What was considered “exotic” during the Art Deco period?
Exotic influences on Art Deco design from around 1910 to 1937 were anything that seemed foreign to Europe, the United States, and Britain. This included Arabesque, Ancient Egyptian, Modern African and Ancient Asian arts and cultures.
During the interwar period, art and cultures that were considered exotic took hold of the Europe, England, and America’s combined imaginations.
“Exotic” Art Deco jewelry was inspired by non-Western visual themes, or motifs.
Art Deco and the Arabesque
In 1919, when Art Deco was gaining its height of popularity, the world was wowed by The Sheik, a romance novel by E. M. Hull set in Algeria and the Saharan desert.
In the 1921 Hollywood adaptation, The Sheik’s Arab Ahmed Ben Hassan was played by Rudolph Valentino.
The independent and boyish heroine, Diana, seeded the flapper mystique.
The romantic partnership of a white upperclass British woman with an Arab man shocked moviegoers. But handsome celebrity “Latin lover” Rudolph Valentino fueled people’s interest nonetheless.
(Actor Valentino wasn’t actually Arabic. He was Italian, which during the 1920s, was apparently white enough.)
The West’s fascination with the idealized romantic heroism of the Arab sheik was also expressed in the song The Sheik of Araby. Listen to The Sheik of Araby on YouTube.
Egyptian Revival in Art Deco style Jewelry
In addition to Hollywood scripts like the Sheik, the excavation of King Tut’s Tomb in 1922 gave European, English, and American consumers full-blown Egyptomania.
There were Egyptian symbols and motifs in 1920s and 1930s jewelry, architecture and interior decorations, and of course movies about Cleopatra.
King Tut’s tomb was discovered in 1922, so it makes sense that designers during the interwar period of the 20s and 30s were inspired by Ancient Egyptian motifs.
“Egyptian Revival” Art Deco style jewelry – a trend within the larger Art Deco jewelry category – saw lots of snakes and hieroglyphics, sarcophagus (decorated coffins), and iconic images of gods and goddesses.
African ART DECO
Finally, African arts found its way into Art Deco style jewelry and design.
With the popularity of Josephine Baker, the Harlem Renaissance and “Jazz Age” in America, Western buyers were more than usual drawn to African art.
In jewelry, it included abstract designs and pieces that imitated African tribal jewelry, including collars and cuffs.
JAPANESE INFLUENCES IN ART DECO
A precursor to Art Deco, with some overlap in the first decade of the 1900s, Art Nouveau jewelry saw Asian influences from Japan.
Cloisonné enameling, lacquer, using plant motifs, and curving lines all were characteristics of Japanese Art that inspired Art Nouveau artisans.
Jean Dunand borrowed Japanese lacquer techniques and developed his own. Alistair Duncan in his Encyclopedia of Art Deco writes: The interest in Japanese art that began in the late 19th century had much to do with the resurgence of dinanderie and lacquer.”
It’s easy to see how lacquer techniques inspired Dunand’s later jewelry designs, and perhaps his most famous “giraffe” bracelets and necklaces.
Other Asian Influences in Art Deco Jewelry
In Art Deco style jewelry, the extensive use of jade was inspired by Asian art and its highly desirable, apple-green Imperial Jade.
Interested in learning more about Art Deco Style Jewelry? Read about ten characteristics of 1920s jewelry design.
And, if you love history and you love jewelry, subscribe to the minusOne newsletter. I send emails twice a month.