Evolution of the Jewelry Industry in America: Late 19th Century

Evolution of the Jewelry Industry in America: Late 19th Century

We will now conclude this series by looking at the 25 years leading up to the 20th century. In the colonial era,  we saw jewelry that was available only to the wealthy as much of it had to be imported for lack of skilled labor and need. For the federal period, the innovation in machines created a bigger market for jewelry to be affordable for more people but we see goldsmiths start to grow in confidence about becoming jewelers. Then in the Mid-19th century the jewelry manufacturing start to decline as the people tire of mass produced jewels and jewelers start to grow their business by establishing jewelry stores that we know today. In the next 25 years, 1875-1900, there are major shifts in the jewelry industry. This is of course driven by the trends of the people and what the current climate is like.

Before we get into all the details and history a set of jewelry I saw at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. The set was made in France with amazing enamel details from 1900.

Front view:

Back of the jewelry also enamel:

What was happening in this period?

  • Queen Victoria ends mourning 1887
  • 100 years of America
  • United Press starts in 1880 to challenge monopolies
  • New wave of immigrants
  • Rise of millionaires ex. Carnegie, Rockefeller
  • Rise of the press

In keeping this post to a decent length, I will use a couple of examples to try and explain as much of this period affecting the jewelry industry in the late 19th century.

Let’s look at the beginning of this period at around 1876. The country is celebrating 100 years of independence.  At this stage in the country’s history we have 2 groups; the established Americans who have a long family history of living in America and those newly immigrated to America. Around the time of the civil war there was an influx of immigrants coming to America. I had family that came to this country from Germany in the 1860s through Ellis Island. As many celebrated their American roots there was a renewed interest in the jewelry of their patriotic ancestors.

Weddings are considered a good time to wear beautiful jewelry either as a bride or as a guest but before the 1880s wedding jewelry was not that common among the public. That changed when the Press started covering society weddings. The trend of jewelry at weddings started with Queen Victoria and then the wealthy started to have wedding jewelry be more common. One wedding listed in Martha Gandy Fales, Jewelry in America book, is the wedding of Lilia Osgood Vanderbilt in 1881. The gifts from family and friends included:

  • Pearl and diamond necklace
  • Set of diamonds
  • Diamond and ruby ring
  • Diamond necklace
  • Diamond clasps to secure lace veil for bride’s silver satin wedding dress

Could you imagine receiving any of these gifts? That was not all. The groom after spending a small fortune on the ring was expected to give each of the bridesmaids a gift and the traditional gift was jewelry. What did the bridesmaids for the Vanderbilt wedding receive? There were four bridesmaids all nieces of the bride, they received a diamond pansy pin from the groom. Small gifts were also given to the attendants and ushers from the bride and groom. The rest of America was being exposed to all this wealth creating a need to copy these trends.

How did these events affect jewelry trends?

  • Increase in wedding jewelry
  • Emulating trends of the rich
  • Increase in imitation jewels
  • Revival jewelry started to trend because regular people wanted jewels they did not inherit p315
  • Increase in popularity of silver jewelry
  • Immigrants bring in jewelry design skills
  • New styles of jewelry art nouveau and arts and crafts popular to combat the industrial trend of jewelry

Not everyone was a Vanderbilt so imitation diamonds were getting more popular and not everyone had family that came over to America in the late 1700s so copies of antique jewelry were also in demand. Cameos and diamond necklaces, all the trends from the past were being made and sold to those that had no family jewels. This was not limited to ordinary strands of diamonds, a major trend in the earlier times for the country was the Greek, Roman, and Etruscan jewelry. The revival jewelry we see in museums today.

I saw several of these pieces at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. A few of my photos below:

Earrings by Italian designer Castellini, made around 1870-1880, using ancient technique of granulation

Enamel ring from the 19th century created in 16th century style

Gold and Amber Archeological Revial necklace from Italy made around 1880

Elizabethan Revival necklace in silver, gold, pearl, diamonds, emeralds, agate and glass made in England around 1890, cameo depicts Queen Elizabeth I

You think jewelry manufacturing would start to see a revival? That was not the case. I have included the chart from the last post and added more years and removed the jewelry only listings to focus on the trends for the last half of the century.

We see a slight dip in the Boston Jewelry, Watch and Plate listings in 1876 around the time people are looking to grow their own collection without all the money the wealthier Americans have. This remains unchanged for about 10 years. Then something new happens, the trend is more handmade materials. The over saturation of mass produced jewelry has Americans looking for more novel artistic jewelry and this is the beginning of the Arts & Crafts movement. As we get closer to 1900 the trend for more jewelers and a decline in manufacturers becomes clear.

What gemstones & materials were popular in jewelry at the time?

There were lots of new designs and ideas taking off. Art Nouveau was becoming popular. The Arts&Crafts was unique because it used more affordable materials like silver and semi-precious gemstones. Below are some pieces from the late 19th century that are from the collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Arizona turquoise, demantoid garnets, and gold pendant, by Marcus and Co made between 1891-1902, New York

 

Gold, peridot, diamonds, pearls, and enamel brooch, by Marcus and Co in 1900, New York

 

Gold, plique-à-jour enamel, diamonds, pearl, and ruby pin, made by Riker Bros in 1900, New Jersey

 

Gold, diamond, and enamel pin, made by Tiffany & Co. in 1890, New York

Silver vest chain made by Unger Bros. in 1900, New Jersey

What was the role of the jeweler and jewelry store at the time?

  • Rise of artistic jeweler
  • Price war and low margin for manufacturer
  • Recession, fire, theft major hindrances to industry
  • Establishment of Jewelry League of NYC 1877
  • Wholesales business increase created greater need for reps/salesman

We established in the last post that jewelry stores are starting to come into their own and expand into viable businesses. Jewelry is trending and there were years that were very good but the jewelry industry did suffer from some setbacks. Two notable ones occurred in 1877 and 1882.

In New York City in 1877, on a night in early March a fire broke out at the Waltham building in the center of the New York Jewelry trade buildings. Firemen immediately were at the scene but were unable to save the valuable goods due to how they were stored. The jewelry was stored offices and stores with iron clad safes, doors and windows to protect the building from theft. The fire got so fierce that the building collapsed. The work then began to salvage the wreckage. One company assessed their damage and found that of the $275,000 worth of valuables only about $10,000 could be saved.  Some lessons learned, better comparisons between brands of safes. Tests on how safes could handle damage were measured and shared for future purchases.

Other years that were notably bad for the jewelry industry were 1882, 1893, and 1897 due to combinations of recession, fire and theft. Some examples are a recession that happened in 1882. The Spring of 1882 saw a sharp decline in jewelry sales and many in the industry either lost their job or had to reduce the hours worked. Another problem at that time was a decrease in profit for the manufacturing industry. With the increase in competition the prices were lowered. To reduce costs for manufacturers better machinery and techniques were sought as well as using cheaper materials for the jewelry. Some of these attempts were successful but as you see in the present time cheaper materials is not always the best answer. The jewelry industry cannot wage price wars and still have the message of luxury product unique to the individual.

I covered a lot and still could go on for more posts but I hope you started to see the parallel themes from the past to the present. If you want to understand your industry and customers better, you must understand the environment around you and globally what is trending. Politics and those featured in society have a major effect on trends. America still gets inspiration from England and its royal family. Keeping up with what your neighbor has is still going to happen, just look at how people want the latest in technology. Don’t just follow what is happening in your industry, read business articles on retail trends and policies that can affect you customers. This is one of the best ways to keep up or be a head of your competition and if you are in the jewelry industry you need that advantage as I see this as one of the most saturated and fragmented industries to make it in.

If you enjoyed this series and are interested in looking at my take on the business of jewelry I encourage you to join my email list. I am looking to launch a newsletter soon with alerts and other insights from my blog. Please visit Data in the Rough soon for more articles and thank you for reading.

 

How Oscar Heyman became the Jewelers’ Jeweler

Full disclosure I have been waiting for this book, Oscar Heyman The Jewelers’ Jeweler, to be released for almost 3 years. I follow JCK news frequently and on July 15, 2014. This story by Jennifer Heebner showed up.

I clicked on the link immediately! There was the editor detailing how this book about the over 100-year-old jewelry company was being worked on by the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. The main point I wanted to know was the release date, which was estimated around 2015 or 2016. Well that was pushed out, but I waited and waited. Then on February 3rd, 2017 I received an email from the Museum of Fine Arts about the book’s release on April 1st.

April 1, 2017, arrived and I called the MFA to confirm they had this book. The weather in Boston on April 1st was terrible with snow, wind and rain, a good joke for New Englanders’ thinking winter was behind them. Once I knew the book was ready to buy I made my journey, by public transportation no less, to the museum. Why go on the worst day when I could wait for a sunnier day the next? I wanted this book and the wait had been long enough. Amazon was even behind, not releasing it until the next week.

So what got me to this point? What is it that drew me to Oscar Heyman’s jewelry? It wasn’t the jewelry that got me curious about this company it was their reputation and their story.

The Beginnings

In 1901 the Heyman family sent two of their sons, Oscar and his older brother Nathan to train to be jewelers in the Ukraine. They were living in the Russian controlled area of Latvia at the time. These young apprentices manufactured jewelry and other objects for international clients and the House of Peter Carl Faberge. I had previously seen this reference to Faberge in literature about the Oscar Heyman & Brothers Company. This is what caught my eye and had me research and follow this firm for many years now.

I have written some about Faberge. He is one of my (if not my) favorite designer! My goal is to own a small item manufactured by Peter Carl Faberge’s company. It does not matter what it is, because whatever I buy will be of the best quality.  That is what made Faberge’s company so wonderful every piece no matter the size or value had to be consistent in quality. Everyone that worked for him or represented his company had to meet his high standards.

From what I have seen and learned about the Oscar Heyman Company on my own and through this book is that they have several aspects of their company that parallel Faberge’s. One being their craftsmanship and the second, relationships.

 

Craftsmanship

I see a lot of jewelry at auctions, stores, designer open houses, etc. and the over used phrase of, ‘That is so beautiful!’, is frequently heard at these events. But there must be more than beauty to make a piece of jewelry be looked at as an object of art and desire. The jewelry needs a soul.

A story I have highlighting the character of an Oscar Heyman piece, is from a Christie’s online auction preview I went to last year.  I was going through the cases, starting at one end and working around, when I heard a Christie employee telling a woman that was trying on jewelry from the case about an Oscar Heyman ring that she identified. I tried to move inconspicuously towards the two. The woman telling the story continued telling how Christie’s received a group of jewelry to be cataloged for this auction and as she was going through the jewelry, a ring stood out to her as being something that looked like it was by Oscar Heyman. There was no stamp of the designer but the worker wanted to just see if it might be one of theirs. Pictures and details of the piece were sent to the Heyman office and sure enough Christie’s was contacted and told the ring was in the Heyman archives! Making it a total of three Oscar Heyman rings being offered at this auction! The woman trying on jewelry was no longer looking at the piece she was currently trying on but taking in this fun story of discovery. She quickly asked if the piece she had on was the ring. Her ring was of a gold alligator that wrapped around her figure, most likely a Kieselstein-Cord ring, definitely not an Oscar Heyman, the Christie’s worker confirmed that.  What was the ring you ask? Well the other onlooker wondered if she had picked it but did not ask about seeing the actual ring. I looked in the case and saw three rings with a similar design, a large stone with smaller stones around it. One stood out and I had a feeling that was the ring. So I asked to see the Oscar Heyman ring and the employee picked the one I had my eye on! A yellow diamond in the center with smaller alternating yellow and white diamonds around it. What stood out to me? The setting. The stones were layered and seemed to sit a little higher than the other similarly designed rings. Picture below:

So that was one down. I spotted the second one, a ruby that was in a case by itself.

 

Had to try it on!

The third one I had to ask. This sapphire and diamond ring was in another case, two out of three is not bad!

Not every quality piece I have seen is from Oscar Heyman, but every Oscar Heyman is a quality piece.

 

Relationships

Another aspect that the book touches on is relationships the company has with their employees and retailers.

Company loyalty can be hard to find. Even when you do find a stable job the conditions can be hard to be happy in. So, it was refreshing to hear a story about how the Oscar Heyman employees handled the 25th anniversary of the company. Oscar Heyman and his brother came over to America in 1906 and founded their company in 1912. The 25th anniversary took place in 1937, a time when the country was struggling with troubling economic hardships. The day was to be like any other but the employees wanted to mark the occasion. For the silver anniversary, the employees worked in secret for fourteen months to complete a clock to present to their employers. Picture below found from post by Couture Musings:

Around the globe are the letters O. Heyman & Bros each character marking an hour. The figure on the right is to represent a workbench jeweler. The figure on the left is the god Mercury, that represents commerce and financial gain. At the silver base are the names of all the current employees for that time. It was touching to read that story and to think how much those employees must have loved working for the company to do all this!

Faberge ran a workshop that also cared for their workers. The workers had good wages, excellent working facilities and even had the opportunity to manage small businesses within the company. Many pieces not only have the stamp of Faberge but the maker in charge of that object. It gave a sense of pride and ownership to the workers. Rare for a company to be so invested in their workers.

The retailers also had favorable comments about Oscar Heyman. Mr. Heyman passed away in 1970, the book notes that one retailer recalled during the Depression how Mr. Heyman granted his clients with the option of credit and the opportunity to sell the jewelry on consignment. This helped many businesses stay open as paying for those high-end pieces would have crippled their cash flow significantly, causing them to possibly go out of business.

These businesses were not just a few retailers Oscar Heyman’s business model is selling to stores not to consumers. Black, Starr & Frost, Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels to name a few had Oscar Heyman & Bros manufacture jewelry to sell under their stores name. When going to auctions you can still find pieces marked as one retailer but were created by the Heyman Company.

Below is a bracelet that was clearly marked in the Sotheby’s catalog as being from Black, Starr & Frost but on Instagram Heyman shared it as one of the pieces they manufactured. In the book a similar bracelet is pictured and credited as Oscar Heyman. Details of this amazing piece at auction are taken by me below.

Looking Forward

The book spends its time focusing on Oscar Heyman’s business from 1912-1970. Ending their story with the passing away of Oscar Heyman on July 13, 1970.  A few paragraphs mark the centennial that the company celebrated 5 years ago but the focus on the book is the company through the years.

I genuinely enjoyed the book. I was a little concerned when I saw the page count, worrying it would be all photos and no real story, like a coffee table book. It would have been the easy way to make this book.  The thought of picking from hundreds of thousands of jewelry photos seems difficult but how could you go wrong with picking any piece, especially with all the rich history? This book was to show and explain why Oscar Heyman is the Jewelers’ Jeweler. This isn’t a title they claimed for themselves like a marketing campaign. The title has been given to them by the employees, retailers and customers who have been a part of their story. I look forward to continuing to see their jewelry at auctions, in stores and on social media for a new audience to appreciate.

Links to buy the book from Amazon are here or from the Museum of Fine Arts Boston click here