The list of regrettable fashion statements from the 1970s is legion—leisure suits and ankle-breaking platform shoes spring to mind—but the era’s jewelry is a different story. Sculptural and dramatic, at times whimsical or Pop Art–inflected, the designs are now getting a favorable second look.
The reasons for the Me Decade’s ascent are plentiful. While the antique diamonds of European royals or top Art Deco finery may grab headlines for their glittery provenances and the multimillion-dollar prices they command, the exuberance and (relative) accessibility of pieces created 40 or 50 years ago make them appealing targets for nascent collectors. They’re also a heck of a lot easier to work into an everyday wardrobe than a rivière or a tiara.
Then there’s the zeitgeist, which seems to be on the side of the 1970s. Recent releases of phone book-sized tomes on leading jewelry designers of the period, including Aldo Cipullo and Andrew Grima, have landed on coffee tables this past year. And awareness of Elsa Peretti—famed for her long collaboration with Tiffany & Co., beginning in 1974—got a pop-culture push from the Netflix series Halston, which started streaming just months after she died in March. (Peretti was the fashion designer’s friend and muse.) A current exhibition at the Cincinnati Art Museum, Simply Brilliant: Artist-Jewelers of the 1960s and 1970s, which features famous names (Boucheron, Cartier, Bulgari) alongside smaller-scale makers, is further evidence of the resurgent interest.
The jewels of the ’70s marked a profound departure from those that came before, according to Catharine Becket, head of the magnificent jewels sales at Sotheby’s. “In the ’60s there was more emphasis on precious stones, the big three—ruby, emerald, sapphire—but from the late ’60s through the ’70s, there was more exploration of what is referred to as semiprecious stones—amethyst, tourmaline, geodes,” she explains. Instead of pieces with a high-society formality, jewelry began to feature “yellow gold, old forms, abstraction, texture and a very ‘groovy’ aesthetic,” she adds. “We’ve been doing very well with that period.”
Sotheby’s April auction of the collection of the late business-woman and philanthropist Michelle Smith included a series of 1970s jewels that incited competitive bidding, especially for Van Cleef & Arpels lots from the period. A gold, cultured-pearl and diamond sautoir from the house sold for $252,000, more than five times its high estimate; a pair of hoop earrings from the same maker outstripped its estimate by an equally impressive multiple, realizing $27,720. “The prices were extraordinary,” says Becket. “It speaks specifically to the strength of that period. People are passionate about this field. A lot of them are younger, women in their 30s and 40s and 50s.”
Still, stratospheric prices are the exception rather than the rule (at least compared to sought-after Art Deco pieces), in part because the ’70s coincided with a wave of women entering the workforce and buying their own jewelry. “A lot of these jewels were pieces that they could afford,” Becket notes.
Jill Heller, a New York–based dealer who consults with private clients and has bejeweled celebrities such as Rihanna and Alicia Keys, sees the look of the ’70s as both alluring and relatable. “It’s feminine and sexy and relevant today,” she says. “I like Victorian jewelry, but some of it reads a little old-fashioned. With ’70s jewelry, it almost feels like you could have bought it today.” And several jewelers are now finding inspiration in the decade. Pomellato, for instance, is featuring knot motifs and rings with chunky semiprecious stones, such as topaz and lemon quartz.
Heller cites Bulgari Monete collection necklaces set with ancient coins, Henry Dunay textured-gold jewels and David Webb’s enamel-embellished-gold animal cuffs as among the most desirable styles of the era. Their appeal often extends to generations that missed the last days of disco by a mile. “My 19-year-old daughter loves the look,” she says.
Tiina Smith, principal of an eponymous jewelry gallery in Boston, has also noticed a clear generational factor. “Daughters of the women who originally wore the jewelry from the 1970s have rediscovered it as they’ve come of age,” Smith says. “The pieces of jewelry your mother wore when you’re starting to think about fashion and jewelry and the way you look become very romantic and nostalgic as you get older.”
Smith’s array of flashback-inducing trinkets includes blue-chip names but also some unsung designers, such as Norman Teufel, whose playful, kinetic pieces (think 18-karat-gold rings with movement reminiscent of a spinning top) represent a subset of bijoux from the era that went underappreciated at the time.
“If you’re looking to collect, you want to source pieces that are harder to find,” she says. “For example, Elsa Peretti made pieces for her friends and for Halston. Those pieces are rare and not mass-produced; that makes them special. An experienced dealer understands which those are.”
It’s not just individual aficionados who are on the hunt. Brands are often in the market for their own jewels. Bulgari, for example, under the guidance of Lucia Boscaini, its brand and heritage curator, acquires between 40 and 60 of its vintage pieces each year for its private collection.
The assembled pieces trace the Roman company’s history and are a resource for museum exhibitions, red-carpet accessorizing and research by the creative team.
Through both auctions and private transactions, Boscaini pursues items that best reflect the Bulgari aesthetic. Jewels created in the ’70s are among her primary targets. “They are very representative of our style, our iconic inspirations,” she says. “It’s a turning point in the history of our artistic evolution. It was a decade of great experimentation with motifs and materials, with inspiration ranging from Pop Art to the Far East. The jewels, in particular sautoirs with long chains and sumptuous pendants, became quite large, reflecting the ‘hippie’ fashion of that period.”
Both high jewelry and designs from its fine jewelry collection are of interest to the brand. “It’s not a matter of price. It’s a matter of finding things that are representative of our style,” Boscaini explains. “A plain Serpenti watch can be extremely representative of our style, even if it was a very limited item.” And to capture the breadth of the Monete collection, a range of pieces featuring ancient coins that was a runaway success when it was introduced in the ’70s, “we need hundreds of items,” she says.
Bulgari has good reasons to retain its jewels, but should other collectors insist on buying signed pieces—or bust? Daniela Mascetti and David Bennett, experts who worked at Sotheby’s for more than 40 years each before founding Understanding Jewellery, an online platform that offers reference materials, courses and experiences, along with collection-management and jewelry-advising services, encourage a nuanced approach to evaluating signed and unsigned jewels.
“If you have the chance to buy something that’s beautiful and typical of the period and has a signature—bingo!” says Mascetti. “But I wouldn’t be obsessed with a signature. If you have a limited budget, rather than buying something small by a big name, buy great design and a great look by someone anonymous. Who knows? In 10 years’ time, you may figure out who made the piece.”
That’s what happened in the case of New York–based designer Julie Simpson, who has been collecting styles from the ’60s and ’70s for 15 years. In the beginning, competition wasn’t an issue, and the stakes weren’t high. “I found myself gravitating to pieces from the period and was able to buy some for less than the value of their gold 10 years ago. Nobody wanted them,” she recalls. “And now the scholarship is better, so I have things that are not signed, but now we know who they’re by.”
Some of her treasured finds are a multicolored David Webb totem pendant with gemstones and gold and a two-sided Cartier zodiac pendant representing her Sagittarius birth sign, plus pieces from artist-jewelers, including Andrew Grima and Gilbert Albert, both of whom were known for bold, sculptural looks. “I like big things,” Simpson says. “They have to be beautifully made and comfortable. I can wear just one piece, and it makes a statement. I can wear a fancy bracelet with a pair of jeans, and when I do, no one else will be wearing the same thing.”
Her connoisseurship comes from firsthand experience. “I was a goldsmith. So I have an appreciation for how things are made,” she explains. “I became interested in the jewelry because the quality is so high. It feels so good to wear it.”
Likewise, there’s no substitute for jewels that have their own history. Contemporary pieces that take cues from ’70s design don’t make the grade for Simpson. “There’s so much copycat jewelry out there,” she says. “I want something unique and not being made anymore.”