American Costume Jewelry:

Decorative jewelry findings and Guyot Brothers in Historical Context  

by Juliet Friedman

A HISTORY OF COSTUME JEWELRY DESIGN IN AMERICA  

In the last ten to fifteen years, the buying and selling of vintage costume jewelry has become big business.  What was once called gaudy, cheap, or fake is now sought after, with pieces by the biggest names garnering hundreds, or even thousands, of dollars.  Thanks to exposure from a varied array of sources, from Vogue to Antiques Roadshow, collectors and fashionistas alike are learning what jewelry lovers and dealers have known all along – vintage costume jewelry is an art form.  The best costume jewelry is beautifully designed and constructed, like its precious counterpart, while demonstrating both ingenuity and fashion.

During the Golden Age of costume jewelry, from the late 1930s to the mid 1950s, a tight-knit coterie of talented designers created pieces that often either influenced fine jewelry or was mistaken for it.  Freed from the restraints of working in precious resources, they let their creativity take the lead, often incorporating unexpected materials and techniques.

Costume jewelry, as we know it, did not exist prior to the early twentieth century.  In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, jewelry was primarily constructed in precious materials, and the small amount of non-precious jewelry was created to imitate its costly counterpart.  New innovations, including paste, a highly reflective, leaded glass stone, and pinchbeck, an alloy of copper and zinc that was an alternative to gold, better simulated the look of fine jewelry.

Although these jewels were fairly expensive, they allowed more women to achieve the luxurious look of expensive jewelry without the prohibitive cost.  The imitation of precious jewelry remained a predominant consideration of costume jewelry designers, even to the present day.  Take a look at the costume jewelry counters in department stores and you’ll see that the vast majority of pieces emulate the look of fine jewelry.  

A photo of a stunning enameled brooch by Leru.

Images from Jane Clarke’s
 Morning Glory Collects: http://www.morninggloryantiques.com/
R: Trifari demi-lune stone bracelets 
 L
: Leru enameled brooch

A photo of vintage stone bracelets by Trifari.

Although the stones may be created in a laboratory and called by a scientific name, this jewelry is the modern incarnation of eighteenth century French paste jewels, and they’ve become the bread and butter of the industry.  Beautifully made of the finest materials, they continue the tradition of allowing all women to afford the look of diamonds and gold.

A photo of a vintage 6 pedal rhinestone brooch.

A photo of a vintage emerald double heart brooch.

A phtoto of a stunning necklace of pearls and  cabochons c1920.

 Vivienne Becker, Fabulous Costume Jewelry. (Atglen, Pennsylvania: Schiffer Publishing Ltd, 1993) 19  

 

Vivienne Becker, Fabulous Costume Jewelry. (Atglen, Pennsylvania: Schiffer Publishing Ltd, 1993) 87  

 

Festoon necklace of baroque glass pearls, clear rhinestones, and “ruby” glass cabochons. Attributed to Gripoix for Chanel, c. 1920.  Tracy Tolkien and Henrietta Wilkinson, A Collector’s Guide to Costume Jewelry.  Ontario : Firefly Books Ltd., 1997  


Jewelry that mimics precious stones and metals is important to the story, yet the beginnings of modern costume jewelry, jewelry that is intimately connected to fashion, is found in early twentieth century Paris.  Parisian couturiers, such as Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel and Elsa Schiaparelli, created or commissioned artistic jewelry to complement their fashions.  One-of-a-kind, designed by the couturier or an artist, and constructed completely by hand, these pricey jewels were never intended to be worn by the general public.  In 1901, the couturiers, scorning the idea of imitation jewelry, popularized the term bijouterie fantaisie, or fantasy jewelry. 

While couturiers created bijouterie fantaisie in Paris, the first costume jewelry firms, such as Cohn & Rosenberger, later Coro, Inc., were established in New York and Providence, Rhode Island.  These companies produced jewelry in gold, gold-filled base metal, and sterling silver in the popular designs of the day.  Providence’s larger companies maintained their own factories, while the New York-based family businesses were jobbers who manufactured pieces for other firms.  Unlike the Parisian artist jewels, American-made jewelry was imitation. 

Mostly mass-produced, American jewelry was produced in large numbers and a variety of designs, making stylish, well-made pieces available to all women. Mechanization also allowed for the same design to be produced in different materials for different demographics.  The same popular form was frequently created in three versions at three different prices: hand-worked solid gold, rolled gold, and stamped brass electroplated with gold.  

The end of World War I introduced simplified dresses made of lighter fabrics which replaced the heavy draping of previous decades.  The focus shifted to accessories, especially jewelry.  Beginning in the late 1910s, evening’s bare arms and decolleté called for an array of shimmering jewelry, and costume jewelers catered to this new demand.  For the first time, fashion became an important consideration in jewelry design.  Inspired by these revolutionary fashions and the overall excitement of the times, a handful of creative designers gradually broke away from the strict imitation of fine jewelry.  Pioneering American jewelry companies recognized the possibilities of their medium, which was not limited by the expense of precious material.  Costume jewelry finally took its place as a true fashion accessory, and women eagerly snatched up beautiful, inexpensive pieces for practically every outfit, or costume.  Thus, the term “costume jewelry” was coined.  

Equally as important as fashion to the development of American costume jewelry were the economic realities of the period.  The 1929 stock market crash and subsequent Depression devastated American fine jewelry, yet conversely, provided an opening for the growing costume jewelry industry.  While most designs continued to emulate fine jewelry, the costume jewelry companies offered pieces that were beautiful, well made, and fashionable.  Technological advancements also provided new and unusual materials that inspired the designers.  The development of plastics, beginning in 1909 with Bakelite, allowed for jewelry that was not only affordable, but also creative. 

As the Depression swept through the country, women were forced to cut back their spending, especially curtailing fashion and accessory buying.  The dress clip, the most popular 1930s jewel, was exceedingly versatile and fit perfectly into the thrifty woman’s wardrobe.  In 1931, Parisian jeweler, Gaston Candas, invented a mechanism that trebled the dress clip’s versatility. Candas’ convertible brooch allowed two removable clips to be mounted on a plaque, creating three separate pieces of jewelry.  The design was purchased by Coro, Inc. in 1933 and named the “Coro Duette.”  The Duette had the ability to be worn in a variety of ways, making it an economical purchase for a fashionable woman of the 1930s.  During the day, a woman pinned a Duette as a brooch on her jacket, and then wore the two clips separately on her evening dress.  Fashionably thrifty women across America embraced the Duette, and the numerous copies produced by rival companies.  Interestingly, fine jewelry designers also jumped on the Duette bandwagon in the 1940s. As demand for costume jewelry grew, visionary costume jewelers introduced important new innovations that caught the notice of fine jewelry designers.  

A photo of Coro’s captivating  “Quivering Camellia" Duette, by Gene Verrechio.

Coro ’s “Quivering Camellia" Duette, by Gene Verrechio.
 The “Quivering Camellia” is on display at the Yale Art Gallery.
  Photo courtesy Juliet Friedman.  

A photo of a vintage jewelry catalog.

Detail of a catalog page featuring 14k 
pendants and necklaces, set with gemstones  and pearls.  
1911 catalog of the Baird-North Co. 
Providence, Rhode Island
Archive Collection of Historic New England .  

By 1939, The United States’ economy was finally recovering from the Great Depression.  Americans again had a small amount of money at their disposal.  While certainly not enough for a diamond brooch, women could set aside a few extra dollars to buy a new rhinestone brooch that would perk up an old suit or dress.  The onset of World War II, however, irrevocably changed the international fashion establishment and every industry associated with it, including costume jewelry. With the German invasion of France, American designers lost their most important creative influence practically overnight.  Fashion began to look inward, to purely American sources of inspiration. As profiled in the leading magazines, all industries involved in fashion became an integral part of this American renaissance.  The ever-growing costume jewelry industry, centered in Providence and New York, was no exception.  Costume jewelry designs soon embraced all things patriotic, in essence becoming one of the most visual emblems of support for domestic, war-related causes.

Costume jewelry production was affected by the war in many ways.  The largest companies, including Trifari, Coro, and many others, had sizeable factories in Providence or Attleboro that employed hundreds of workers.  In 1942, the focus of these factories and the workers’ daily output changed dramatically from jewelry to munitions.  The skilled workers and specialized machinery was appropriate for military use, and most companies converted over half of their facilities to war production.  The factories also saw a difference in the materials used to create their jewelry.  The most important elements in the manufacture of costume jewelry, the base metal of which it is formed and the rhinestones set into its surface, were lost to designers in the wake of Pearl Harbor.  The unique tin alloy that comprises white base metal, along with most non-precious metals, became essential to the military, while rhinestones and crystals could no longer be imported from Austria.  The large American costume jewelry industry not only saw their factories converted, but suffered the loss of their chief raw materials.  However, congruent with these shortages, the demand for affordable costume jewelry skyrocketed.

A photo of a vintage jewelry catalog.

Leo Glass “Stars ‘n’ Stripes,” Harper’s Bazaar, August, 1941, p. 133  

With the loss of base metal, jewelry designers turned to the most readily available white metal, sterling silver.  During the war, the vast majority of costume jewelry was created in sterling and plated in either gold or rhodium, which simulated the look of platinum.  Sterling silver jewelry was fairly expensive, often upwards of twenty dollars, or over two hundred dollars in today’s economy.  However, companies also produced lower end jewelry using new and inexpensive materials, including wood, plastic, ceramic, and textile.  Innovative designs employing these non-traditional materials were some of the most aesthetically appealing designs in costume jewelry history.  These are the pieces that today are avidly sought by collectors and command top prices. 

A photo of a face mask brooch. c1945

A photo of Miriam Haskell's whimsical wooden bead floral brooch, c. 1940s

Elzac plastic and metal face brooch, c. 1945 ,
Jane Clarke’s Morning Glory Collects  

Miriam Haskell wooden bead floral brooch, c. 1940s   
Jane Clarke’s Morning Glory Collects  

Plastics, including Lucite and Bakelite, were an inexpensive way to add color, readily available, and easy to manipulate through carving and polishing.  Animal forms, perennially popular, were natural outlets for the addition of a Lucite cabochon.  The Lucite “stone” typically formed the animal’s abdomen, prompting advertisers to coin the term “jelly belly” to describe this type of jewelry.  It is unknown who designed the first jelly belly piece, but the fashion quickly spread throughout the industry as consumers eagerly bought the whimsical creations.  Trifari’s Alfred Philippe created some of the most spectacular examples of jelly belly, which were widely copied. The jelly belly animals proved so popular that the form, like the Duette before it, soon found its way into fine jewelry.

A photo of a delightful sterling silver fish brooch c 1943 and sketches



L: 1943 brooch patent granted to Alfred Philippe (Des 135177).  Image courtesy Google Patents.  

R: Gold-washed sterling silver brooch in the shape of an angelfish, set with a Lucite cabochon and rhinestones.  Photo courtesy Fabulous Facets. (website)  

While high-end, sterling silver costume jewelry was purchased by wealthier women, all women wanted something that gave them a little sparkle in a serious time.  This led to a division in the industry between fun fashion jewelry and artistic costume jewelry.  Certain companies, including Eisenberg, Mazer, and Boucher, dedicated themselves to producing upscale jewelry during the war.  Dalsheim and others catered exclusively to the middle market, while Coro straddled the division and created jewelry at all prices levels.  The stratification of the industry continued into the 1950s, when a new wave of costume jewelry companies began production in Providence.  The continued growth of the industry forced each company to carve out its own niche.  In an era when an outfit was not complete without the appropriate necklace, lapel pin, bracelet, or earrings, the huge demand allowed for this constantly growing number of jewelers.

In the 1950s, Vogue reported that the costume jewelry industry preferred its output to be called “fashion jewelry” and the magazine’s 1951 profile on costume jewelry gave the American industry high fashion’s seal of approval.  Providence was likened to Detroit, home of the all-American automobile industry.  Throughout the 1950s, costume jewelry remained a vital part of fashion. Each company became known for its specific look, whether it was simulated pearls, tailored gold, whimsical aurora borealis rhinestones, or timeless clear rhinestones.  This was the height of costume jewelry in America. 

 

THE JEWELRY CENTERS OF PROVIDENCE AND ATTLEBORO

It’s the capital city of the smallest state in the Union, and yet somehow it became the bustling, vibrant center for American jewelry production.  How did Providence, and later Attleboro come to carry this distinction?  The development of several important technologies during the nineteenth century helped Providence and Attleboro establish themselves as the leading American centers for inexpensive jewelry production.  But what originally brought silversmiths and jewelers to the area?  Several factors came together at the end of the eighteenth century that created the correct environment for the first jewelers to set up shop in the growing port city.  Alfred Weisberg, one of the founders of the Providence Jewelry Museum, hypothesizes that wealthy Rhode Island ship captains, after accumulating considerable wealth from the Triangle trade, had their silver coins fashioned into plate for protection and storage.  The need for this silver ware, engraved with identifying marks to help prevent theft, encouraged silversmiths to settle in the colony.  Many silversmiths of this period also made jewelry.  Therefore, it seems likely that the as the colony grew, and more wealthy captains moved into the city with their wives and daughters, there would be a need for jewelry.  Traditionally, silversmiths worked out of their home, dedicating a large, ground floor room to their workshop and an adjacent room to their retail shop. A significant, in fact larger than expected, number of silversmiths founded premises on North Main Street in Providence.   

Am engraing depicting a silversmith shop.
Engraving of a silversmith’s workshop, from Chicago Silver
http://www.chicagosilver.com/industrial.htm  

Two of these silversmiths, the half-brothers Seril and Nehemiah Dodge who immigrated to Providence in 1784, are credited as the first jewelers to make less expensive plated gold jewelry.  Before the Dodges, gold-plated items, called “gilt,” were created by mercury gilding.  Mercury gilding, used since the Middle Ages, was a process where the gold was suspended in a mercury solution.  As the mercury was burned off, the gold adhered to the metal below, creating an allover film.  The process was dangerous, and the Dodges’ invention allowed for an easier means of depositing a gold wash on metal.  They called their invention “soft solder” plate, and it involved rolling out a thin gold foil, backing it with tin-lead solder, and then using heat to apply the gold onto a base of copper or brass.  The term “soft solder” soon became local slang for any product that was cheap, imitation, or sham.  Practically from its inception, inexpensive, plated jewelry suffered from the stigma of being seen as cheap and fake.  Despite this, Nehemiah Dodge, who apparently had a gift for advertising and marketing, was successful in selling his jewelry.   

Other silversmiths soon found their way to the Dodge workshop to purchase their own gold-plated metals for jewelry production.  Some of these may have also settled in Providence, or nearby Attleboro, Massachusetts, and created new silversmith shops.  By 1810, there were one hundred jewelers in Providence specializing in inexpensive jewelry, whose output topped $100,000.  In the wake of the War of 1812, there was a great demand for affordable jewelry, leading to large growth in the industry throughout the 1820s and subsequent decades.  In the 1840s, approximately thirty jewelry companies employed over one thousand workers.  The growing numbers prompted an 1876 article in the Providence Journal which noted that the city had been known since 1790 for its production of well-made, inexpensive jewelry. 

In the midst of this expansion, a new technique was introduced to Providence’s jewelry makers that allowed for the production of a different type of inexpensive jewelry.  Thomas Lowe arrived in Providence from England in 1844, bringing with him the technique for forming rolled gold plate, a material that soon became crucial to the jewelry industry.  Rolled gold, first developed using silver to create Sheffield plate in England, was a better quality material than soft solder and could be worked like gold.  To form rolled gold, a silver plate containing gold alloy was placed against copper or copper alloy.  The two pieces were heated, typically by rolling, until the silver “sweated” off and the gold bonded chemically to the copper backing.  The important difference in the rolled gold technique was the ability to control the thickness of the gold application.  It was also non-porous and resisted abrasion, making it as easy to work as solid gold or silver.  The final piece of the puzzle was introduced into Providence at the end of the 1850s when electroplating was developed.  Electroplating, an advancement over soft-solder, provided a more consistent and easier application of gold plate.  Electroplate deposited a substantially thinner application of gold than was contained in rolled gold.

With a variety of materials at their disposal, a large number of workshops and factories, and a population of skilled workers, Providence was uniquely situated to become the center for inexpensive jewelry production.  The companies soon specialized themselves, based on materials.  Depending on their production and clientele, they either worked primarily in the higher quality rolled gold, or the less expensive electroplate, which typically only had a deposit of three or four millionths of an inch of gold.  Beyond their chosen material, companies also found their niche based on fashions.  While some played it safe and produced staple products, such as watchcases, chains, and lockets, others changed their production seasonally based upon the whims of fashion.  With the exception of times of economic panic or depression, the industry continued to grow.  An 1894 business listing recorded nearly160 jewelry companies in Providence and 90 companies in neighboring Attleboro.

With the continuing growth of the industry, further specialization occurred.  While many companies had factories that were quipped to make jewelry from design to finished piece, others became known for one specific technique or component.  Guyot Brothers Co., Inc. is an example of this specialization.  The company was developed, and continues to be known, as a producer of decorative jewelry findings.  There were also firms who only fabricated chain, or other integral jewelry parts.  In many ways, this division of labor mirrors that of the factory workers.

We know many of the jewelry companies’ designers by name, including Alfred Philippe, Marcel Boucher, and more recently, Frank DeLizza, but what of the countless workers who constructed the jewelry?  Created in large factories, small workshops, and even homes, the sparkling pieces these workers produced do much more than liven up last year’s suit, they illustrate a microcosm of the American dream.  Many immigrants who settled in Providence, Attleboro, and New York City in the first half of the twentieth century were drawn to the burgeoning jewelry industry.  A selection of new arrivals came from families with a goldsmithing or design background, and they saw the jewelry industry as familiar and particularly suited their talents.  In the case of Guyot, Numa Guyot’s talents and training as an engraver lent themselves well to application in the jewelry world.  The story of this family and their company’s growth is representative of the immigrant experience within the context of the costume jewelry industry.  With a relatively small amount of capital, these entrepreneurs carved out a living for their families by creating their own niche in the industry or going to work for an established company.

In the jewelry factories, there was a place for every type of worker, with every level of skill set.  At the top of the hierarchy were the precision tool-makers, die-cutters, and mold-makers, such as those who create the dies for Guyot’s stamps.   The next level were the journeymen, including platers, polishers, and tool setters.  The last category was considered unskilled labor: enamellers, stone-setters, those who soldered findings, and those who assembled machine-made parts into finished jewelry.  Mechanization, combined with easily taught handwork, allowed for an influx of immigrant workers, of which a growing percentage was women.  By 1930, half of all jewelry-manufacturing employees were women.  There was a possibility of flexible hours, allowing mothers to work while their children were at school, as well as piecework that could be done at home.  Often, these women congregated with their families to work on jewelry in their homes, creating a successful cottage industry to supplement the factories.  Those with a streak of entrepreneurship could save up capital and form their own small jobbing businesses that constructed jewelry for larger firms.

Although the Providence and Attleboro jewelry industry is not currently as bustling as in its mid-twentieth century heyday, there are still a core group of companies that continue to produce jewelry and components.  They maintain the traditional methods, producing their jewelry or related items on similar, but updated, machines as those used during the WWII and post-war period.  There are a number of talented designers and a hardworking, dedicated pool of workers creating beautiful, well-made jewelry.  Those who produce components, including Guyot Brothers, Inc., also ship their goods to jewelry manufacturers around the world, ensuring that the connection to Providence and Attleboro is maintained.  

 

To learn more about The American Costume Jewelry Industry and its colorful history, 
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Biography

Juliet Friedman, a lifelong jewelry lover, studied Art History at the University of Chicago and the History of Decorative Arts at the Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts, Design, and Culture.  While at the BGC, Juliet wrote several papers on jewelry design and history, including:  

  • 15th Century Timurid Jewelry: The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Gold Ring set with Jade Sealstone  

  • The Shaft Grave Period: Mycenaean Jewelry and Metalwork  

  • Politics, Economics, and a New World: Renaissance Pendants in Spain   

Juliet also recently completed a Tiffany Fellowship to study the jewelry collection of Historic New England.  Her research was integral to the development of an online exhibition that will showcase this previously unexplored collection.  Aside from her scholarly pursuits, Juliet designs and creates her own line of jewelry, julie*ry, which is inspired by the historic forms she studies.

Bibliography  

Becker, Vivienne   Fabulous Costume Jewelry: History of Fantasy and Fashion in Jewels. Atglen, Pennsylvania: Schiffer Publishing Ltd, 1997  
Cera, Deanna Farneti, ed.  Jewels of Fantasy: Costume Jewelry of the 20th Century.  New York: Harry N. Abrams Publishing, 1992  
Fishel, Carlton  Oral history project of the fashion industries ; v. 35, pt.1-2: Carlton Fishel, Louis Krussman, Trifari, Inc.  New York: Fashion Institute of Technology, 1982  
Harper’s Bazaar.  New York: Hearst Corporation, 1939-1959  
Vogue.  New York: Condé Nast Publications, 1939-1959  
Weisberg, Alfred Why Providence?: how did it become the jewelry center of the U.S?: an introduction to the first 100 years.  Providence, R.I.: Technic, Inc., 1988  
Weisberg Naida D., ed.   Diamonds are Forever, but Rhinestones are for Everyone! An oral history of the costume jewelry industry of Rhode Island.  Providence, R.I.: The Providence Jewelers Museum, 1999

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