Jean Després was one of the innovative jewelers of the 1920s and 1930s who captured the streamlined aesthetic of the machine age in jewelry. Born in 1889 to a family of jewelers in Souvigny, he apprenticed as a goldsmith in Paris for a friend of his father’s while studying design. Here he met and befriended Amedeo Modigliani, Giorgio de Chirico, Paul Signac, and most important, Georges Braque. During World War I, he worked in a military workshop designing airplane engines; the experience influenced the mechanistic forms he developed as a craftsman designer. In 1929, he joined the Union des Artistes Modernes, a group that challenged the established traditions of jewelry. Després passed away in 1980.
A new group of jewelers emerged in the later part of the Art Deco movement who found inspiration from the rapidly changing world around them. These artists used machinery, geometry, and Cubism as their muses and focused on producing conceptual jewelry of modest material. The start of this new movement coincided with the formation of the Union des Artistes Modernes (UAM) in 1929. This group of around 20 artists included jewelers Raymond Templier, Jean Dunand, Georges and Jean Fouquet, Gerard Sandoz, and Jean Després. The members of the UAM believed that art must be inspired by the new mechanical age and the excitement of modern life. Their manifesto stated “ornament . . . is excessive: get rid of it.”
One of the most dynamic twentieth-century designers, Després captured the modern aesthetic of the machine age with great success. Després worked as mechanical draftsman during World War I and his jewelry drew inspiration from his industrial design experience, particularly the pieces known as bijoux-moteurs, or motor jewelry, such as this necklace. Of graduated design, this piece centers upon a section of raised gear-like ridges surmounted by circular pieces evocative of washers, then flanked by links with similar gear motifs. The necklace continues with a graduated open links connected with machine-like motifs. Després preferred to work in silver and with this necklace skillfully used the play of dark and light between the oxidized and polished areas creating volume and contrast. A wearable work of art, the use of graduated links creates a forced-perspective recalling his history as a draftsman.
The journal L’Art et les Artistes of March 1934 said of Després, “He produces little, because he wants to do it all himself, with nothing mass produced.” Després crafted each piece himself using traditional silversmithing techniques with nothing machine constructed. His artistry can be seen in every piece and each element of the design is a vital part of the composition. Després was an integral part of the movement which introduced the mechanical to jewelry design and his work was recently honored in a retrospective Bijoux Art deco et Avant-garde: Jean Després et les bijoutiers modernes at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris. This necklace is an important work of bijoux-moteurs by a master designer.