Contemporary Jewelry a history in the Making

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Contemporary Jewelry

A History in the Making

Brooke Davenport 1040-002


When people think of the 1950’s fashion they may think poodle skirts, fedoras, Mary Jane shoes, pedal pushers and cardigans. Some of these items may look slightly different in 2011, and may even be called something slightly different, but are essentially the same thing. If I were to dif through my closet, sure enough I would find some “Mary Jane” style shoes. I would definitely find some “pedal pushers” for those warm summer days, although I would not be caught dead calling them “pedal pushers”, rather, crops or Capri’s. In 61 years, a lot in the world has changed. They say history repeats itself, and the same could be said for fashion. Contemporary fashion designs mimic those of earlier contemporary times. We may still have pencil skirts, but they have a new edge. The fashion culture is always taking classics and putting a spin on them. Jewelry is not immune. We will explore jewelry designs through the decades and the thought and inspiration behind each one, the culture from where they were born and how some earlier classics are being worn today.

When I think of jewelry in the 1950’s, there is one item that comes to mind. One thing that in unmistakable on classic black and white film. Pearls. In the 1950’s it was a era of change. People were regaining a new hold on life. Coming out of the Great Depression and into a state of well being once again, it was becoming more common and more acceptable to adorn yourself with lovely accessories whether going out for a night on the town, or cleaning your toilets. In the 1950’s women were wearing pearls during the day, when n a few years earlier, that may have been thought of as pompous before. Women were wearing their diamonds in abstract patterns of mixed cuts. Chains and ropes had become part of the functional pieces during this era. Amethyst and turquoise were popular in simple settings. [1 (]

This was an era of new beginnings. With television programming that portrayed things that had never before been seen in some cultures, it was causing an uproar of controversy. Shows like American Bandstand showing young adults, would have no doubt caused more and more teenagers to go out and bye what they saw on the pretty girl dancing with the cute boy the night before. Elvis Presley with his new wave of music and fashion sense of a different world. Glitz and Glam had entered this era with abundance. Teenagers during this time were still dressing pretty conservatively and preppy. A string of pearls over a simple cardigan was just the right fix for a young teenager who wanted to add a little glam to their attire with out scaring Mom and Dad. [2 (]

Besides pearls, this was the age of “Diamonds Are a Girls Best Friend” and the late Elizabeth Taylor. Pearl and diamond combinations and flashy multi sized pieces were commonly paired with a cocktail dress. No matter the combination though, there was always something classic about the jewelry of the 1950’s that people remember.

When thinking of the classic pearl, it seems that it is something that has been around since the beginning of time. And, it might have been, just not always used as jewelry. No one seems to know quite where the discovery of pearls began. George Frederick Kunz, who is referred to as America’s first gemologist by some, had said that he had believed pearls to have been discovered along the coast of India by the locale people in their search for food. With ( Indian culture being one of the first cultures to have a record of using pearls as jewelry and as part of the cultures legends, this may be something that isn’t too far off. Pearls were generally used for royalty in its earlier time. Being rare, it was very expensive. Egyptians were other early users of the pearl and only those who were deserving and could afford their high prices were lucky enough to own one. (

How strange that something once so rare has become something so abundant and something that a house wife in the 50’s wore while doing house work. That a teenager in the 50’s of a middle class family could own a string of pearls. A pearl that has been used in so may different parts of the world and in so many ways, but always used as jewelry.

In the 1960’s, it was a period of freedom and love. Freedom and love were often the inspiration behind some designs. Gold, silver, platinum and other metals were used in combinations with cabochons and abstract shapes. Textures and patterns began to take their own way. Larger pieces seem to be the way most things went. Earings were better if they were bigger, as well as rings. An organic mixture seemed to take off. The classic pearls and diamonds were still being worn by those who preferred a polished look, but for those, who only needed “love”, there was a look that began to become more natural and not as “glamorous”. Pieces became more colorful and geometric. Less shimmery and shiny. Floral brooches became more popular. Turquoise and other stones also made an appearance in the 60’s. When I do think of jewelry in the 60’s, I think of this very large tigers eye ring my mother had. It was a bezel setting on a simple silver band, but the stone was very large. I would put it on my hand all of the time as a young girl and wonder how on earth she even moved her finger.

These “earth” stones, like the tigers eye and turquoise are what I think of in the 60’s. Turquoise is believed to ward off negativity and hold protective powers in some cultures. Turquoise has been found in Egyptian cultures, Persian cultures, Indian and Native American cultures throughout time. Some organic styles of adorned items have said to have been found in Egyptian tombs. There are interesting facts behind turquoise, such as the legend that Napoleon Bonaparte had 79 emeralds removed from a crown of diamonds and emeralds and replaced with turquoise to his Empress Marie Louise as a wedding gift. Something so common to us now, was once a precious gift for royalty.


In the 70’s, more and more women were on the up rise of being independent and self sufficient. The era of women’s rights was beginning. By now, fashion trends had changed quite a bit. Once considered taboo for a women to wear pants, it seems that most were not just wearing pants but doing so with pride. A great success to be able to think and buy on their own. This was also true for jewelry. With women working and earning their own money to buy things they truly desired, there was no longer a need to depend on a man to buy something for her. Because of this, and the fact that although women were working, they were still earning considerably less money than men, the culture of jewelry changed yet again.

Pieces were becoming less expensive for something equally as pretty. To do so, less precious material was used to create such beautiful pieces. Plastics and synthetic material was making its way into the world of jewelry. Crystal and woods were used as well as coral. Bright colors were what you would expect if you were to look in any jewelry box of any woman, or man for that matter during this period. Big, bold, and costume were the words of this decade. You can’t think of costume jewelry with out thinking of two letters…CZ. Cubic Zirconia. In the late 70’s, early 80’s the CZ made it’s debut. This synthetic stone was developed in Russia while looking for an alternative to the ruby, which was hard to come by for use in lasers. Somewhere along the line, someone thought this made a nice diamond alternative, so there it was. It did not come on the scene until this period, however, because of the necessary tools to make it, such as a microwave in some circumstances. (

This brings us to the 80’s. Women began to increase in volume in the workplace and opened more opportunity for self sufficiency. People, especially women were suddenly waking up to the realization that they could do what ever they wanted to do. This began an array of styles in hair, clothing, music, and jewelry. Large chunky items and stones and small, delicate simple designs were all over. Colored pearls put a spin on the traditional pearl necklace of the 50’s. A new trend was now on the scene. Body jewelry became a new to do. Nose rings, 3,4,5 or 7 earrings in one ear. Lip rings, male earrings. This was a dawn of a new age in the world of fashion and image. Animal print, colorful pieces and more and more costume jewelry than anyone would know what to do with.

While young adults and teenagers were wearing bangles galore, women with the “power” wanted everyone to know they held the power. Shoulder pads and bright makeup made men intimidated by this new found power in a woman. She would wear expensive diamonds and pearls as means of showing power and wealth, and sometimes showing she could attain these things on her own. While jewelry was in the past often used to show esteem in a person, it seemed to be making a comeback in this period.

In the early 90’s, right color and geometric shapes were still a large part of fashion and jewelry. Jelly bracelets and hair scrunchies were becoming a part of normal attire and to some, considered to be almost as jewelry. Jewelry seemed to take on a new form of function at one point in the 90’s. With women still working and even stronger in the workforce, there was less time to fuss over fancy jewels and items getting in the way of work. Simple, delicate items took off. Charm bracelets and necklaces that held meaning to one’s life were something delicate and held a purpose. (

This was a time of less is more. Women had made their point, they had roared, and been heard. They started wearing more functional, professional attire. Wearing less make-up over all and trading in shoulder pads for simple blazers and slacks. Easy hair styles that make for quick moving in the morning getting the kids out of the door and being on time for work. Sleek and Chic were the new words of the 90’s. Buying items that were quality, not quantity were what mattered. It seemed that only hip hop artists were wearing large amounts of jewelry, and most of it cheap at that during this period.

Currently, there is still and array of styles. It seems to be a decade of adopting and incorporating older styles into new. Innovation and renovation are the words of the current decade when it comes to fashion. Taking the classic pearl and putting a spin on it. Wearing a chunky pearl necklace with wire wrapped ends. Giving it a classy, edgy, organic look. Something from each decade. Moving back into the age of hand crafted items (slowly, but surely) and away from mass produced jewelry. People wanting to find their identities again and not wanting to be like everyone else. Seems like more and more are shying away from the Jones’ and wanting to express their individuality.

Though, we will always have our classics from contemporary jewelry and fashion, we will continue to branch out and move in directions that only add to the classic. We are still using the same materials today that ancient Egyptians used, and Persians, and Kings and Queens. We will always used the basic materials available and we will always hold on to what is classic. Because that is human nature, and history will repeat it self. Though people and the jewelry they wear, there will always be a history.

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