You just don’t see it: yellow gold in the mathematically geometric gemstone designs made famous by jewelers in the 1920s.
But man, now that you think about what it might look like to have one of those skyscraper-tall rings or necklace pendants, paved over with diamonds or emeralds in a rich 14K yellow gold, it makes me wonder why they didn’t use it more.
Because when they did on the rare occasion use yellow gold, it was gorgeous.
Yellow gold in Art Deco jewelry
Art Deco era jewelry designers used yellow gold in many of their designs, even though silver tone metals like white gold, silver, and platinum reigned during the 1920s and 30s.
Some of the most famous pieces from the era featured warm yellow gold and gold tones.
Two superlative examples of Art Deco jewelry designers who used yellow gold — and were well-known for it in their lifetimes — are Jean Dunand and Gérard Sandoz.
Sandoz, Dunand, Josephine Baker, and Oreum, a replacement for gold all discussed below…
What metals were used in Art Deco jewelry?
Jewelry designers and manufacturers in the 1920s and 1930s used ancient and modern metals in their work, including both gold and silver and more recently for them: platinum. The Art Deco era also saw the introduction of synthetic metals like Oreum, a simulated gold, and new metal-finishing techniques, like chrome plating.
How did Art Deco jewelers use yellow gold?
Jewelers in the 1920s and 1930s used yellow gold in cast jewelry bases like rings, and in intricate filigree, setting, connector, and clasp details, just as they did with white gold. Jewelers also used gold for gilding, something that is tied to yellow gold alone. Many pieces during the Art Deco era were vermeil, which is a gold wash or plating over sterling silver. Finally, gold could provide textured just through the use of coloring, since additional metals like silver and copper could be added to yellow gold to subtly or dramatically change its hue.
Art Deco goldsmith Gérard Sandoz
Gérard Sandoz (1902-1995) is an Art Deco era jeweler who used yellow gold to provide texture to his pieces by altering the color of the yellow gold he used.
Sandoz was third in a line of goldsmiths, including his grandfather Gustave Sandoz, and his father Gustave-Roger Sandoz.
Inspired by Cubist painters George Braque and Juan Gris, Sandoz’ designs were hyper-geometric. Sandoz seemed also to emulat Gris’ color palette also at times, with the light blues and varied golds.
Unlike many of his contemporaries, Sandoz used yellow gold, often layering his colors like cubist painters with varying hues of yellow, as he did with the necklace pendants below.
Sandoz reportedly said: “It’s possible to make very beautiful jewelry simply with gold, and to make horrors with rivers of diamonds.”
Like other jewelers producing during the Art Deco era, Sandoz was attracted to color combinations like red and black, and often used coral and onyx in his work.
What I love most about the cuff links on the right are that all four elements are clearly connected, but not perfectly matched. Each of four cuff discs features a different design.
Finally, as with other jewelers who were widely recognized in their own time, Sandoz had a storefront, exhibited at the Paris exposition, and advertised his modern collections in national magazines, where he offered a line of jewelry to men.
Sandoz was a well-known figure in his lifetime, but not as renowned perhaps as Jean Dunand, the artist who decorated with towering panels the interior of the NYC to Paris transatlantic ship, the Normandie.
What carat gold was used in the 1920s?
The “caratage” of gold is determined by its purity. 24K (carat) gold is pure gold, and anytime that number of reduced (18K, 14K, or 10K), the percentage of gold in the alloy is reduced. An alloy is a combination of metals, and when the purity of gold is reduced, other metals like copper or zinc are added, actually strengthening the metal.
The softest metal is therefore the purest metal: 24K. It is rare to use 24K in jewelry because it is so soft. Rings will often be made in 10K or 14K gold so they don’t bend and dent as they’re worn.
White gold was the most popular color of gold in the 1920s, in particular for engagement rings and wedding bands. White gold is made by combining pure (yellow) gold with white metals such as palladium or silver. White gold therefore is never pure gold, and therefore always less than 24K.
Jean Dunand, Josephine Baker, and Golden Art Deco
Celebrity artist Jean Dunand’s most celebrated use of gold was in his portraits, his lacquered vases, and in jewelry.
However, he is most often celebrated for his jewelry collaboration with famed 1920s performer Josephine Baker.
Dunand and Baker had an artistic and commercial relationship that started when Baker commissioned a bracelet from Dunand. It was the first bracelet he ever made. Baker and Dunand were in fact first connected by milliner Madame Agnès. This portrait of Agnès is one of his most well-known.
And here is an image of Mme Agnés with the artist Dunand himself standing in front of a screen of his own design. Likely the vase was his, too. Of course, Mme Agnés was wearing a lacquered dress, since lacquering was one of Dunand’s signature techniques.
Dunand also completed several portraits of Baker, and many images exist of Baker wearing the jewelry Dunand created, including his most famous golden collars and cuffs of the “giraffe” collection.
Dunand’s giraffe necklace series is shown worn by actress Jane Renouardt with the autographed photo signed to “the creator of the loveliest gold jewelry.”
Interestingly, the gold that Dunand incorporated into his most famous designs wasn’t gold at all – but a simulated gold-like metal called Oreum.
What is Oreum?
Oreum is an alloy of copper, tin and zinc. Or means gold in French, so Oreum references gold in its name. Housed in Paris, the Société d’Oreum claimed the oreum wasn’t just a simulation of gold (“n’est pas un simili”) – it was a replacement advertised as “the metal that replaces gold”.
Oreum wasn’t trying to fool anyone, as with gas station gold, aka Autobahn gold.
And Oreum is different than jewelry with Fool’s Gold, pyrite, very popular during the same time as marcasite jewelry.
Oreum. Le métal remplace d’or.
Resembling gold in color it was advertised in an extensive but short-lived ad campaign by the Oreum Company as being as “durable as gold and would not tarnish.”
Handbags, dishes, tea and coffee sets, cigarette cases, pens, trophies, urns and platters, and of course, jewelry were all manufactured using the material.
Oreum is known to have been used in the manufacture of many of Jean Dunand’s gilded jewelry designs, including his most famous giraffe necklace.
Oreum has little legacy beyond Dunand’s giraffe collection, pieces of which are in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Musée des Art Décoratifs in Paris.
This article is ©minusOne jewelry. If it appears elsewhere, it is reproduced without permission.
Marian Fasel said it best: “Despite the fact that the jewels are almost 100-years old [and fake gold!], they look astonishingly modern. In fact, in this age of the choker renaissance they would fit right in any millennials jewelry box.”
Gold tone Art Deco jewelry for sale
Sadly, collecting real antique Art Deco jewelry pieces is outside my budget. Which is why I design and sell contemporary costume jewelry inspired by Art Deco designs.
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