Reprinted with permission from 
Vintage Fashion & Costume Jewelry
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and the author

The costume jewelry of Marcel and Sandra Boucher

Vintage Fashion & Costume Jewelry, Fall 2000 In the only in-depth interview she has ever given, 
Sandra Boucher discusses her designs and the work of her husband, Marcel Boucher
by Nicholas Tollemache

 

Sandra joins the Boucher firm

It was in 1949 that Sandra received an unexpected letter form her future husband, the distinguished costume jeweler Marcel Boucher, inviting her to an interview as his assistant.

At the time she was working as a fine jewelry designer for Harry Winston in New York. She already knew of Marcel, who was acclaimed in jewelry circles for his creativity and craftsmanship, and she remembers it caused quite a stir when a rich client brought in a Boucher costume brooch and asked Harry Winston to copy it in precious stones. The timing of the letter was perfect, since Sandra was ready to make a change from fine jewelry, which she found too restrictive, to costume jewelry which opened up boundless possibilities for a designer.

As for Marcel, he needed design assistance because his long time partner, Arthur Halberstadt, had just left the firm.

They had started "Marcel Boucher Ltd. Novelty Jewelry" together in 1937, with Halberstadt as the commercial partner responsible for sales from the showroom. Marcel had been able to concentrate on design and production, but he took over the additional responsibility for the showroom when Halberstadt left. Business was flourishing and he needed Sandra to assist him with the designs.

Raymonde

When she joined the Boucher firm, Sandra was still known by her maiden name, Raymonde Semensohn1. She had grown up in Paris, where her father and brother both freelanced in fine jewelry. She did a little design work herself during the war in occupied Paris, but was ready to emigrate to America in 1947.

On arrival in New York she set about finding work and answered an advertisement for an assistant designer with Harry Winston, one of the most prestigious fine jewelers in the world. Although she spoke little English, she was given the job and worked with four other designers. It was an interesting experience, as Winston was a superb jeweler, and Indian Maharajas would visit to sell him their jewels. He had a love of emeralds, and Sandra would do renderings contrasting them against a black background.

Winston also bought the "Hope" diamond while she was there and she remembers that it was enormous2. She also remembers one occasion when she was given two large, pear-shaped blue diamonds to work on-probably they were 3/4" long. She left them on her desk when she went to lunch, and was relieved to find them still there when she got back!

She was very excited when she received Marcel’s letter, thinking it would be a great opportunity. Urged by others, she called him-he sounded just like the actor Charles Boyer on the phone-and made an appointment. He was very professional at the interview, handing her some colored stones and quizzing her on which colors would go together. Since she did not bring a design to show him, he asked her to come back with something the following week. She returned with a brooch design in the form of a flame, which he liked and put into production after first giving her the job.

Marcel Boucher

Marcel Boucher was born in Paris in 1898. His mother was a seamstress and his father died when he was still quite young. As the only son of a widow, he was assigned to the French ambulance corps during the 1914-18 First World War rather than to the front line. It was not a period Marcel discussed with Sandra, other than to tell her that he used his ammunition pouch to carry his margarine and condiments, as he was a keen chef! Sandra does not remember hearing anything about his schooling but she knows he joined Cartier as an apprentice jeweler, probably in 1920. He did not reminisce about this period with her, perhaps because the apprentice work was not very interesting, but also because it was not his character to dwell on past memories. She knows he never met Louis Cartier or his celebrated chief designer Charles Jacqueau.

Sandra also knows that he was trained there as a "jeweller"-that is a model maker-rather than as a designer.3

Some time around 1923, Marcel was transferred by Cartier from Paris to their New York workshop. Sandra has no records of his work at that time.4 After the 1929 Wall Street Crash, fine jewelry fell into a deep recession and Cartier’s business was severely cut back.

Marcel found employment with another precious jeweler, and was fortunate enough to be relatively unaffected by the Depression. He also did freelance work, mainly in fine jewelry, and she knows he designed show buckles and costume jewelry for Mazer Brothers, which enthused him with the possibilities.

First collection

During 1936, Marcel sensed a change was taking place in jewelry fashions5. His many Paris connections gave him the idea that this was perfect timing to launch a collection of spectacular, three-dimensional costume jewelry brooches with naturalistic subjects. They were revolutionary for their time and it was not by chance that he chose as his mark his initials "MB" capped by a Phyrgian bonnet that is the symbol of the French Revolution6.

By spring 1937 he was ready to start his costume jewelry firm with Halberstadt, and the new designs were launched for the 1937 Fall/Winter Collection. Marcel later told Sandra that the first collection consisted of six different designs, one of which was the "Swallow" but she does not recollect the others. They gave Saks Fifth Avenue an exclusive to sell the collection for the first few weeks, before making it available to other top department stores. Marcel told her that the three-dimensional naturalistic themes with their unusual enameling were so original after years of "art deco" designs and were such a success that they immediately put him on the map and made his reputation.

For the next four years, until America entered World War II, Marcel produced a range of costume jewelry, which Sandra describes as "very stylized, very elegant and very chic." She considers that they were innovative, bold and fashionable, perhaps best described as "couture" jewelry, and certainly based little on the imitation of fine jewelry. Marcel was prolific and was responsible for all the designs produced by his firm. She knows of fruits and birds and insects and figures and flower sprays, in addition to bow-knots and more conservative pieces.

The jewelry workshop

The jewelry was all produced in 10,000 square feet on the tenth floor at 304 E 23rd St in Manhattan. White metal, stones and other materials would be taken up and stored, ready for production. Marcel’s office was nice, but the production floor was divided up with wire mesh, so he could see and control everything that happened.

After he was through with the design, it would go to the two German model-makers, who had been trained in fine jewelry and were extremely skilled. Due to his own training in fine jewelry model making, Marcel worked closely with the model makers and was very fussy over the details at this point, which he considered critical to producing a quality product.

He was an excellent mechanic and enjoyed mechanical things, so was able to design custom tooling which the model makers might have found too complex.

His love of mechanics extended to his jewelry designs, among which were his celebrated "Punchinello" whose arms are raised by pulling on a chain, the pelican whose beak opens to catch a fish, and his "night and day" series of flowers with petals which open and close.

After everything was approved they made the final model, although sometimes the designs looked beautiful on paper but never worked out as jewelry. The next step was to mak 12 pieces in order to determine production times. This information was used by the bookkeeper and his two assistants, together with the material costs, overheads ans profit to calculate the prices. Marcel would finalize the prices with Arthur Halberstadt, who then met with the buyers to show the samples and generate orders.

When the orders had been processed by the two girls in "order receiving," the model went to casting, where three or four men worked on centrifugal casting equipment. After casting, the jewelry was sent to the six men in "polishing." Sometimes it was sent back and recast if the polishing revealed pimples or holes in the jewelry. From there it moved to assembly, where the men drilled each stone hole and set the stones. If the design required it, the girls in "enameling" finished it before it was sent to the three or four girls in "packing."

The war years

When America entered the war in 1941, the white metal used in costume jewelry was restricted to military use and sterling was substituted. Marcel moved production to Mexico, because there was an abundant supply of silver. He bought a house and some land in Cuernavaca, and his first wife Jeanne joined him with their daughter. He commuted to the factory in Mexico City, where his "Parisiana" line of cast sterling jewelry was produced. Sandra says he spent about six months in New York, where he made model ships for the Navy and worked with modernist designer Norman Bel Geddes on at least one military project.

The "New Look"

When the war ended, Marcel sold the Mexico City operation and moved back permanently to New York. Between 1945 and Sandra’s arrival in 1949, he produced an extraordinary range of designs, including an exceptional line in cubist style7, a striking black moor head and a beautiful bird-of-paradise design. When Christian Dior changed the fashion scene with his "New Look" in 1947, Marcel started to design and produce elegant parures which reflected Dior’s theme of the post-war return to feminity and luxury.

Learning from wartime production methods, a card on each jewelry tray was signed in and out of each department, and any pieces that were scrapped by the department were noted. This control system made it possible to provide the exact status of each order any time a customer called. One concession he made was to paste (glue) the rhinestones, which was done by the 10-14 girls in "assembly" after the men had drilled the holes. He further simplified the order process by marking a number on the back of each piece of jewelry, which corresponded with the Boucher catalog. About the time Sandra arrived he also changed the bark to "Boucher."

First impressions

The factory at East 23rd St was already in place when Sandra joined the firm in 1949, and she believes little had changed since before the war. A few people, like the model maker Karl Albrich, had been there from the start.

As design assistant Sandra needed good light and she was stuck into a small space with the jewelry trays behind the wire mesh, making her feel like a canary in a cage! One of the first jobs Marcel gave her was to touch up the artwork to be used to advertise his new "Ballet of Jewels" theme8. He was a meticulous designer who would spend hours in the public library to make sure each design was perfect. Sandra remembers he even had a pair of ballet shoes on his desk to make quite sure the dancers’ feet looked authentic.

Chic, chic, chic!

She was kept very busy because the firm produced Spring/Summer and Fall/Winter collections, which required about 300 designs each year (a matching necklace and earrings were considered two designs). Every year they would produce a showcase piece for stores to show in the window called a "first-nighter." One of these was the "Miss America" tiara, which Boucher made every year.

Initially, Marcel would create the themes and design concepts and then pass them on to Sandra to develop or to complete a specific task. Increasingly Sandra would develop her own designs and take them to Marcel for comment. He would tell her "Let’s do this one, but drop that one-I do not like it." Among the designs from this period is the Hummingbird.

"What Marcel wanted was jewelry that was chic and fluid, with simple lines and not clumsy. ‘Chic, chic, chic!’ was what he always called for. He was a pain in the neck! A nice pain, but very demanding of himself and others, very difficult, and he always wanted nothing less than perfection," says Sandra.

Just before Sandra joined the firm, Marcel moved to a new showroom on an upstairs floor of the Accessory Building" at 347 Fifth Avenue, where the buyers could see jewelry, accessories and watches all under one roof. He decorated the new showroom very elegantly in beige with black accents. It was very modern for its time with jewelry displayed everywhere and oriental design curtains and plenty of flowers. The showroom was staffed with two saleswomen, and he would be there during "market season," a week every two months or so when the store buyers made appointments to see the new lines. The general public was never allowed in the showroom.

Design pirates

Costume jewelers worked in a small world, and every firm immediately followed the others. Marcel was plagued by people who pirated his designs and he hated it. In the early days it could be stopped by having a lawyer write a letter to a store pointing out it was selling copies. Immediately after the war he was even forced to sue Coro to stop them pirating his designs, but it was an expensive victory as the damages award was $35,000 but the attorney’s fees cost $50,000. One solution he found was to have the cabochon stones made exclusively for Boucher in non-standard sizes. 

Although the pirates could buy a casting and copy it, they could not get stones to fit: "These they can never copy-they are only for us," Sandra remembers him exclaiming. When he decided to produce a Boucher line of precious jewelry in the 1950s, the new designs were copied and in the stores on 47th Street before he could even start production. He found the culprit but abandoned the idea of fine jewelry in disgust.

Marboux, Ciro and Canada

Marcel started his Marboux line to provide lower cost jewelry and fill the gap left by his premium line, but it no longer was produced when Sandra joined9. He sold jewelry to Ciro, which had stores in New York, London and Germany, and they bought in such quantity that he agreed to add their name on the back of the designs produced for them.

He expanded abroad and was paid a royalty from his sales arrangement in Belleville, Canada, and started a similar arrangement in 1953-54 in Paris. France was a difficult market and the effort petered out, but Sandra remembers the stylish presentation at the sumptuous Hotel Le Crillion with models wearing the Boucher jewelry. The Canadian market was more receptive, although it was more conservative than America. The Canadians would come to New York to choose the designs they wanted for their market, and the molds were made in New York and then sent to Canada for production. Marcel would go to Canada and take the opportunity to visit his mother who had emigrated to Montreal.

Marcel wanted to keep his business small, and it reached a peak of 60-80 employees in the 1950s. They only made to order after producing the first models, and as few as 50 pieces might be manufactured if a design proved unpopular. He never had ambitions to be big, like Trifari: "One bad year and you are in trouble," he confided to Sandra. He knew Alfred Philippe of Trifari personally and admired him as a fine designer-a real artist.

Lowering standards

By the mid-1950s, Marcel was becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the lowering of standards in the costume jewelry industry. In 1955-56 they had to send some Boucher designs to Providence to have them made cheaply enough to fill the low end of the line. To save costs they stopped polishing the back of the jewelry around the catalog number, and Sandra points out that this is one way to date the later pieces.

They believed the standards began to decline when a number of new firms entered the market in the late 1950s, including some which specialized in high volume/low quality production. Price competition forced a reduction in quality to whatever the market would bear. The buyers were a large part of the problem-previously the better stores employed their own buyers who had been with them for many years and knew the "look" each store wanted to project. Later, younger buyers simply ordered what the figures said they sold most of, which may have been good for their short term profit, but did not encourage innovation and quality. The "look" became more simple, too, and it just was not possible to sell the large pavé rhinestone pieces.

To Tiffany and back

Marcel and Sandra continued to innovate, both with designs and with materials, but in 1958 they both agreed she needed a new challenge, and he helped her get the job of Chief Designer at Tiffany & Co. She headed a department of three to four designers and reported directly to Mr. Lusk, the President. Her department was responsible for special orders and stock designs and she worked on the same floor as Tiffany’s most famous designer, Jean Schlumberger. She only met him once since he was involved with his own designs in a unique style which she greatly admires.

By 1961, Sandra again found fine jewelry too conservative-more a manipulation of gemstones than the kind of design she enjoyed, and she returned to Boucher. It was in this period that she designed the enameled Boucher peacock with Marcel. The model makers did a fine job with the modulation and it was one of his favorite pieces, because it was such a good seller. They experimented with leather and ostrich and mother-of-pearl jewelry. Marcel also designed a series of dogs with his habitual attention to detail. The only freelance design Sandra remembers them producing was the skunk, which Marcel and the Nieman Marcus buyer both loved.

Inheritance

In October 1964, Sandra and Marcel were married. But on returning from their honeymoon, he was told during a routine medical checkup just before Christmas that he had 6 months to live. He died only six weeks later.

Marcel left the business to Sandra, because he knew she would try to keep it going and same the employees’ jobs. It was a very difficult time, with Sandra taking care of work by day and designing by night. She is an accomplished designer and not a business woman and she had no experience of things like negotiating loans with bankers. Some in the industry said she would not last six months in this competitive business, but she kept it going until 1970. She found her peace in these difficult times by taking vacations in faraway places without telephones like Nepal, the Amazon and Antarctica. One of her many designs was her "Bees on Honeycomb" which was a great success although Marcel had rejected it when he was alive.

Finally, it was enough. Meeting payroll each week was a strain and she could make more money as a freelance designer, so she sold the business to Irving Ornstein, the co-owner of Davorn Industries10. Part of the agreement was that Sandra would design watches and some costume jewelry for Davorn for five years, and it is during this time that watches marked "Marcel Boucher" were made to her designs.

After Boucher

Sandra had many opportunities when she left Davorn. One of the stone dealers suggested Ciner might need her, and today she still works about one day each week freelancing on Ciner’s design projects. She also took on other non-competing freelance design work-one fine jewelry, one premium and one low-end costume jewelry. This time she enjoyed returning to fine jewelry, since mass production had brought about a deterioration in much of the costume jewelry.

She also started teaching "Creation and Rendering" at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, although this started purely by chance. She was there at a cocktail party given in memory of Marcel and, without thinking, mentioned that she would like to teach. A few weeks later she received a phone call saying "tomorrow you have a class"! She was totally unprepared but 25 years later she is still teaching 1-2 days each week, not just jewelry design, but shoes and frames and other items. With 20 young students in each class she has plenty to keep her challenged.

Sandra still lives in the apartment which she and Marcel shared, and which he decorated carefully with his usual eye for detail. He loved the oriental style and even had the door bell cast in oriental motif at the factory. He made the handles on a chest of drawers by cutting in half some Boucher bangles in bamboo pattern. She still entertains on the oriental style table Marcel himself designed. The kitchen is where he practiced his skills as a chef. The shelves are full of mementos from their travels. "I still miss him very much", she says, and everywhere you look, Sandra has kept her husband’s memory alive.

What made Boucher great?

As a professional designer and his wife, Sandra is in a position to share some unique insights into why so many people continue to admire the work of Marcel Boucher. "His jewelry is different", says Sandra, "He was always innovating and ahead of his time. When he launched his first jewelry, nobody had ever seen anything like his three-dimensional designs and colorful enamels. He continued to be an innovator until the end. He was a good businessman, although he was too honest and not shrewd enough! He ran a very efficient production operation and was a good person to work for."

"Not only was he a very good designer, but he was a jeweler and mechanic too, who knew model making and tooling. He took pride in his work and was always very demanding and a perfectionist with an eye for detail. He studied his subjects intimately. But above all, he had impeccable taste and knew what was chic," she says.

About her own talents Sandra says modestly: "I love what I do, and this shows in my designs, which are very fluid. Although I can design in any style, my personal style is very recognizable." Her accomplishments speak for themselves. Rising from fine jewelry designer for Harry Winston to Chief Designer at Tiffany would be challenge enough for most, but Sandra also reached the pinnacle in costume jewelry during her long collaboration with Marcel Boucher. She achieved the difficult transition between precious and costume jewelry design not once but three times. Admirers of Boucher jewelry may consider themselves fortunate to have so many examples of the work of this exceptional designer.

Reaching forward

"Marcel and I were always reaching forward and we were always ahead of our time," says Sandra. "We always looked for the next challenge, the next fashion. We never dwelled in the past or lived in our memories, and I’m sorry if this leaves some of your questions unanswered."

Sandra’s approach to life has not changed. She still enjoys the challenges of her work and her teaching. She is a skilled and experienced designer, who still gets excited by new fashions. She is a dynamic and charming lady, whose enthusiasm and "joie de vivre" are contagious. It is not hard to understand why Marcel Boucher and his collaboration with Sandra created some of the most admired American costume jewelry of the 20th century.

Costume Jewelry of Marcel and Sandra Boucher 
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1They decided to change it to Sandra when she married Marcl./
2
Harry Winston bought the 45.52 carat blue diamond in 1949 and donated it to The Smithsonian in 1958 (Author)
3
Sandra is not sure of the exact date, but knows he had left Paris well before the 1925 Arts Décoratifs exhibition.
4
Cartier also does not have any employee records from that period in their archives.(Author)
5
Already in 1936 the flat, symmetric patterns of ornate Art Deco were gong out of style in Paris, the source of American fashion at the time. Cartier, Boivin and other Paris fine jewelers began replacing Art Deco with huge, dramatic, three-dimensional designs of flowers and other naturalistic subjects.(Author)
6
Sandra confirms that the mark is the Phyrigian bonnet, and not a "hawk’s head" or "birds’s head," as is sometimes imagined. The "bonnet Phrygian," worn with a tricolor cockade by the insurgents during the French Revolution, was inspired byt he caps worn by freed slaves in ancient Greece. (Author)
7
"American Costume Jewelry", Carla & Roberto Brunialti, pp 201, 202.
8
"American Costume jewelry", Brunialti, p 187
9
The name "Marboux" was first registered in 1937 and was renewed in 1957. The registration expired in 1977 (Author). Sandra guesses it may have been renewed in 1957 to keep others from using it.
10
In an interview, Mr. Ornstein told the author that Davorn was a successful New York costume jewelry firm, originally started by his father before 1920. In about 1938 his father was on a trip to Switzerland and decided to make imitation diamond watches with rhinestones. Iving Ornstein knew of the Boucher firm and wanted to have Sandra, as an accomplished designer, come and design for him. After her contract ended, he sold the Boucher business in about 1979 together with its name and all the designs and records to the maker of Stutz motor cars.

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