The Bund in Shanghai, in 1935. Photos: Corbis; Christie’s Images; Sotheby’s Hong Kong

From Puccini to powder boxes, how China infused art deco era

The 1920s and '30s saw an explosion in Western interest in 'exotic' China, and nowhere is this more evident than in the fashion, jewellery and accessories produced for a generation of newly liberated women, writes Patrick Lecomte

In 1934, when Lenthéric, one of the most successful perfume makers in pre-second world war France, decided to modernise its blockbuster scent, Heart of Paris, it began by modifying the formula, adding aldehyde chemical compounds similar to those that had made Chanel N°5 stand out. The scent was then repackaged in an archaic Chinese-bronze-style bottle and renamed Shanghai. Advertisements for the modernised perfume emphasised the Chinese metropolis' mix of ancestral tradition and cutting-edge modernity.

As a gateway to the Middle Kingdom, Shanghai, the "Paris of the East", was uniquely positioned in Westerners' idealised vision of Asia. Indeed, between the world wars, China was seen as both exotic and mysterious. It was, as New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art describes it, "an empire of free-floating signs" whose myths and riches had fired Western imaginations since Marco Polo chronicled his travels to the East in 1300.

In 1857, French writer Edmond de Goncourt wrote that China was still a "world upside down! A paradise of paradoxes! Jade sky, red trees, rivers of Nanjing, chimerical creatures, cities of porcelain, and ten-storey-high pagodas whose bells sing with the wind! The land where everything happens!"

A 1936 advertisement for Lenthéric’s “Shanghai” (inset left).
A 1924 carved lacquer scent bottle.

It was a faraway land that the Yellow Cruise, a 1931 motoring expedition from Beirut to Peking, sponsored by the Citroen car company, pictured as the reward at the end of an arduous 13,000km journey from the Mediterranean to the China seas.

After the doom and gloom of the first world war, the elites of the exuberant (roaring twenties), the international cafe society, had an insatiable appetite for travel, adventure and intellectual discovery. British playwright and novelist W. Somerset Maugham made his first trip to China, via Hong Kong, and along the Yangtze River in the winter of 1919-20, publishing in 1922.

As the immensity of the Middle Kingdom's civilisation began to loom large in the imagination of Westerners still getting used to the new Republic of China, those who did not have the time or the means to travel to Asia could get a taste of its marvels by visiting the French colonial exhibitions of 1922 and 1931, or one of the various other international exhibitions held in Europe.


In the arts, interest in the era is best embodied by Giacomo Puccini's , an opera set in medieval China and first staged at La Scala, in Milan, in 1926, 22 years after , another Puccini masterpiece, which was set in Japan.

An art-deco enamel, jade and diamond vanity case, circa 1925.

This fascination with China was perhaps best expressed in fine jewellery; prestigious firms such as Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels and Boucheron - and houses that no longer exist, such as Fouquet and Lacloche Frères - designed some of the most exquisitely fine pieces of the art-deco period under the influence of Chinese culture.

A 1929 drawing of a dragon for a box.

"Whereas 17th-century and 18th-century European designers created Chinoiserie by mixing elements from various exotic cultures they did not know, art-deco jewellers had a deep knowledge of Asia and China thanks to numerous exhibitions on Chinese art held in France and access to museum collections, such as those of Musée Guimet, opened in Paris in 1889," says Evelyne Possémé, chief curator at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, in Paris, and a leading authority on art-deco jewellery.

The 1920s were characterised by radical social change. Women had gained the freedom to smoke, wear daringly captivating perfume and sport make-up in public (all practices once reserved for women of ill-repute). High jewellers enthusiastically catered for the emancipated woman by offering specially designed cigarette boxes, lipstick holders, scent bottles, powder boxes and vanity cases called or (a concept so new that, in 1933, Van Cleef & Arpels patented the latter term, coined after the French word for the verb "to simper").

Parisian high jewellers produced an astonishing array of in the Chinese style, such as evening bags, timepieces, vases and figurines, in addition to the wearable pieces more customarily associated with their trade. The demand for these luxury objects, in Oriental style or not, led Cartier to open a dedicated business called "Department S" in the early 20s. One well-documented order was placed by British blueblood Lord James Armand de Rothschild, who, in November 1926, asked Cartier Paris to produce 34 small vases in the Chinese style, to be given as Christmas gifts to his family and close friends.

A 1925 vanity case.

Parisian high jewellers approached Chinese aesthetics in two ways.

They incorporated into their creations bits and pieces from antiques, particularly Qing-dynasty jade sculptures, lacquer and mother of pearl panels, and carved ivory bought from leading dealers in Chinese antiques (such as the legendary C.T. Loo, who ran his business from a reconstructed pagoda in the upscale neighbourhood of Parc Monceau, in Paris). (inlaid lacquer) panels were dismantled from their antique settings (mostly bowls, trays and tables) and reassembled in a modern style with characteristic geometric decor.

"Cartier kept a stock of sundry items collected at whim by Louis Cartier [1875-1942] known as ," says Estelle Niklès van Osselt, curator at the Baur Foundation, in Geneva, which recently organised "Asia Imagined", an exhibition exploring the House of Cartier's Chinese and Japanese influences during the art-deco period. "All sorts of antiques, figurines and ornaments were made available to the house's designers, to be treated as jewels in their own right and used to turn clocks, jewellery and accessories into unique objects."


Parisian jewellers also combined characteristically art-deco items with classical signs and symbols of Chinese art, such as landscapes, dragons, pagodas, foo dogs, waves, clouds, thunderbolts, auspicious calligraphic characters and even patterns, such as "cracked ice", that are common in Chinese architecture and garden arrangements.

A case decorated with dragons, circa 1925, all by Van Cleef & Arpels.

"The difference between the two approaches lies in the literality of the Chinese influence," says Possémé. "By reinterpreting Chinese culture rather than literally reusing antique pieces, jewellers obtained a totally different effect, which is more ."


Jewellers were creative in their use of Chinese codes. For instance, in 1931, Van Cleef & Arpels produced a set of gold jewellery modelled on a typical Chinese rice planter's hat.

In terms of materials, China was also a major source of inspiration. Cartier used blue kingfisher feathers, a quintessential component of Chinese ancestral ornaments, to adorn tiaras and desk clocks in the 1920s. A set of boxes recently discovered unopened in the Cartier archives contained pristine kingfisher feathers imported from China circa 1910, preciously stored like gems to be mounted.

Likewise, the widespread use of jade is emblematic of art deco's Far Eastern connection. One marvellous example is a dress ornament from 1923, by Georges Fouquet, in jade and onyx and modelled on an antique Chinese mask.

A 1923 nécessaire, also by Van Cleef & Arpels.

"Following the Summer Palace's ransacking, in 1860, jade started to reach Europe in large quantities," says Possémé. "Late 19th-century French jewellers such as Eugene Fontenay employed jade in a classical manner, using it for insect brooches and earrings in the neo-Grec style. However, the use of carved jade in the Chinese style truly started in the early 20th century, especially with Cartier, which exhibited China-inspired jewellery in New York as early as 1913."

A 1926 art-deco desk clock by Cartier.

Bold colour schemes - such as red and black, blue and green - inspired by the Far East and unseen before in Western jewellery, were also all the rage. Black was often used as a background, or as a highlight only, to showcase jade, emeralds, red coral, lapis lazuli, sapphires or simply diamonds set in platinum.


The effects were striking, especially with progresses made in diamond-cutting techniques allowing for new rectangular shapes.

To achieve beautiful surfaces in muted colours, jewellers often applied lacquer, which was sturdier than enamel derived from glass. The French jewellers, however, could not master lacquerwork. In the early 1900s, the innovative Maison Gaillard brought Chinese workers to Paris to pass on their techniques, with limited success. French workers suffered from skin reactions to the raw materials used for lacquer whereas Asian workers were immune to such effects.

In a 1927 article titled "Le Bijou Moderne" ("the modern jewel"), magazine reported that "Vietnamese workers who had lacquered aircraft propellers [in Europe] during the Great War were employed in small Parisian workshops", finishing vanity cases and other luxury items in the best Asian tradition.

A Van Cleef & Arpels jewellery collection from 1931 is styled on a typical Chinese rice planter’s hat.

What French jewellers captured was an era of opulent refine-ment underpinned by a deep knowledge and interest in Asian cultures. The Liang Yi Museum, in Sheung Wan, epitomises this felicitous combination by displaying a collection of art-deco vanity cases, compact cases and other luxury items alongside one of the finest collections of antique classical Chinese furniture.

"Chinese classical furniture is renowned for its usage of mortise and tenons as its main joinery technique," says museum director Lynn Fung. "Each piece is like an intricate jigsaw puzzle that fits together just so. Similarly, vanity cases were renowned not only for their beauty, but also for their functionality. Vanity cases were meant to contain all the necessary items a lady may need for a soirée [lipstick, cigarette lighter, powder, pen, etc]. To get all of these objects into a tiny palm-sized gold box is no easy feat, and just as the joinery in Chinese classical furniture is much to be admired; so is the origami-esque functionality of these vanity cases."

Whether they end up in museums or private collections, Chinese-style art-deco pieces are among the most sought after jewellery of the 20th century.

The most expensive piece of Cartier jewellery ever sold at auction is a necklace of 27 magnificent jade beads that was designed by Cartier Paris in the early 1930s and owned by American style icon Barbara Hutton. It is not entirely clear where the beads came from, but they were most likely part of a Qing-dynasty necklace, according to Sotheby's auctioneers. Hutton's necklace, which combines China's ancestral love for jade with the art-deco sense of style, sold for HK$214 million to the House of Cartier, with strong Asian underbidding, at Sotheby's Hong Kong in April 2014, setting the world record for jadeite jewellery sold at auction.

Ladies lunching at a Shanghai tennis match in the early 20th century.

"An essentially Asian gemstone, the jadeite once incorporated in art-deco pieces for its exoticism is now becoming an attraction for Chinese collectors, who are starting to show interest in Western vintage jewellery," says Louisa Chan, jewellery specialist at Sotheby's Hong Kong. "The fact that a lot of these rare pieces were created by world-famous maisons such as Cartier adds to their appeal for mainland collectors."

Vickie Sek, jewellery specialist at Christie's Hong Kong, says, "Art-deco jewellery with jade is usually preferred by Asian buyers for the quality of the stone rather than the design. The market for such pieces is still small in Asia compared with Europe and the US. Although there is an interest among Chinese collectors for art-deco timepieces in the Chinese style, they worry about maintenance as the mechanism is not easy to understand and repair."

French jewellery houses are aware of the importance of showcasing their Asian heritage in today's luxury goods market. Cartier is supporting the Baur exhibition, where Chinese antiques from the foundation and rarely seen Chinese-style art-deco jewels from the jeweller's own collections are presented side by side. The exhibition highlights the striking similarities.

American heiress Barbara Hutton wears a Cartier jadeite necklace (below right) to New York's Metropolitan Opera House, in 1933.

Van Cleef & Arpels organised an exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art, in Shanghai, in 2012. At the time, museum director Samuel Kung singled out the art-deco pieces on display, expressing his pride at seeing China recognised as a major influence on French high jewellery.

"Inconspicuously, the Chinese and Japanese vocabulary of ornamentation slipped into the language of Western art, bringing dynamism to objects and textiles," says van Osselt. "Although the patterns used in the decoration of many creations of this period were apparently abstract, they ultimately have their origins in the arts of China and Japan.

"Once imported to Europe, Chinese motifs became abstract as most Westerners were not able to capture what they originally represented in China. These motifs made art deco truly new. "

Hence, through jewellery, art historians are paying tribute to Asia as a major source of inspiration for the art-deco style, which is customarily seen as the epitome of French modernity. The shift from exotic symbols laden with meaning to geometric motifs linked to the machine age was evident at the end of the 1920s.

A box with a dragon design, circa 1930, from the Van Cleef & Arpels collection.

And the aesthetic exchanges between East and West did not stop with the art-deco era.

"In the 70s, in the wake of the hippie movement, Parisian jewellery houses reintroduced many Asian themes in their creations, such as dragons and phoenixes," says Possémé.

A 1927 pocket watch with a Chinese “magician” indicating the time, by Van Cleef & Arpels.

Today, as Asia flexes its economic muscle and its collectors reach into deep pockets, the tables seem to have turned, with Asian designers reinterpreting Western codes. Hong Kong-based Wallace Chan, for instance, a quintessential Chinese jewellery designer and an innovator akin to Louis Cartier in his time, is greatly admired in Europe, where his creations are shown at exclusive art fairs alongside the wares of leading antique dealers.

"As a Chinese from the mainland growing up in Hong Kong, an East-meets-West melting pot, the confluence of cultures was an everyday encounter starting from my childhood, a continuation of my cultural traditions and a foundation of my knowledge and skills," says Chan. "One important aspect in jewellery creations is that they reflect the spirit of their times. Art-deco jewellers were inspired by elements that were exotic to them.

"As I have lived in a different context, the role of art deco in my own inspiration is not major. [However], I have admired René Lalique since the early stage of my career." The French designer (1860-1945) was famous for his art-nouveau jewels. "His meticulous workmanship with enamel and the way he combined carvings with jewellery inspired me. His works reflect an innovative spirit that I find resonance in. I will always enjoy being a mixed child making use of the treasures in this world so that my creativity can run free."

Local jeweller Wallace Chan.

When asked about the concept of exotica in jewellery today, Chan takes a moment to ponder the question.

"Is the imaginative world we have today about the vast universe and alien planets the definition of our new exoticism," he ponders. "Science and technology have made travelling easy. As a result, our imagination reaches out to the worlds implied by new, subtle discoveries; worlds that we know little of. We are eager to find out about black holes and the other dimensions. We are fascinated by the possibilities of space and time.

"I feel that it is important for a creator to transcend boundaries, not to be confined by his or her culture, or knowledge from a particular area. History is available for us to learn from and the future is here for us to dream about.

"If you see a Chinese dragon on a brooch, you naturally think it is a Chinese-style brooch. However, it really depends on the originality of the work. I believe that creativity comes from within; you absorb the world, experience life and connect pieces of memories to produce a work of your very own style.

"Everyone has a unique dragon."

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Design Oriented