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A photo of Eugene Joseff

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Reprinted with permission from 
Vintage Fashion & Costume Jewelry
P.O Box 265
Glen Oaks, NY 11004
VCFJ@aol.com
and the author


Joseff of Hollywood

by Carolyn N. Davis

  Eugene Joseff was born in Chicago on September 25, 1905. His parents were of Austrian descent. As a child he was very inquisitive. He was interested in metal work and apprenticed in a foundry for a time. His first business venture was in advertising, which would serve him well in later years. At the start of the depression in the late 1920s, he and his brother James went to Los Angeles and Hollywood to try their advertising skills in the entertainment industry. Eugene started making jewelry there in 1930.

He was a charismatic personality and met many movers and shakers in Hollywood including Walter Plunkett, who was a well established costume designer. Walter would become Eugene’s mentor. Eugene’s fate in costume jewelry was sealed in 1934 when he saw the movie The Affairs of Cellini. Actresses Constance Bennett and Lucille Ball were costumed in historically accurate 16th century style but wearing 20th century jewelry. Eugene promptly told his friend of the inaccuracy, to which he replied, “Well if you’re so smart, let’s see what you can do”.

Doors opened and he designed jewelry for several movies. The problem was that jewelry manufacturers said his designs were beautiful but “impractical and impossible to duplicate.” 

 

Using his foundry experience, Eugene set up shop and made his own jewelry. When he got a contract he researched the historical period by referencing his own collection of rare books. He used both the book illustrations and his imagination to devise jewelry designs that were both historically accurate and fit the story line of the film. It didn’t take long for Eugene to prove himself, which allowed him to take control of the entire jewelry process from design to finished product. Early on he decided to rent the jewelry to the studios; perhaps to preserve his artistry but it was also a lucrative, forward-thinking business move.

By 1938 he adopted his surname for marketing purposes and became known as Joseff of Hollywood and Joseff: Jewelry of the Stars. He was credited with providing jewelry for a large majority of movies by this time. The demand created a need for administrative help running the company. He called Sawyer Business School which sent Joan Castle to help. Joseff and JC (Joan) fell in love and married in 1942. The team kept very busy during the post-Depression and World War II years because Hollywood met the demand of the movie-going public’s need for escapism during the difficult times. Joseff’s contribution to the war effort was to use the foundry to make airplane parts. Joseff-Hollywood Precision Investment Castings Division still makes jet parts today.

Hollywood movies made quite an impression on viewers influencing what they wore, drank, drove and smoked. Stars were very popular and the public wanted to emulate them, especially women who admired the strong screen roles played by talented actresses such as Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Marlene Dietrich, Carol Lombard, and Barbara Stanwick. Actresses liked Joseff’s jewelry so much they asked him to make jewelry for their own personal wardrobes. Josef, the astute businessman, acknowledged the public’s fascination with the stars and his jewelry by starting a retail line. Joseff Hollywood jewelry was sold at only 500 high-end retailers across the country. Stores that carried the jewelry included B. Altman’s, Neiman-Marcus, Bullock’s and Marshall Field’s. 

Joseff wanted women to feel confident and glamorous just like the popular movie stars. Obviously this venture was a success and we are still enjoying it today.

Joseff wrote articles and was the subject of many articles in movie publications and newspapers. His accessorizing viewpoint appeared in the February 1948 issue of Movie Show magazine: “If you want to acquire a collection, start with a brooch because you will find most use for it. It can be pinned on a suit lapel, collar or pocket…on a hat, a belt, or an evening gown. Remember, gold can be worn with more things than silver and topaz is a good stone that looks smart with almost every type of costume…”

“Earrings should be the next jewelry investment. They also have many uses. You can wear them on your hat, cuffs, shoes, as well as your ears."

“A ring comes next in your collection and I’d suggest finding a bold ring with a large stone…something massive and distinctive. A bracelet and a necklace come last in importance because they can so seldom be worn with all your costumes or for all occasions.”

Joseff’s hobby was flying and he often piloted himself on promotion tours around the country. In 1948 he and three friends took off to enjoy a guy’s weekend. The plane crashed shortly after takeoff, ending his life a week before his 43rd birthday. JC was devastated. After a time she realized he would expect her to continue the business they worked so hard to build. She did just that with the help of their skilled staff. Later their son Jeffrey and his wife, Tina Joseff joined the company. JC’s role in maintaining the viability of the company cannot be underestimated. In addition to running the company, she was a generous philanthropist and served in civic capacities. In 1956 she was honored by the Women in the Motion Picture Industry. In the 1950s and 1960s she hosted memorable, lavish holiday parties which included yuletide trees covered with Joseff jewels.

Tina Joseff has a managerial role in the company now and responded to my email, “We are still making new jewelry - some from old findings and parts, some from new.” I found a website <joseffjewelry.com> that claims to have a collection of Joseff jewelry for sale and that they are one of the original California distributors since the 1980s. Tina’s response was: “I can not tell you who the website belongs to. It is not our site. There were three distributors for Joseff in the past. Two are no longer purchasing from us (and have not purchased anything for at least five years) - one was in Nevada and the other in Spain. The other distributor is still active. We do not sell direct.” In an article published by the San Fernando Valley Business Journal, Tina is quoted, “We manufacture costume jewelry to sell and to rent to the studios. Since the beginning, that’s what we started doing. Mostly we’re a boutique type shop. Most of our pieces are reproductions from pieces that have been used in the movies.”

The active distributor had an interesting story to tell. Carol Levy’s grandfather owned a specialty women’s clothing store in their hometown of Ft. Wayne, Indiana. Carol’s father and brother helped their dad run the store. A couple of times in the 1940s JC traveled and brought the ‘movie jewelry’ to their store and held shows, to help bring in the customers. The jewelry was displayed in the store’s front windows. Carol’s parents became friends of JC’s and sold Joseff jewelry in the store until the family closed it in the mid-1980s. Afterwards Carol’s father took his Joseff samples and peddled it to specialty stores around the country, including Barney’s New York. He passed away three years ago and then a year ago one of his old customers asked if the family had some Joseff jewelry. Carol sold the samples to the owner of the Déjà Vu shop in Sun Valley, Idaho. The shop still places orders on occasion. Carol calls Tina Joseff and they fill the order using old pictures and style numbers. The movie pieces in Joanne D. Ball’s book are not for sale and never have been. If interested contact Carol Levy at www.fishlev@msn.com to find out what is available; a minimum order of ten pieces is requested. Carol mentioned that she hosted a party for JC Joseff two years ago and described her as active, fun, sharp, and an amazing woman.

Joseff of Hollywood jewelry appeared in countless movies and television shows. Among the long list of films: Gone With the Wind (1939), Samson and Delilah (1949), Ben Hur (1959, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and Shaft (1971). “More recently they provided the jewelry featured in the cave scenes in Pirates of the Caribbean(2).” I looked at the online website<imdb.com> (International Movie Database) and did a search for Eugene Joseff. There is only one movie, Camille (1937), where he has an un-credited listing. This is a shame but we know better.

The list of television appearances is quite long as well. Joseff’s jeweled the star of People Like Us, the NBC miniseries based on novelist Dominick Dunne’s pulp send-up of ‘80s flash and cash. Thanks to costume designer and longtime Joseff’s fan Buffy Snyder, leading lady Connie Selleca will shimmer in jewelry once worn by Rita Hayworth and Bette Davis and in an ‘amethyst’ necklace, bracelet, and earring set worn by Vivien Leigh in Gone With the Wind. “I’ll never forget the first time I walked into Joseff’s,” recalls Snyder. “It was like a treasure chest of history. They have heirloom pieces that are a statement of real elegance. And they photograph like the real thing.”

Usually better. “When I was doing Dynasty,” says designer Nolan Miller, who dressed the vixens in both Dynasty and The Colbys, “I borrowed a $400,000 diamond necklace from Tiffany’s'’, but it wasn’t big enough, so I went to Joseff’s for everything.”

“The Joseff-Hollywood collection of more than three million necklaces, brooches, tiaras, earrings, and breastplates are warehoused…in individually labeled rectangular boxes that keep the trinkets dust free.”

Wouldn’t you love to pursue this collection? At this time the future plans for the collection are unknown. I believe it should be preserved by a museum, but it is such a large collection that finding a museum to handle it might be difficult.

Joseff jewelry is highly collectible and has retained value over the years. I expect this to continue and will likely increase over time. The pieces are harder to find than some of the rhinestone makers and only a few pieces a week are sold on Ebay. It has a distinctive look, obviously historical and a bit baroque or figural. The finish is commonly called Russian gold or antique gold which is less reflective under bright studio lighting. This metal has patinated on the older pieces and will be richer and darker; the newer pieces have a brighter, shinier finish. There is silver metal jewelry as well. The older pieces are also more intricately made, or layered. Newer pieces aren't quite as complicated. I have heard there are fakes, so buy with caution. Most of their pieces are marked with either the distinctive Joseff script in a round cartouche or Joseff Hollywood in capital letters on a rounded rectangle cartouche, or block stamp. Prices widely range from reasonable to four figures, depending on where you buy. As usual the more rare pieces will be more expensive. Ebay closings from recent months as follows:

  • Elephant head necklace $1625
  • Dragon pendant necklace with five dangling charms $800
  • Tassel brooches $125-475
  • Maltese cross brooch with clear stones $168
  • Serpent necklace with center red cabochon $423
  • Serpent brooch with dangling green beads and cabochon $217
  • Metal brooches without stones less than $100
  • Cupid earrings with drop pearl on original card $170
  • Flower earrings with center blue cabochon, 4 inches long $208
  • Green Tennite flower brooch $180
  • Camel brooch with multi color stones on hump $200
  • Bulldog necklace and earrings $200
  • Necklace with seven flowers each centered with a red stone $225
  • Cupid brooch with clear and blue stones $180
  • Necklace with five dangling shells $150
  • Shell earrings on original card $140
  • Necklace with seven charms $127
  • Silver chain festoon with center cab and several dangling chains $327
  • Cross pendant on long chain $255
  • Thick chain bracelet with one ornate filigree charm $200
  • Sun brooch $310
  • Headhunter brooch $440

All jewelry had the antique gold finish unless specified. If you are interested in Joseff jewelry I recommend the book written by Joanne Dubbs Ball called Jewelry of the Stars: Creations from Joseff of Hollywood. The lives of the Joseffs are covered in detail as well as their memories of the stars. It is rich with pictures of the stars wearing their jewelry and the retail jewelry that was sold.

Sources: 1. Ball, Joanne Dubbs. Jewelry of the stars: Creations from Joseff of Hollywood. West Chester, PA: Schiffer Publishing, 1991. 2. Kareem, Nadra. From Custom Jewelry to Jet Parts: Small Metalworks Do it All. San Fernando Valley Business Journal, 4 Feb. 2008. 3. Schneider, Karen S. and Marie Moneysmith. J.C. Joseff Shines Up Prime Time with Her Trove of Fab Faux Treasures., 21 May 1990, Vol. 33, No. 20

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