Vintage jewelry designers: names to know

jewelry designers

Rago’s December 2020 jewels auction featured a Jean Despres silver necklace that achieved a strong $65,000 + the buyer’s premium, confirming the artist’s market strength and demand as a fine jeweler. Photo courtesy of Rago Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

NEW YORK – Beautifully designed jewelry is timeless, whether it is a big statement necklace, an elegant ring or an animalistic bracelet. A great piece has the power to not only add that extra touch to one’s outfit but bring the wearer joy, spark a conversation and in the process become a family heirloom. While most designers worked for big jewelry houses and were anonymous, a few had great success going out on their own and created designs whose popularity has endured over the decades. Let’s take a look at some of the most renowned jewelry designers over the last century.

Jean Despres

French jewelry designer Jean Despres (1889-1980) is famous for his Art Deco styles, utilizing silver, semiprecious stones, enamel and machine parts in particular.

“The jewelry of Jean Després distinguishes itself through the artist’s understanding of his material. Starting as a silversmith and predominantly creating all of his work with this precious metal, Jean Després mastered it,” said Dianne Batista, director, fine jewelry, Rago Auctions. “He knew that with silver, he could create volume, shadows and large geometric striking forms, which had attracted him during his early experience in the military, drafting airplane parts. Després found beauty in the machine and then continued to explore geometry in jewels his entire career.

“I am intrigued and delighted by the consistency in his work. Like many of the world’s finest artists, Depres’ distinct signature style never strayed too far off course, yet it never became stagnant and continued to evolve,” she said.

Suzanne Belperron

Also hailing from France, Suzanne Belperron (1900-1983) was based in Paris but grew up in Saint-Claude, an area well known for traditional crafts. Around the turn of the century, it was a center for diamond cutting. She became one of the cutting-edge designers of her time. Known as a maverick, she created striking and daring designs marked by angular shapes and made with contemporary materials. She never signed her pieces, publicly declaring that her style was her signature.

jewelry designers

This bold citrine and diamond cuff bracelet, circa 1945, attributed to Suzanne Belperron, earned $120,000 + the buyer’s premium at Fortuna Auction in April 2018. Photo courtesy of Fortuna Auction and LiveAuctioneers

“Belperron pioneered a new aesthetic in jewelry: sensual, tactile and arrestingly modern,” according to the Belperron website. Her exclusive designs were popular with sophisticated clients, including Elsa Schiaparelli, socialite/heiress Daisy Fellowes, the Duchess of Windsor and Diana Vreeland.

David Webb

Self-taught designer David Webb (1925-75) left rural North Carolina to set up shop in New York City at age 23 and quickly became one of the most sought-after jewelers. He is best known for his striking and bold carved and enamel bracelets having animal motifs, statement gold necklaces, vibrant sautoirs, Maltese cross brooches, dramatic flowers and organic forms and more. Webb was inventive, experimenting with different materials from textured gold to rock crystal.

jewelry designers

Set with gems, a David Webb ‘snake’ bracelet brought $46,000 + the buyer’s premium in November 2020 at New Orleans Auction Galleries. Photo courtesy of New Orleans Auction Galleries and LiveAuctioneers

“David Webb jewelry continues to be quite popular at auction. We recently offered several major vintage pieces from the 1970s from the estate of Bonnie Swearingen – an emerald and diamond bracelet and a large gold and diamond necklace with fluted fluorite – that both realized prices well above their presale estimates,” said Taylor Eichenwald, assistant director of auctions, New Orleans Auction Galleries. “The exceptional craftsmanship, unique finishes and fine materials all contribute to the brand’s enduring desirability. Classic and iconic examples of Webb’s work consistently perform well. These include the animal bracelets and brooches as well as pieces that incorporate hammered gold. I think demand for jewelry, in general, is increasing, and I expect David Webb jewelry to continue to perform well.”

Alexander Calder

While Alexander S. Calder (American, 1898-1976) is best known for his sculptures and mobiles, his prowess as a jewelry designer is undeniable. Like his larger artworks, his jewelry has a sculptural feel to it and used his talent with wired forms to its fullest. Instead of adhering to mainstream techniques like welding and soldering, he bent metal into links and his designs typically have an unpolished and handmade look, which is part of their appeal.

jewelry designers

This Calder sterling silver bracelet made $61,000 + the buyer’s premium in April 2015 at
Schwenke Auctioneers. Photo courtesy of Schwenke Auctioneers and LiveAuctioneers

The bolder and bigger the better seems to be the rule of thumb here. Sometimes featuring hand-hammered surfaces or open scrollwork, Calder’s jewelry works were the ultimate statement jewelry and often had undulating or geometric forms.

In his 2007 book, Calder Jewelry, author Mark Rosenthal described Calder’s jewelry designs as art-meets-jewelry, suggesting that Calder’s works have a Surrealistic quality. “To wear the jewelry is to induce dreams and to become metamorphose,” he said.

Other designers to know include Hattie Carnegie (1886-1956), who was celebrated for her costume jewelry, often with natural motifs such as flowers, leaves and fruits or stylized animals, and Léa Stein (b. 1936), a French artist and decorative accessories designer, renowned for her compressed plastic buttons, brooches and bracelets.

jewelry designers

Revolutionizing the costume jewelry world, Lea Stein was dubbed the most innovative designer of plastic jewelry in the 20th century. Ten red, black and white brooches realized $550 + the buyer’s premium in September 2020 at Augusta Auctions. Photo courtesy of Augusta Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Especially given the restrictions of today amid the pandemic, jewelry crafted with simple materials and having a strong design is more relevant than ever. These designs are suitable for day and night, indoors and out, and are as bold and expressive as the women that continue to wear them.

# # #