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.