear an Yves Saint Laurent pair featuring long fine-gold ropes; for evening I might switch to some with jade beads. They give me confidence and everyone looks at them with fascination. They can be quite the ice breaker.”