With the Jazz Age came a new social type: the “flapper,” a young woman who drank, smoke, wore short skirts, and did the Charleston. In the popular imagination, the flapper flouted social conventions with style and panache, displaying diamond-frosted accessories while tapping her foot to a plaintive anthem in an underground speakeasy.

“Jeweled Splendors of the Art Deco Era: The Prince and Princess Sadruddin Aga Khan Collection,” now on view at Cooper Hewitt, brings together more than 100 such accessories, including luxury cigarette cases, vanities, and compacts. These are the artifacts of a dynamic age, when sustained economic growth propelled innovation in the decorative arts. At the same time, the works on display testify to a changing feminine ideal, as young women expressed their independence by wearing glittering ornaments like a pendant watch, a discreet way to check the time during a night on the town.

Chrysanthemum Vanity Case, ca. 1928; Produced by Lacloche Frères (Paris, France); Manufactured by Strauss, Allard & Meyer (France); Ruby, amethyst, sapphire, onyx, diamonds, emeralds, enamel, white gold; L x W x D: 7.5 × 4.4 × 1.6 cm (2 15/16 × 1 3/4 × 5/8 in.); Photo: Doug Rosa.

“These magnificent works represent the foremost craftsmanship of their era,” says Caroline Baumann, director of Cooper Hewitt. “With exotic motifs exquisitely formed with the finest jewels, metals and precious stones, these boxes, timepieces, and jewelry also are virtuosic demonstrations of artistic expressivity and mastery of ancient techniques … This exhibition offers an unprecedented opportunity to see these objects in the context of the dramatic societal and technological changes impacting the world during this pivotal moment in early modern history.”

Panther Vanity Case, 1925; Produced by Cartier (Paris, France); Rubies, mother-of-pearl, turquoise, onyx, diamonds, gold, platinum; 10.2 × 4.4 × 1.8 cm (4 in. × 1 3/4 in. × 11/16 in.); Photo: Doug Rosa.

All of the bejeweled accessories on display were personal gifts from Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan (1933-2003) to his wife Catherine (b. 1938). Born in Paris to Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah Aga Khan and Princess Andrée Aga Khan, the late prince spent 40 years at the United Nations, serving as the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees from 1966 to 1978. The works in his collection were assembled over a three-decade period and include objects by some of the most renowned jewelry makers in the world, including Van Cleef & Arpels, Black, Starr & Frost, Lacloche Frères, and Cartier.


The works in this exhibition bear all the hallmarks of Art Deco jewelry: graceful forms, bold colors, and rich materials. Many objects have an exuberant style inspired by the fecundity of spring, as with the Chrysanthemum Vanity Case (1928), from Lacloche Frères, a finely worked confection of amethyst, sapphire, onyx, diamonds, emeralds, enamel, and white gold. Another example, the Cypress Tree Vanity Case (1928), from Van Cleef & Arpels, features a stylized cypress tree accented with gems. The vanity case, or nécessaire, functioned like a portable boudoir, with compartments for face powder, lipsticks, and mascara.

Apart from foliate motifs, the objects on display reflect a taste for Eastern themes, such as Chinese dragons, Persian birds, and Japanese plum blossoms. The Panther Vanity Case (1925), from Cartier, shows a panther skulking through the jungle under a ruby moon and tree laden with turquoise fruits. A masterpiece of
Art Deco, the case was produced at the apogee of the movement, the same year as the Exposition des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris.


Retrograde Clock, 1927; Produced by Verger Frères (Paris, France); Movement manufactured by Vacheron Constantin (Geneva, Switzerland); Black onyx, rock crystal, diamond; 16.5 × 11 × 5 cm (6 1/2 × 4 5/16 × 1 15/16 in.); Photo: Doug Rosa.


The exhibition is not limited to wearable objects but also includes some elaborate timepieces, like the Cartier-designed Imperial Guardian Lion Mystery Clock (1929). In this piece, a carved nephrite lion with electric red toenails and a braided mane crouches under a dial with diamond-encrusted numerals. This elaborate timepiece was not the work of a single maker but involved an ensemble of artisans: a clock-maker-designer, the orfèvre-boîtier (goldsmith-specialty box maker), the enameler, the lapidary, the stone setter, and the polisher. Another piece, the Verger Frères-designed Retrograde Clock, features crystals, or perhaps sunbeams, radiating from swirling vapors. This sunburst may well be an allegory for the dawn of Art Deco, an exuberant style to match the spirit of the Jazz Age.

“Jeweled Splendors of the Art Deco Era: The Prince and Princess Sadruddin Aga Khan Collection” will be on view in the Teak Room of Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, until  August 27. It opened in conjunction with another exhibition at the museum, “The Jazz Age: American Style in the 1920s,” which will remain on display until August 20. Click here to learn more.

For more on Art Deco jewelry, see:

A Dazzling History: 110 Years of Van Cleef & Arpels Jewelry

Collecting Jewelry with an Eye to History and Art

Master Jewelers Oscar Heyman & Bros., Inc.: Romancing The Stones