Highlighting Women Makers: Marianne Ostier, The Groundbreaking Artist-Jeweler
Austrian-born Marianne Ostier was an immigrant artist and modernist jeweler who found success in the niche Manhattan salon that she established with her husband. Both Marianne and Oliver Ostier were Viennese by birth, and came from prosperous families. The Oesterreichers—Oliver’s original family surname—registered in the 1905 Vienna directory as goldsmiths, silversmiths, and jewelers to the royal civil service under the Emperor Franz Josef. Records show that success came quickly: by the 1920s, the family had two retail establishments in the Inner City, a few minutes’ walk from the royal palace. Though it is unclear whether the Oesterreichers were ever jewelers to the Austro-Hungarian Crown itself, the Albanian and Romanian royal families commissioned substantial pieces in the mid-1930s, and it appears that Marianne joined the firm as a designer around that same time.
However, the rise of Nazism forced the Oesterreichers to abandon their growing third generation business, and on July 1st, 1938, the Dutch Union for Diamond Workers Weekly journal reported on alarming numbers of arrests among their Viennese colleagues, including the Oesterreichers. Thankfully, the truth was that they had managed to flee, the older generation to Switzerland, and Oliver and his older brother to the new world. Oliver’s skills as a manufacturing and retail jeweler would eventually be paired with his wife Marianne’s creative and artistic talents in Manhattan, serving a discerning clientele under their adopted new name, Ostier.
Marianne Aufricht Ostier, daughter of a well-to-do businessman, had been educated at the music conservatory, as well as the prestigious Imperial School of Arts & Crafts in Vienna. Focused on both artistic attainment and trade, the School was modeled after the Victoria & Albert in London, offering advanced training for designers and craftsmen through study of its broad collection of historical works. Complementing her hands-on study was classroom instruction by top professionals in fine and decorative arts, wherein Marianne is said to have excelled in painting and sculpture. The lead sculpture professor during the 1920s was Anton Hanak, a close associate of Gustav Klimt, and other artists who had taught at the school included Klimt himself and Oskar Kokoschka. The school was one of the birthplaces of Jugendstil and, in the 1920s, of Viennese Kineticism, two of whose prominent leaders were women artists. In her interviews, Marianne mentioned graduating from the school, while other sources say she spent three years there, long enough to complete the full array of general art education courses without specializing. In any case, it was a challenging curriculum and as such, a rich atmosphere for Marianne. Her later embrace of abstraction in her striking jewelry of the 1950s and 60s might relate to this early exposure to Modernists.
As of yet, the story of how Oliver and Marianne met or exactly when they married is unknown, but they became lifetime partners in work and love. Oliver had first married in the 1920s and had a son, Alex, but by 1930 he was divorced, while Marianne had had two short-lived marriages, the second of which ended in 1933. Some sources say that during the 1920s Marianne had been active as a sculptor, but it appears that by the mid to late 1930s, she was designing jewels in Vienna for the Oesterreichers. This is substantiated by The New York Times, which reported on the exhibition and sale of Oesterreicher jewels commissioned by the Romanian Queen Geraldine in the 1930s, naming Marianne as the “designer of most of the jewels.” Marianne herself reported to an interviewer that Hitler had invaded Austria two years after her marriage to Oliver, so, although the certificate has not been located, that would have been 1936. Records assembled by descendants on Ancestry indicate that, after Oliver and Marianne fled Vienna, they resided together in Bath, England, before traveling to Rio de Janeiro in 1940, and then sailing into New York harbor shortly after New Year’s Day in 1941. Oliver was somehow traveling as an Italian citizen on a temporary Brazilian “protective” passport, demonstrating the precarious status and tremendous difficulties these resourceful people faced in their flight. As Marianne said in an interview years later, they were extremely grateful to be welcomed to New York, so much so that Oliver chose to work in a factory contributing to the war effort immediately on his arrival.
With borrowed money, the couple incorporated Ostier Inc. in 1941, at 15 West 47th Street, a well-known jewelers' building in the heart of New York’s diamond district. Marianne and Oliver always sought to create wearable art, characterized by imagination and originality. Like her female peers in Paris, Marianne immediately embraced the highly three-dimensional naturalism of the 1940s, especially flower motifs, also experimenting with abstraction. Attracted by the structures of depth and volume she was able to achieve through the strength and lightness of palladium, she introduced her “pincushion” jewels in 1945. Mounting diamonds on thin platinum wires to create airy structures, “pincushion” brooches and earrings were designed to convey complexity and weightlessness. Working in both gold and palladium, she designed novel forms of earrings, including pearl and diamond clips, described as crescents of pearls and baguette diamonds that adhered curvaceously both to the lobe as well as the upper ear. These earclips were just one of the designs that won her De Beers Diamond Awards for five years running. Convertibility was another feature of Ostier’s work, including jewels with interchangeable center stones, whose introduction was covered by The New York Times in 1963. In the 1960s, she created “free-form” jewels in gold, with textured surfaces that express striking sculptural abstraction, aligning her work aesthetically with Andrew Grima and other modernists.
Marianne found creative ways to win publicity for the firm’s innovations—to introduce her novel “gems appliqué” for bare skin in November of 1950, the Daily News reported that “the artist-jeweler” herself wore an oversize palladium and diamond water lily clip on her naked shoulder to the glamorous National Horse Show Opening. The paper noted that the jewel stayed firmly in place from 8pm to 2am, when she went home. These so-called pin-less “gems appliqué”—earrings, rings, and brooches also known as “skin-pins”—were mounted in palladium, and adhered securely to the body by means of an unseen cup and harmless liquid glue of Ostier’s invention. Marianne said she had simply asked herself one day, “Why does jewelry need pins?” In a tribute to Oliver, she added, “It was my husband who knew it would work.”
In the late 1950s, Marianne also turned to literature to inspire women, publishing an entertaining book about the history of jewelry and gems, followed by essays on wearing modern jewels. Jewels and the Woman: The Romance, Magic and Art of Feminine Adornment is both light-hearted and erudite, highlighting archaeological finds, the development of historical styles, and the ancient sources of stones, all the while drawing from her extensive knowledge of history and literature. Amusing stories that have some basis in contemporary writings from the ancient world include attributing the revival of the gold earring in Rome to Julius Cesar, who loved gold jewelry from his time in the eastern reaches of the empire. The book contains an extensive practical section about how the modern woman should select jewelry to enhance her own beauty, outlining the recommended choices she should make in every form of jewel based on her facial and body structure as well as her coloration. She makes a powerful, detailed case that earrings do the most to contribute to a woman’s beauty, concluding: “Earclips are an essential and most effective part of a woman’s jewels.”
Further, Marianne also explains compellingly that jewelry is art, a form of sculpture, and that modern jewelry has evolved along with developments in fine art. Referring to Rodin’s work, Ostier argues that modern sculpture derives its power from undermining the classical tenets of balance and symmetry to excite the anticipation of action in the viewer. “(T)he modern sculptor endows his figures with expectant motion [...] (M)any of my jewels I consider examples of the sculptor’s art [...] (T)he jewelry of today is built out into three dimensions. There are three keynotes of modern jewelry: height, airiness, and grace of movement. Literally as well as emotionally, a modern jewel is a moving work of art.” These ideas connect Ostier to the art jewelry movement of the 1960s, and such landmark shows as “The International Exhibition of Modern Jewelry,” at Goldsmith’s Hall, in London, 1961, and “Jewelry as Sculpture as Jewelry,” at the Institute of Contemporary Art, in Boston, 1973. It is also worth noting that, in creating artistic jewels, Marianne never lost sight of the importance of comfort and wearability, unlike some male counterparts then and today.
Marianne and Oliver both hosted and participated in exhibitions, and by 1959, their success allowed them to move their salon to 724 Fifth Avenue. The Romanian Royal family needed to raise cash and turned to Ostier to sell the jewelry they had commissioned from them in the 1930s. Creating a sensation, Marianne and Oliver held a public exhibition of the work, which included a diamond tiara and rivière, among other remarkable pieces. Reviews called it "the finest collection of personal jewels of a living queen ever offered for sale in this country,” noting that, though created in the 1930s, Marianne’s jewels were “so advanced in fashion that earrings, clips, necklaces, and other ornaments are in the height of present-day styling.” On another occasion, Marianne’s arresting 1955 “Galaxy” brooch, an early masterpiece of space age modernism, was exhibited at the Smithsonian Institution. Recently, in 2016, he brooch sold at Sotheby’s for $250,000, attesting to the ongoing appeal of Marianne’s art to contemporary collectors.
Patronage and publicity also came from new royal and celebrity clients, including the Maharanis of Cooch-Behar and Baroda, as well as wealthy American families such as the J.C. Penneys, philanthropists, and the Burton-Tremaines, modern art collectors. Testifying to the avant-garde tastes of Ostier clientele, the Burton-Tremaines were important early patrons of Mondrian, Rothko, Johns, Pollock, de Kooning, and the Oldenburgs. Celebrities such as Ingrid Bergman, who generally avoided thoughtless ostentation, even patronized Marianne’s salon.
With her interests in movement and action, Marianne also embraced contemporary technology, shooting brief films featuring live models wearing her “gems appliqué” jewels, along with the creations of nature, such as water lilies, that inspired them (these films are now preserved in the Sherman Grinberg Library and can be viewed and purchased on the Getty website). They demonstrate the originality and beauty of the “skin pins,” as well as another popular Ostier form, the jeweled pet portraits.
These gold and gem-set sculptural pet portraits were an inter-generational family specialty. The Ostiers’ heritage collection included a diamond brooch the Austrian firm was said to have created before World War I for Emperor Franz Josef. It depicted the monarch’s favorite Lippizaner stallion, “Florian.” When the brooch eventually came onto the market after the fall of the monarchy, Oliver managed to buy it back. Marianne created a portrait of her poodle, Flippy, in gold and diamonds in the mid-century style, a service she gladly offered clients’ and their pets.
A testament to Marianne’s prominence as an “artist-jeweler” came in 1966: New York’s Finch College Museum of Art—an avant grade institution founded by a women’s rights activist—hosted the exhibition Art in Precious Jewelry, highlighting the work of the foremost designers in ten countries. The organizers chose Marianne to represent the United States, while Salvador Dali represented Spain, and Georges Braque’s recent work was also honored. Marianne, wearing emeralds to set off her red hair, and dressed in a glamorous black and pink gown and gloves, talked about the pressure she had felt to respond to the exhibition’s challenge, saying, “I couldn’t sleep for many nights because it is something special to represent this country.” Attendees included art collectors who came bejeweled, some wearing modern art jewelry, others wearing necklaces of strong design from New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. The exhibited jewelry was described as “sculptured, architectural, or free flowing, most [...] in gold with a minimum of stones. Many were designed to be viewed from all sides and others moved, whether mechanically or manually.” Marianne’s work had always been conceived in this aesthetic.
Content for his wife to take the artistic credit, Marianne’s beloved husband and partner, Oliver, was less prominent in the Ostier profile. He handled administration, dealing with craftsmen and the firm’s international clientele. His name appears often on ocean liner passenger lists, attesting to his numerous trips to Europe in the 1950s and 1960s. Over their 37 years together, he was “always awed by his wife’s imagination and gifted hands.” In the interview with the Daily News that Marianne gave at the time of her retirement in 1969, she reported that her late husband once told her, “Even if you went into a barren wilderness, you would return with something beautiful.” After Oliver died in 1967, Marianne soon decided that, on her own, she couldn’t continue to uphold Ostier’s artistic standards. Another theme which appears in her musings is the issue of “temperamental craftsmen,” who, without her husband’s mediation, made creating her designs difficult. She planned to start a school to train metalsmiths, because the Europeans immigrants, she felt, “proved demanding, difficult, and intractable.” It must have been Oliver who convinced the artisans that his wife’s designs were important enough to strive to bring them to fruition, whatever the challenges.
In 1969, Marianne closed the business, and decided to offer 400 lots of jewelry through Sotheby’s Parke-Bernet. After the sale was over, she promised herself more time for traveling to Switzerland to see her son, Alex—Oliver’s, by his first marriage—and looking after the animals she and Oliver had raised at their country house in Woodstock. The auctioneers remarked that “The exhibition and sale of Marianne Ostier Originals marks the end of an important chapter in the history of jewelry design. The catalogue of her oeuvres eloquently records her contribution toward advancing this art form.” It was always Marianne’s drive to create art that shaped the firm’s limited, highly original production, and ensure her rare work remains highly sought after by today’s art jewelry collectors.