Gem-set and Diamond Flag Brooch, Tiffany & Co. c. 1900-1910. Photo Credit:Tiffany & Co.
In keeping with the character of the nation, the story of American jewelry is a vibrant and chaotic spectacle. Unique forces acted upon American jewelry design in its first three centuries, including waves of immigration, a dynamic tension between innovation and tradition, and rapid the creation and loss of great fortunes that recycled wealth. Alas jewels cannot speak, but our jewelry community’s epic personalities, including idealistic aesthetes, polymaths, shrewd businessmen, mad artists, and sophisticated tastemakers spring from the pages of history to amuse and amaze.
The European-American jewelry tradition is the subject of this illustrated survey of art and personality. While pre-colonization South, Meso and North American jewelry art is fascinating, with its sacred purposes combined with innovations in platinum work, lost wax casting, and jade carving, its scope and timeframe are too extensive for these pages. Admittedly, European jewelry arts in America ended almost before they started. A group of English refiners, goldsmiths and jewelers accompanied Capt. John Smith to the Virginia shore in 1608, assured of beaches strewn with pearls and rubies. Instead, overpowered with skill, undersupplied with clients and materials, and hopeless for the job at hand (brute survival), these artisans fled back to England the following year.
Succeeding colonies of English Puritans, fleeing oppression only to practice it rigorously against all those they encountered upon arrival, had little use for jeweled frivolity. New Amsterdam, later New York, however, with its formative spirit of Dutch liberality, cherished a little glamor and sparkle. Funerals, unnervingly frequent given the precariousness of existence, provided welcome license for feasting, stately processions with black-plumed horses, and liberal gift-giving. Mourners of the well-to-do would receive gold and black enamel memorial rings commemorating the departed, the most rarified examples enhanced with imported portrait diamonds. Given the quantity of mourning jewelry which has survived, it’s easy to imagine a dark world in which all jewelry was such, but, in fact, these items were preserved over time for their sentimental value, while happier jewels set with precious gems seldom escaped recycling.
The lively New York periodicals of the 18th century reveal that jewelers’ confidence and enterprise abounded: early New Yorkers boldly claimed to be masters of every form of the jeweler’s art. Beautiful Brazilian diamonds and topazes were readily available due to the city’s growth as a port. Jewelry and silver firms took advantage of immigrant talent, both enslaved and indentured.
Left: New York Gazette or the Weekly Post April 9, 1753; Right: A Victorian topaz and diamond brooch. Photo Credit: The Gemmological Association of Great Britain
“Run away” ads offering rewards for the recovery of jewelry apprentices on-the-run paint lively pictures of these bold, fugitive spirits. They listed escapees’ valued skills as well as the personal flourishes of their fashion ensembles, including their wigs. To encounter these ads in the old papers is to relive the thrill and optimism of these individuals’ daring bolts for freedom.
Growing wealth and stability encouraged the founding of larger jewelry and metal smithing firms in the early 19th century - city records show that there were hundreds in New York alone- but a fearlessness of risk and ruin was a requirement to join the business. Liquidation sale ads reveal that these city firms specializing in jewelry, silversmithing, and the decorative arts regularly re-incorporated or went bankrupt. A study of the accounts of the urban luxury goods artisans, Boston’s Seymour family of cabinet makers, reveals the costliness of their superb work (now housed in major American museums) as measured by materials and hours. Their artistic standards were in the stratosphere, while their books were in the red. No guilds existed to protect craft members. Yet despite day-to-day adversities that we would find unendurable now, these early American artists created works of sublime beauty and refinement.
At last, a dominant force in jewelry appeared with the arrival in New York of Charles Louis Tiffany, an energetic businessman who was composed in the face of chaos, philosophical about failed experiments, and ruthless about dis-intermediating middle men - as well as partners who did not share his vision. With his early associates, in the 1830s, Tiffany had started out selling an appealing assortment of the latest fancy goods, eliminating the mutual embarrassment of bartering with the novel use of price tags. After the European revolutions of 1848, diamond prices were in the midst of an alarming freefall of more than 50%. Tiffany reached out to catch the falling knife. He travelled to a Europe in the midst of violent upheaval carrying liquid readies, and returned with important diamonds shaken loose from aristocratic hands, including large specimens that had belonged to Marie Antoinette. In New York these stones were re-cut to modern standards for local clientele, and Tiffany was credited with “democratizing diamonds”. Persuaded by this profitable experience to narrow his emphasis to jewelry, Tiffany trimmed away his partners and engaged in additional novel business practices to tap into direct feeds of supply.
Charles Lewis Tiffany, c. 1840-1850. Photo Credit: Gravatas Ventures
He cultivated ship captains to secure fine pearls directly from the Arabian Gulf, circumventing the Paris waiting list, and he continued his buying trips abroad to obtain important stones. The American Diamond King ultimately bough a third of the French Crown Jewels in 1887- European dealers lacked the means to stop him.
Americans favored fine and decorative art that demonstrated a reassuring continuity with the European and Classical traditions. Tiffany knew that original new design would also be important. He was aware that the French had planned to host a series of World Expositions (1867, 1878, 1889, 1900), which were a key part of a long term strategy to foster French world dominance in art, design and engineering. To keep an eye on the intriguing events in Paris, Tiffany had installed Gideon F.T. Reed, a highly cultured Bostonian with an eye for supporting daring young talent like Frédéric Boucheron, as well as for securing the most sumptuous jewelry in existence, like that of Lucien and Alexis Falize. Falize’s intensive investment in research and skilled specialized labor made their creations some of the most rarified and expensive jewelry ever made - and thanks to Reed, Americans could buy it in New York, boxed by Tiffany’s. Eugene Fontenay, imperial jeweler to global crowned heads, was another of Reed’s sources. These relationships kept Tiffany & Co. supplied with exquisite jewels to meet the growing American demand for luxury that Tiffany had so astutely foreseen. The exhibition space on the 4th floor of his Broadway establishment permitted the public to admire the firm’s astonishing creations and collections of art.
Meanwhile, Tiffany lured American design talent into the firm in the person of Edward C. Moore; Moore’s work won Tiffany his first European artistic recognition, a grand prix in silver at the 1867 Exposition. Royal and imperial jeweler appointments to crowned heads of Europe followed. Tiffany gold jewelry from the succeeding 1878 World Exposition may be found in both the British Museum and the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.
Tiffany & Co. American Indian inspired Jewelry 1889 World Exposition, Paris. Photo Credit: Both images adapted from Paulding Farnham: Tiffany’s Lost Genius, by John Loring. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2000.
By 1889, under the leadership of another young star, Paulding Farnham, Tiffany entered the Paris Exposition with novel works of American inspiration, designed and manufactured by native born Americans, and made of American gem materials. Not just native species of fauna but also the arts of American Indians, including the Navajo, Inuit, and Sitka tribes, were credited as important sources of inspiration. George Frederick Kunz, Tiffany’s star gemologist and member of the US Geological Survey, created an exhibit of unmounted American gems that excited intense interest. When all was said and done, Tiffany had won more medals than any other foreign competitor. Gorham, the much respected Providence silver manufacturers and competitors of Tiffany, felt compelled to issue a public apology for their work’s lack of Americanness. A few years later, Tiffany’s were the stars - as the only jewelry exhibitors - at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. With the globe suffering a set back induced by a worldwide financial panic, Tiffany’s goods were offered “at reasonable prices” - if you had money to spend you couldn’t - unlike today - go wrong. By the end of the century, Tiffany & Co. had helped dispel the concept that Americans were entirely a nation of hopeless rubes, and the effort had been financially rewarding. Charles Tiffany, along with his right hand man, Charles Cook, and his son Louis, were listed in an 1892 survey as the three millionaires of the luxury sector.
In the shadow of this successful international behemoth, smaller fine jewelers brilliantly served the growing American demand, in New York and regionally. Jewelry factories continued to grow in number throughout the second half of the 19th century, in New York, nearby Newark, Boston, and Providence. Ingenious inventors filed for large numbers of patents. An 1870s innovation, “Ear-ring Covers”, allowed women to wear their beloved diamond pendant earrings all the time, concealing them for daytime modesty or for mourning with hinged gold or black enamel spheres.
These covers were a success - though dismayed commentators noted that numerous diamond-festooned young women flitted in full daylight around fashionable locations throughout the city, unconstrained by good taste. Meanwhile, boutique competitors of Tiffany’s produced their own imaginative and beautiful goods, sometimes in and out of partnership with each other, feeding a hungry market. By 1889, wealth and irrepressible extravagance had burgeoned to the extent that Americans were wearing diamonds on the beach.
One of these competitors was the genial and beloved Herman Marcus, an immigrant court jeweler from Dresden who began his American career as a valued salesman at Tiffany & Co., briefly becoming a jeweler in his own right before returning to Tiffany for another stint. He represented them in Paris as a member of the 1878 World Exposition team. His particular expertise in bronzes and fine cameos was also highly valued. Marcus’ chequered experience going in and out of business with successive partners (T.B. Starr, George Jaques) was a typical one - jewelers fell out with each other, went bankrupt, or both, but they were resilient. There is evidence jewelers served on each other’s boards and further that while retailers had their their own productive capacity they also shared the capacity of wholesale manufacturing workshops, a model based on the Parisian market structure, which supplied a helpful degree of supply elasticity. After Herman Marcus’s last partnership dissolved, Marcus’ elder son William went on to found his own firm, the prestigious Marcus & Co. that produced distinctive jewelry for nearly 50 years. In 1892, William welcomed his dad into the business for the last stage of the old man’s career. Joined by his brother George, a talented designer, William hosted a visit from the important Parisian Art Nouveau jeweler, Henri Vever in 1893, which may have led to an ongoing collaboration between Marcus and other Parisian firms. Among other evidence, their astonishing series of flower jewels in highly three dimensional plique-à-jour enamel suggest this connection.
From their incorporation in the 1890s, Marcus & Co. became outspoken enthusiasts on behalf of artistic jewelry and “forgotten gems”. Until World War I, Marcus created remarkable work in gold and a wide variety of colored stones - not only the noble varieties but also alexandrites, opals, and demantoid garnets. The family were tireless proponents of the artistic use of color. While also well known for fine diamonds, pearls, and platinum work, Marcus & Co. created jewels in intricately worked gold displaying a distinctive fusion of global historical influences. Devotees of impressionistic black opal, they claimed in 1908 to have purchased the entire supply of a new source, Lightning Ridge, Australia. In championing black opal, they took on the superstitions against the stone that had existed since Walter Scott’s poplar novels as well as Americans’ inclination to confine their purchases to gems of traditional intrinsic value. The company’s black opal jewels, with their mysterious shifting hues, have a living power to engage the mind. One of these jewels, a necklace at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, engages the mind’s tendency to resolve and complete forms and images. Designed as a black opal pool framed by engraved gold irises, the jewel, with subtle power, persuades the eye to transfer the opal’s rich color imaginatively onto the sculpted blossoms. Marcus also offered black opals set in elaborate Mughal style rings.
An even greater force in art jewelry in America was Diamond King’s son, Louis Tiffany. Louis was an accomplished painter, influential interior designer, and sophisticated aesthete with ties to the French avant garde, including Siegfried Bing and Colonna. He cherished a deep purpose concerning the elevation of American art and taste. Only in middle age, after a successful independent career, did Louis eventually join the family firm as head of design upon Charles’ death in 1902, displacing his father’s protegé Paulding Farnham. In secret workshops situated on the upper floors of his mansion on 72nd street and Madison, Louis collaborated with a young studio artist, Julia Munson, to create the early award-winning jewelry collection that would invert the values of his father’s star designer. Louis put an end to Farnham’s opulent revivalist aesthetic. One memorable day during their co-tenure, Louis sketched drapery onto one of Farnham’s designs for a nude caryatid, a gesture Farnham rightly feared as a brush from the wings of the angel of death: despite all he had done for the firm, Farnham was fully out, mid-career, by 1907. Louis’ vision reigned until the 1930s. For more information about the women who collaborated fruitfully with Louis Tiffany, please see the following articles.
As an interior designer, Louis had absorbed the German idea of the “gesamtkunstwerk”, or total work of art, perhaps impressed by the prototype provided by James Abbott MacNeill Whistler’s novel and controversial Peacock Room in London. Unlike Whistler, however, Louis never strayed from the conviction that “Nature is always right.” Louis’ early jewels of exquisite workmanship and modest materials were inspired by humble American wild plants - in pointed contrast to Farnham’s precious enamel and gem-set orchids, the floral darlings of the 1889 Paris Exposition. Louis’ humble roadside flowers were merely evoked - but did not botanically define, like the orchids - and the outlines of the jewels were often freely shaped, with occasional apertures, in what was obviously hand-wrought gold.
Where Farnham’s work had a magical, otherworldly perfection, Louis’ jewels were an artist’s painterly and poetic interpretation of nature in gold and gems. The gems, often left close to their natural forms, were subordinate to the plant and flower motifs, sometimes buried within the mounts. Together with these stones, enameling was used to create impressionistic color effects, honoring the palettes that occurred in nature.
While Farnham’s jewels were perfectly finished on the back, Louis’ were fully beautiful and three-dimensional in unity and scope. That today’s auction catalogues routinely feature costly “beauty shots” of the front and back of Louis’ jewels is testament to this fact. During this time, Tiffany & Co. continued to create cutting edge modern jewelry in the reigning styles, with exquisite work in platinum and top gems, embracing in experimental cuts. However, with Louis’ alternative focus on elevated art jewelry, opportunities would suddenly open for competing firms.
Despite being offered these refined, wearable works of art, many rich Americans remained passionately attached to the more mainstream “all white” diamond and platinum jewels and colored stones of intrinsic value. By 1899, the Vanderbilt family had collected not only royal titles but also 7 unmounted historic diamonds and pearl strands of imperial origin once worn by Catherine the Great and Empress Eugenie. With Tiffany & Co. largely engaged in the production of aesthetic jewelry, Pierre Cartier saw an opportunity for his family’s glorious French style to fill unsatisfied demand for opulence in New York. Cartier began by importing jewels, French workmen and French salesmen, who were encouraged not to lose their accents. Rewarded with swift and substantial success for his initiative, Pierre famously traded two strands of natural pearls for a 5th Avenue mansion - or did he? This intriguing and wonderful American jewelry lore has never been substantiated - and soon became a beloved member of American society.
In addition, talented American firms working in the French style fed on still unsatisfied demand. Dreicer & Co., founded by a Russian immigrant couple first operating from a Lexington Avenue basement, mounted a serious challenge to Cartier’s Belle Époque hegemony. The Dreicers sent talented jewelers directly to Paris to sketch the latest designs, including Cartiers’, reproducing them in New York with the help of local talent and jewelers poached from Cartier itself. Dreicer quickly carved out an important niche for themselves with the New York elite. Mrs. Dreicer herself was said to be the firm’s primary gem buyer. Though many of Dreicer’s great gemstones have inevitably been remounted over the subsequent century, anyone who saw the glorious Clark Pink Diamond when it appeared briefly at public auction in 2012, still in its period mount, has experienced Mrs. Dreicer’s powers of gem connoisseurship.
Another entrepreneur who rushed to meet the demand for extravagance was E.M. Gattle, a lover of opera who supplied the Met’s singers with real jewels to wear on stage, including a ten foot diamond chain. In the tradition of American jewelers, Gattle was a Gilded Age success story whose mercurial fortunes shared the rollercoaster ride of economic exuberance alternating with panic- throughout, Gattle kept his head high and never stopped. For his loyal client Caruso, in honor of his role as Rigoletto, Gattle designed a colored diamond three-stone ring that the tenor loved so jealously that he forbade the jeweler to reproduce it.
While these heights of glamor and style were being reached, Americans had been advancing the technologies of jewelry and watchmaking. The lack of guilds and their protective regulations meant such changes faced less resistance. In 1878, the American watch companies Elgin and Waltham had won gold medals for their movements at the Paris World Exposition. After the infamous Kipton railroad crash they had worked to achieve the greatest accuracy, animated by the will to solve the very real public perils of inaccurate timekeeping. In Boston, Henry Morse and Charles Field developed steam-powered diamond cutting and polishing machinery which increased the symmetry of diamonds and reduced carat weight waste, soon winning business from Tiffany & Co. In the early years of the 20th century, American entrepreneur Samuel Hoke devised a way to hook up a series of platinum torches to feed off the regular city gas supply, allowing for jewelry workshops manned with multiple artisans to operate efficiently and inexpensively. Many of these technologies soon made their way over to Europe.
Among the most accomplished of the platinum jewelry manufacturing workshops was William Scheer, founded by a German immigrant in the early 1900s. Not only did Scheer’s business grow to produce 50% of the jewelry sold by American firms, but they also acted as agents for prestigious French jewelers selling into the hungry American market. Famous for its fancy-cut diamonds and intricate lapidary work, Scheer’s were entrusted with mounting Van Cleef & Arpels jewels from parts and designs sent over from Paris, allowing the French firm to avoid the severe delays and 80% import duties usually imposed on finished goods entering the U.S. Similarly, manufacturing jewelers Oscar Heyman, founded in 1912, collaborated with America’s foremost retailers and their designers to create top platinum and gem-set jewelry. By 1939, Heyman’s dominance of the top end of the market was so significant that the majority of jewels displayed by the five American firms exhibiting at the 1939 World’s Fair House of Jewels had been manufactured by them.
From the House of Jewels, 1939 World’s Fair, by Cartier, Tiffany & Co. Black Starr & Frost-Gotham, Udall & Ballou, Marcus & Co. Vogue June 15, 1939. All jewels other than Tiffany made by Oscar Heyman, Inc.
Even with this prodigious local talent, the wealthiest Americans were still scooping up more than half of the product of the top Parisian jewelry houses. While American jewelers had responded admirably to the world artistic styles of the Art Nouveau, the Belle Époque, and Arts & Crafts, arts commentators warned that a domestic design slowdown was appearing. Funded by local artists, the 1913 Armory show had introduced Americans to the transformative art of Matisse,
Duchamp and Leger, now recognized for reordering the rules of art making. At the time, however, it heartily shocking and generally alienated the public, revealing a telling streak of American conservatism. Between 1910 and 1918, one fashion commentator lamented, society photos revealed how little progress had been made in jewelry design.
By World War I, American art institutions were also expressing concern about a domestic design crisis. Tiffany’s Gideon Reed had donated $50,000 to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to fund design education and, in 1917, the Met hosted the first of several exhibition showcasing modern manufactured objects inspired by such diverse museum exhibits as ceramic tiles, silver, Japanese prints, and armor. New styles of jewelry began to appearing in the 1920s, before and around the 1925 Paris Exposition. Inspired by Tutankhamen’s funerary art, these styles encouraged women to envision themselves in the beautiful, slim, stylized figures depicted on the walls in the Valley of the Kings. Though new, in a way, Neo-Egyptian styles represented yet another form of artistic historicism - Americans were both thrilled by it, and comfortable with it. As for the geometry of the Art Deco, jewelry in this style enjoyed wide popularity, when rendered in precious stones and conservatively designed. Americans also fell hard for sporting jewelry. They eagerly scooped up line bracelets set with diamonds and colored stones that could be worn on the tennis court or golf course, gemmy dog and trophy fish brooches, and jeweled wristwatches for driving - then considered an athletic pursuit.
An influx of jewels from the fallen crowned heads of Europe made having money and buying jewels of intrinsic value especially exciting in the years after World War I and into the Roaring Twenties. One visitor to New York, who arrived loaded with treasures to exhibit (and sell) was Russian Prince Felix Yusupov. Notorious for the brutal murder of Rasputin, the Prince was an adventurer who had stolen back into St. Petersburg in the midst of the bloody February Revolution of 1917. He had then then coolly departed for Paris, gone in the dark and laden with family jewels and Rembrandts. When he brought the jewels to the U.S., Yusupov helped import the taste for “Barbaric Splendor”, the unimaginative and unfortunate misnomer applied to the jewelry styledeveloped over centuries by the exchange of art, aesthetics and culture between Russia and India.
Organized in an exhibition, the exquisitely mounted Yusupov family jewels contained profusions of very large emerald drops, opulent natural pearls, quantities of beautifully matched sapphires, and diamonds of the finest water. Some of the Yusupov’s famous gems were of Indian royal provenance. Years later, in the 1960s, Van Cleef & Arpels New York revived jewels in the spirit of these Russian-Indian creations with a collection known as “Jewels Facing East.”
However, bold and original jewelry design coming from Europe did not lodge itself in the American sensibility the way glittering royal jewels had done. The nation was not yet ready for Parisian motor jewels and other ascetic creations devoid of ornament and expensive materials. These subversive jewelry concepts, which celebrated movement and bold form, only found expression in the hands of talented studio jewelers such as Art Smith, Sam Kramer, Margaret di Patta and Ed Weiner, but this was well after World War II. All in all, Americans still loved traditional, precious sparkly things. An exception was the work of Alexander Calder, who began creating individually-designed hand-wrought wire jewelry starting in the late 1920s. Some of these wearable works of art were made on the spot for Calder’s lucky dinner guests. However, in the years before the Museum of Modern Art reached out a helping hand to offer Calder a major venue for his groundbreaking art, he created jewelry to supplement his income. The Williams Gallery exhibited Calder’s jewelry in 1940, and by 1943, two Calder necklaces had been collected by the Museum of Modern Art. Generous art patrons Peggy Guggenheim and Mrs. Rockefeller enjoyed wearing his spectacular work, oversized pieces that expressed, as one critic approvingly put it, “the humor of mock aggression and shameless self-assertion.”
Alexander Calder Hammered Silver Necklace. Photo Credit: Macklowe Gallery
The Great Depression upended traditional American jewelry design in the 1930s. Undermined by a collapse in trade funding, the diversion of divers to the oil industry, and ecological catastrophe, natural pearls, a mainstay of top jewelers, dropped to 10% of their former value. The
U.S. went off the gold standard, making the metal more accessible to jewelers. And as World War II approached, America again threw a lifeline to displaced Europeans - aristocrats, politicians, jewelers, and top colored stone dealers. New York experienced yet another huge influx of immigrants bringing wealth, precious gems, and jewelry talent. Newly popular gold lent itself to lost wax casting, and most jewelers now embraced that technology, though the best continued to hand finish their jewels. Even the extraordinary French designing manufacturing jewelers, Verger Frères, bought American casting equipment and shipped it back to Paris. Embodying the chic of the decade was the Duchess of Windsor, who launched the Flower Style of the high 1930s with her Van Cleef & Arpels colored sapphire flower spray brooch.
Among the most sophisticated of this new wave of jewelers arriving in New York were Louis and Claude Arpels, immigrating in the late 1930s and bringing with them their long term collaborators, the firm of John Rubel. They opened their salon at 744 Fifth Avenue in 1942. Having formerly worked through American manufacturers like Scheer, Van Cleef & Arpels now introduced special new jewels of luxury, sophistication and originality, including their invisibly-set items, which required perfectly matched and intricately fashioned rubies and sapphires cut to fit perfectly into each other. Sumptuously wasteful, the technique ensured that many stones were discarded in the making and the rest could never be repurposed.
But the result were jewels with continuous fields of glowing color set in mounts of unprecedented flexibility of exquisite ballerina jewels, conceived with George Balanchine, were created with a large lot of unusually fine, colorless rose-cut diamonds said to have come from the Spanish Crown Jewels, via refugees in Mexico. Designed by former Cartier and Charlton designer, Maurice Duvalet - who “brought chic to everything he touched” - the ballerinas were brought to life by John Rubel. Rubel briefly created sculptural and voluminous work in his own name before returning to Paris after the war. Jewels by Van Cleef and Rubel have a joyful quality and exhibit consistently superb workmanship.
An American firm with a strong French alliance was Trabert & Hoeffer-Mauboussin. The Parisian firm Mauboussin, known for its leading Art Moderne design and contoured voluminous jewels in unusual materials, had just opened in New York when the driest years of the Great Depression began to be felt. In 1930, the two American partners acquired Mauboussin’s new New York salon and inventory, and the parties contracted for an ongoing partnership.
Trabert & Hoeffer dealt not only in Mauboussin’s spectacular modernist creations, but also in imperial jewels acquired from Soviet agents, deposed royalty and beleaguered aristocrats, provenance ranging from Empress Eugenie to the Yusupovs;. They lent them Great Garbo, Marlene Dietrich and other members of the uncrowned royalty of Hollywood. T & H-M jewelry from the mid-30s often has a splendid architectural quality, like this twinstone ring with unusual sanded patination.
Fulco, Duke of Verdura was another influential aristocratic asset to arrive from Europe. He landed in New York in 1934, fresh from the success of creating the famous Byzantine-inspired Maltese cross cuffs for Coco Chanel. Verdura took up an important design position with Paul Flato, a creative and humorous Texan who had made himself the new darling of Hollywood. Flato’s distinctive designs (his archival drawings are preserved in two separate collections) ranged from whimsical to opulent, and included gold hands positioned in sign language, a collection he entitled “Say It with Jewelry”, along with amusingly-named Wiggly Clips, Fat Hearts, and Whimsies. More spectacular pieces, some designed by Verdura, included the aquamarine and ruby Belt Buckle necklace of great scale, flexibility, and luminous color. Americans had never before seen fabulous jewelry that did not take itself seriously. Flato was not handy with numbers, often over-extending himself financially, and served time at Sing Sing, though falsely convicted.
On his own, Verdura founded a jewelry firm on the eve of World War II. Engaging, vividly imaginative, and perpetually fortunate, the Duke and his enterprise prospered. During the War he collaborated with fellow expatriate, the surrealist Salvador Dalí, on a small group of wonderful artistic jewelry exhibited with Dalí’s and Miro’s paintings at the Museum of Modern Art. The two had bonded over an elaborate practical joke and shared a delight in dreams, mythology and surrealism. Playfully glamorous, Verdura’s nature-inspired jewels infused with fun and and gorgeous colors have a devoted following.
With Louis Tiffany pursuing other aims, the mantle of 20th century King of Diamonds was passed to American-born Harry Winston. Winston’s career started when, as a boy of 12 passing a pawn shop window, he spotted an important emerald being sold as paste. He was an effective liquidator of estate jewelry and a prominent proponent of diamond recycling, recutting historic stones to focus on brilliance (white light), and liberating them from their period mountings. Among the famous estates Winston purchased was Evelyn Walsh McLean’s. McLean had been an infamous, inveterate jewelry spendthrift whom Pierre Cartier - with the greatest reluctance - had had to drag into court for payment. Looking back at the historic pieces that Winston recycled, it is daunting to consider how significant a loss of period, signed art jewelry, both French and American, must have occurred. Divorced from all tradition, Winston’s famous style was to set diamonds in “lyrical” groupings, allowing the cuts of the stones themselves to govern the forms of his jewelry. By 1952, his collection of historic jewels was second in the world only to that of the British crown. Winston made up for his jewelry vandalism by being charitably minded: when he was ready, he donated the historic Hope Blue Diamond (once McLean’s) to the nation, shipping the bad luck stone to the Smithsonian via USPS registered insured mail in a cardboard box.
A retiring person, Winston nonetheless had a flair for publicity. In 1936, he purchased the 726 carat “Jonker”, the fourth largest diamond crystal ever found, and instead of having it cut by the usual experts in Europe, he chose Lazare Kaplan of New York as his diamantaire. Excitement and anxiety surrounding the diamond built, and the cleaving event was a national sensation covered live by the press. From that point, Lazare Kaplan’s success with the Jonker essentially “on-shored” the business of important diamond manufacture into the U.S. In another innovation, Winston staged a multi-city road show, “The Court of Jewels”, with models irreverently sporting the Mrs. McLean’s historic collection, and he also lent jewelry to beloved Hollywood stars like Katherine Hepburn.
Still, Winston enjoyed having a famous name while being nearly invisible - he had never strayed from his insurance company’s recommendation to avoid appearing in the media. When Winston would hold soirées for clients at his 5th Avenue salon, he would sit quietly in the back. Intimidated guests looking for someone to talk to might confide to the quiet old gentleman that they knew nothing of diamonds. He would politely respond that, although he worked there, he too knew very little about them, then invite the guest into the back for an unforgettable tour of the vault and workshops. When Winston was returning from London once with the Hope Diamond, a breathless man stepped onto his flight during a stopover in the Canary Islands and took the seat next to him. With a sigh of relief, the young man explained that he had just transferred from another flight upon hearing that Harry Winston and the Hope Diamond were to board it. Shortly after the plane doors closed, Winston helpfully introduced himself and offered the stone from his pocket. Winston made Americans passionate about diamonds. ”If I could,” he once mused, “ I would attach diamonds directly onto a woman's skin"
Interestingly, among the wave of talented immigrant jewelers to arrive in the U.S. as refugees from war-torn Europe was Marianne Ostier, who had just the same idea as Winston. Marianne was a painter and sculptress trained in Vienna. Her husband Oliver came from a family of Austrian imperial jewelers. In their small salon, she created jewels that conveyed a fluid, organic modernism and demonstrated a mastery of both platinum and gold. Also, the Ostiers developed a gel that securely attached brooches directly to the body, her sensational so called “Skin Pins”. In 1955, her Galaxy brooch was displayed at the Smithsonian, and 1966 she exhibited alongside Georges Braque and Dali.
Model Wearing Suite of Jewels by Marianne Ostier
For more information on and jewels by Ostier, follow this link
. She was one of the few, but not the only, independent women to pioneer jewelry design in America. Olga Tritt, who emigrated form Russia in the 1910s, became a jewelry designer and an intrepid, globe trotting gem hound, crowning her career with the exhibit of a celebrate necklace of Brazilian aquamarines at the 1939 World’s Fair. Madame Marie El Khoury of the Little Shop of T. Azeez on Park Avenue was another beloved figure with a small salon producing jewelry that was both modernist and sumptuous.
At Tiffany & Co., many of Louis’s initiatives had faded away with his illness and death in the early 1930s. His dedication to beauty and art, and his mission to elevate taste, were at odds with commercial demands and profitability. After a difficult period from the mid 1930s to 1955, Tiffany & Co. passed out of family hands. The new president, Walter Hoving, and his design director, the brilliant and urbane Van Day Truex, oversaw a revitalization of the company’s powers, which resulted in a thirteen fold multiplication of revenues by 1980. A crucial member of the revitalization team was Jean Schlumberger, a Frenchman whom Truex had drawn from New York’s pool of immigrant jewelry talent. Once a designer of costume jewelry for the influential surrealist couturier Elsa Schiaparelli, Schlumberger sensed New York was ready for his artistic creations, even those with a touch of absurdist flair, as long as they honored the quality of intrinsic preciousness Americans so valued in their jewels. At Tiffany, Schlumberger and his partner Nicolas Bongard (a nephew of René Boivin) created enchanting jewelry and objets, drawing on both rare aspects of nature and the firm’s Aladdin’s cave of gems amassed during Kunz’s tenure.
Jean Schlumberger, Tiffany & Co. Starfish Brooch Credit: Macklowe Gallery
Sophisticated clients like Babe Paley and Jackie Kennedy welcomed the firm’s return to outsize naturalism, infused with the wit and charm of Schlumberger’s Parisian design roots in the 1930s. Also, working for Hoving and Truex was rewarding for the artist: some 90% of his designs were produced.
Apart from his meaningful contribution to American art, Louis Tiffany, from a variety of motives, created space and opportunity for women to influence design in the 20th century. Many women worked for him at Tiffany Studios, and were crucial to his success, among them Clara Driscoll and the artists/jewelry designers Julia Munson and Meta Overbeck.
Later in the 20th century, Tiffany & Co. resumed the tradition of hiring women, with Elsa Peretti, Paloma Picasso, and Angela Cummings achieving star status at the firm. The company’s relationships with these women were sometimes fraught, but no other American or global jeweler has welcomed and promoted the contributions of women to the same degree.
As a final salute, we highlight the jeweler David Webb, an all-American talent who represents the glamor and optimism of the 1950s, 60s and early 70s. During the Kennedy years, Americans fully embraced the joys of formal entertainment, while in print and on television, National Geographic and Wild Kingdom filled American’s imaginations with visions of exotic natural beauty. Webb found inspiration in these wonderful exotic animals, creating a jeweled menagerie that the press called “The Enamel Jungle”. He saw art wherever he looked - from city architecture to the artifacts and totems of ancient civilizations at Metropolitan Museum of Art. His stylish jewels, manufactured by artisans in workshops directly upstairs from the salon, were highly colorful and volumized, appealing to jet-setting Americans and royals alike. Featuring models with rings on every finger and stacks of bracelets, Webb’s gorgeous fashion spreads cheerfully promoted what the press called “Sheherezaderie”, and his amusing ad campaigns delighted the public, as they still do today.
Webb was sensitive to his beloved city’s troubles in the early 70s, shifting his focus from diamonds to luminous colorless quartz, and explaining “Rock crystal feels right.” Outgoing, collegial, and generous in spirit, Webb celebrated big gold jewelry for men, and he credited Jeanne Toussaint of Cartier Paris for his best ideas - “she’s the inspiration for us all.” For more on David Webb’s creations, please follow this link.
The post modern, contemporary American jewelry world is brand-dominated, complex and international, replete with talent but also characterized by computer-aided manufacture and design. Much popular jewelry produced today has appealing, clever designs with the appearance of preciousness, enhanced by brand power, and yet the basic worth of its materials is often very fractional. Further, unless independent, most jewelry designers are, in current corporate culture, anonymous servants of the brand, denying us insight into the artists behind the work. Independent international jewelry artists - Hemmerle, JAR, Wallace Chan, Michelle Ong, Viren Bhagat - are still creating important designs with exquisite materials -- but they are limited in availability.
All the more important, then, to celebrate our long American tradition of
outstanding designers and jewelry artists, native and foreign-born, whose struggles and successes we have honored here - Tiffany & Co.
, Louis Tiffany
, Trabert & Hoeffer-Mauboussin
, Marcus & Co
., Dreicer & Co., Oscar Heyman
, David Webb
, Van Cleef & Arpels
, John Rubel
, and Alexander Calder. We commemorate as well all the anonymous engravers, polishers, setters, enamelers, casters, model makers, and lapidaries, the skilled craftspeople who were essential members of these enterprises. Their beautiful jewels are waiting for you.