A hundred years later, our fascination with the wretchedly wonderful excess of the 1920s seems more intense than ever.
Of the images captured in early newsreels — as that era emerged from its own pandemic — perhaps not one lingers more than the flapper with a long strand of pearls in full Charleston mode, seemingly happy to dance the night away. And that exuberance certainly played out in early 1920s Hollywood, where the silent-film era was in its brief heyday, a period captured in “Babylon,” the Damien Chazelle movie nominated for three Oscars, including best costume design.
But the film is just the latest eye-popping portrayal of a time when fashion and jewelry became as much a part of Hollywood folklore as those who wore it all. And a similar colorful style draws attention on the red carpets and runways of today.
“The Hollywood stars of that era took their jewelry seriously, and they flaunted it,” said Neil Lane, a Los Angeles jewelry designer and collector who owns pieces from the collections of Ginger Rogers, Joan Crawford and others and has outfitted the likes of Renée Zellweger and Reese Witherspoon for the Oscars red carpet. “And it wasn’t like when royalty came out and the jewels just hung there. Hollywood stars raised their arms, they flung their jewelry and they twirled it. They danced with it all.”
Hollywood mirrored the era, but it also led the glamorous charge for jewelry trends — wide cuff bracelets, brooches and almost anything in the Art Deco style — that emerged in the late 1920s and ’30s, as “talkies” began to dominate the screens. Big-name houses such as Harry Winston and Joseff of Hollywood became more linked to the movie industry in the early 1930s as the Depression led to many films about glamorous escapism, such as Greta Garbo in “Mata Hari” (1931), with gowns and jewels by Adrian and jewels by Eugene Joseff, and Marlene Dietrich as Catherine the Great in “The Scarlet Empress” (1934) — or just being jewelry-obsessed Dietrich, for that matter. Harry Winston toured the famous 726-carat Jonker diamond around the United States, where it was photographed with Shirley Temple and Claudette Colbert.
But the silent-film era was more about simply having a blast and pushing the boundaries of fashion and sexual freedom. (Think the open-back gown, perhaps with a sautoir necklace draping provocatively down an exposed spine, like Norma Shearer’s peacock gown in “Upstage” (1926) — a look Valentino used in Margot Robbie’s lipstick-red open-back gown for the “Babylon” premiere in London in January.)
“Hollywood really became the epicenter of fashion and design and innovation in the 1920s,” Mr. Lane said. “Paris was still fashionable, but movies were much more universal. The world no longer looked to the royalty of Europe. Hollywood was the new royalty.”
That shift from Europe to Hollywood took many forms, including at the largest European jewelry houses, like Cartier, which in many ways came to define the Art Deco jewelry of the era.
“First, we should mention the beginnings of Hollywood because Hollywood was built by people mainly coming from Broadway,” Pierre Rainero, international image, style and heritage director at Cartier, wrote in an email. “The actors, actresses, directors from Broadway were also Cartier clients, already since the beginning of the 20th century. We can mention Douglas Fairbanks, Jean Harlow, Gloria Swanson or Rudolph Valentino.”
When such stars wore significant jewelry, “they influenced the world,” Mr. Rainero wrote. “Movies had a greater impact worldwide, especially American movies at the time, and also celebrities of the time wearing them in their private life, so they had an enormous resonance in terms of echoing to the latest trends, in terms of shape, evolution and history of jewelry.”
“Babylon,” written and directed by Mr. Chazelle (who won an Oscar for directing “La La Land” in 2016), focused on several fictional characters, including the starlet Nellie LaRoy, played by Ms. Robbie and loosely based on Clara Bow, the 1920s “It Girl.” In some ways, Nellie’s journey through the three-hour turbocharged pace of “Babylon” is told through the jewelry she wears.
For Mary Zophres, the movie’s Oscar-nominated costume designer, depicting the era was about authenticity and character development, not just splashing jewelry across the screen. It had to fit with the moment of the characters and the plot, she said.
In a few early scenes, the glamour of Nellie’s character, as well as that of Lady Fay Zhu (played by Li Jun Li and based on the silent-era superstar Anna May Wong), was subdued as the characters are trying to climb from poverty to Hollywood stardom.
“There were earrings that were important to those two characters, but otherwise I didn’t use too much on Lady Fay since her character lived with her parents and probably had to give them money,” Ms. Zophres said. “And we used jewelry with Nellie when it was right for the character. In the beginning, we used just gold filigree earrings before she becomes a star.”
But when the plot kicked into high gear, Ms. Zophres said, she felt Nellie needed to showcase the glamour of the day. At the premiere of her 1926 debut film, a scene early in the movie, Nellie is decked out in a pair of Art Deco-style earrings from Chanel’s recent Muse collection made of white gold, 26 carats of sapphires and five carats of diamonds. (While Coco Chanel doubtless would have approved, she famously called Hollywood the “capital of bad taste” after the producer Samuel Goldwyn brought her there to adorn his top stars.)
A scene showing Nellie as a star, called for something even more glamorous: a white gold Chanel tassel lariat necklace with 17 carats of pavéd gems and closed-set diamonds.
“The Chanel jewels that we used for Margot were a product placement deal, and I wanted to make a statement about her character and the element of instant gratification in her character,” Ms. Zophres said. “But then later in the film, Nellie owed a lot of money because of her gambling debt, so she probably would have hocked a lot of it.”
The extremes of the 1920s — the rags to riches to rags trajectory, with the stock market crash in 1929 — are what “Babylon” captures, and what Ms. Zophres wanted to reflect. For authenticity, she worked with Jeanne Little, a collector based in Southern California, to include costume jewelry, pieces made with inexpensive stones and metals that were seen as the real thing by the audience of the ’20s, a kind of sleight of hand.
“In the 1920s Hollywood was really showcasing this glamour that was developing at the time, and it showed this great lust for life that was very aspirational,” said Emily Stoehrer, the curator of jewelry at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. “And costume jewelry offered a way to participate in that fantasy. If you watched actresses with stacks of bracelets, you could aspire to own them. It really opened things up for women.”
“Even if you didn’t live in New York or a big city, every city had a department store where you could see jewelry, and you could also participate in that level of glamour by just watching news reels or readings magazines,” Ms. Stoehrer said. “That never really existed before the 1920s.”
The museum’s jewelry collection includes a suite of Verger Frères-designed jewelry (brooch, bracelet and necklace of diamonds, rose gold and aquamarines) purchased around 1935 by Joan Crawford and once owned by Andy Warhol.
“In the silent era, jewelry sort of enhanced the character because they weren’t talking,” said Ms. Little, owner of Little Treasures Antiques and Vintage in Long Beach, Calif. She has been a jewelry consultant on several films over the last 25 years, including the 2020 Netflix drama “Mank,” another homage to early Hollywood. “It was a crazy time. There are so many amazing pieces of jewelry from that era, especially with the opening of King Tut’s tomb in 1922 and the huge revival of Egyptian jewelry it inspired.”
In fact, the silent-film star Theda Bara, known as the original vamp, had already created a bit of Egyptian jewelry buzz with her seriously bejeweled “Cleopatra” (1917), one of Hollywood’s first blockbusters (little of the footage remains as most of it was destroyed in a 1937 fire at 20th Century Fox’s storage vault in New Jersey). Her famous tiara and earrings were sold at a Bonhams auction in 2013 (but they had nothing on her revealing snake bra, denounced by clergy and women’s groups at the time).
Many other silent-film actresses contributed to the era’s over-the-top trend jewelry, such as the now almost-forgotten Alla Nazimova in “Salomé” (1922), dripping in pearls, and Gloria Swanson in “Male and Female” (1919) with her famous gown and headdress in equal drip mode. And Mae West, who was charged with obscenity and sentenced to 10 days in jail for her 1926 Broadway play “Sex,” came to Hollywood and not only lathered herself in jewels but also celebrated the naughtiness of it all. In the movie “Night After Night” (1932), a hat check girl exclaims, “Goodness, what beautiful diamonds,” to which Ms. West replies, “Goodness had nothing to do with it, dearie.”
The first “talkies” included Louise Brooks, with her bob haircut, smothered in feathers and jewels in “The Canary Murder Case” (1929). Jewelry historians have said that many of those early films were plagued with sound problems because the rudimentary equipment picked up the clanking noise of jewelry as much, or even more, than the actors’ voices. (This was lampooned in the 1952 musical “Singin’ in the Rain.”)
Through it all, the early era of Hollywood glamour and party-till-you-pass-out attitude was in many ways a reaction to the horrors not only of World War I and the influenza pandemic that followed, but also to the oppressive daily lives of millions of women.
“In the 19th century, women were tied up in corsets, and the jewelry was very heavy, even into the Edwardian era,” Mr. Lane said. “But the ’20s were for everybody. They had diamonds up the wrist from rings and bracelets, cocktail rings, and diamond-encrusted cigarette holders. It was really the liberation of women.”
A hundred years later, the legacy of that decadent and liberating era is evident in modern jewelry in ways that we may take for granted — a century of evolution.
“Today, I think that this era is not necessarily linked to movies but linked to the modernity of the creation of that time: the great role displayed by geometry on one side, the role of other cultures or other civilizations influence into the design is something that is at the core of Cartier creation still today,” Mr. Rainero of Cartier wrote. “Of course, since then we have added many parts and many evolutions like organic shapes, for instance, and a new type of architectural vision of a piece of jewelry, even in terms of color combinations. But still, that period is very influential in the designs of today because of its very rare modernity.”
The decade that defined decadence did equalize the world a bit, changing how the masses wore fashion and jewelry, much like now when everyone can act as if she is a star on the silver screen, even if that screen is just the one in her hand.
“Expensive jewelry has since ancient Egypt always been a sign of wealth, so before the 1920s jewelry was left to the aristocracy,” Ms. Zophres said. “With that freedom came a sense of self. It was the era of expressing oneself. The 1920s really democratized jewelry.”