Evolution of the Jewelry Industry in America: Colonial Era

A lot of talk has been made about the future of retail. I cannot walk down a street or look out a window on my commute without being reminded of the shift in consumer spending. Store closing and out of business signs seem to be popping up in Boston and online. Type in ‘store closing’ and see what that search brings you the words: panic, scramble and apocalypse were in the three stories at the top of my list. Much of the retail ‘apocalypse’ talk has been pointing to the apparel part of the industry. The question I ask seeing these stories is what does this mean for the jewelry industry?

To be able to better understand the future it helps to understand the past. A very overused saying but still insightful. For the rest of the month I want to focus on the jewelry industry in America. This will be a return to my book bling series by focusing on one book: Jewelry in America (1600-1900) by Martha Gandy Fales. It is divided into 4-time periods:

[1] Colonial (1600-1775)
[2] Federal (1775-1825)
[3] Mid-19th Century (1825-1875)
[4] Late 19th Century (1875-1900)

This book is more than just pictures of antique jewelry Ms. Fales looks at trends of the country and how the jewelers and jewelry stores evolved. That is how we will learn and be better prepared for the future by recognizing how trends in the country affect trends in the jewelry and the industry.

Confucius states it best, ‘Study the past if you would define the future’. Why use a quote by a Chinese scholar that lived long before the time America was founded? Because the beginning of this story starts in another country, long before America became a country of their own…

In the beginning
History tells of the Pilgrims that came over from England to worship without persecution, but traveling to a new world was typically for trade or war over resources. In 1608 John Smith was with a crew to look for new resources. Settling in what is now Virginia, Captain Smith thought practically about creating an environment for survival not treasure hunting. Reading Fales stories about Smith reminded me of the 1995 Disney movie Pocahontas. So much of that movie was inaccurate but some of the plot was following history, the villain and leader of the crew, Governor Ratcliffe, is in a mad fever to find lots of gold, but the men have no real experience with it, they are hunters and builders not goldsmiths. But that doesn’t stop Governor Ratcliffe from having the crew devote their time to digging.

Disney Pocahontas scene: Governor Ratcliffe has crew dig for gold

Well in real life goldsmiths were sent over with Smith’s crew due to the false hope of their being large amounts of gold found. In fact, the crew included two goldsmiths, two refiners and a jeweler, none of which could practice their craft in the new world. What happened when there are no materials and few customers? The jeweler returned home to England.

Realistically, the crew needed to hunt and settle the land (build shelter, etc) to survive. Like Smith was doing in the movie as he surveyed the land.

Disney Pocahontas scene: John Smith explores new world

Had to sneak of photo Disney’s John Smith in!

Once more colonists settle trade picked up but the role of the jeweler was much different than it is today.

What was happening in this period?
• People were settling in America
• English influence
• Low morality rate

I mention the top two points in my story above but to touch on the last point, with this new land came disease and poor conditions of living that lead to deaths at an early age than we have now. Death was a major part of colonial life a fact that the people embraced and accepted as best they could.

How did these events affect jewelry trends?
As people came to America and started a new life they bought some jewelry with them but the trend in this era was simple jewelry. Colonists did not have a major need for extravagant jewels when they are doing daily chores. Also, many of these colonists had religious influence that did not put a lot of value on jewelry.

With the English being the ones who lead the start of the colonies in America, England held a major influence over the jewelry brought into the country. Colonists had their jewels brought from England and imported jewelry for buying. Jewelry was also still primarily for nobility and the rich. In addition, the trend until the late 17th century was that men wore far more jewels than women. Signet rings, buckles, buttons, etc. all sparkled on men with a high status.

With a low morality rate, memorial jewelry was a major trend. Lockets, rings, cameos, anything to mark the remembrance for those that had passed.

What gemstones were popular at the time?

Cannot fit all the jewelry I’d like to in this post but a great example of garnet jewelry from the time with a famous owner. This necklace was owned by Martha Washington, America’s First, First Lady. Order from London (no surprise there) by her husband George in 1759. Photo courtesy of Mount Vernon Ladies Association, Virginia.

What was the role of the jeweler and jewelry store at the time?
Neither really existed at the time. There were not dedicated jewelers or jewelry stores. Silversmiths/goldsmiths doubled as jewelers and sold some wares in their shops. Not much was made with limited materials, skills and customers. Those that could afford the good jewelry bought from England, the most trusted source of jewelry at the time. England also had higher taxes on imports from other countries so English jewelry was what was most commonly sold.

I personally loved reading about a famous American patriot, silversmith and budding jeweler. Paul Revere was a Bostonian that has several silver pieces in the Museum of Fine Arts Boston as well as a ring I got to see on a trip there last winter.

There were a lot of years in this period but not too much happening in the world of jewelry in America. Next, I will look at the Federal Era and America’s freedom from England and how that made great changes for the jeweler and the stores! Sign up for emails and return for more Data in the Rough!

Famous Jewelry Collectors

With summer in full swing many of you probably have plans for how you will spend your summer, trips to the beach, finishing outdoor projects, planning family outings, etc. Summer also has fewer jewelry auctions to preview and is traditionally a slower time for jewelry stores so not a lot of new inventory is in. How will I spend my summer to fill that void of jewelry? I plan on starting on a summer reading list focused on jewelry, book bling. So for the summer I plan to post once a week a book review of a jewelry book I have read. I went to the local library and found several that will be fun to learn about. My first deals with famous jewelry collectors. The book, Famous Jewelry Collectors, is by Stefano Papi and Alexandra Rhodes published in 1999.  Here is the cover:


I saw this cover and knew this book was off to a great start. I have featured several of the Duchess of Windsor’s jewels on my Instagram and consider her jewels the finest collection I’ve ever seen!

The chapters about the collectors are broken out into three groups by their social class.

1: Screen Actresses and a Diva

Merle Oberon – Mary Pickford– Ava Gardner –  Paulette Goddard – Joan Crawford- Renata Tebaldi


2: Aristocracy

Cornelia, Countess Carven-Gladys Duchess of Marlborough-King Umberto II of Italy-The Princess Royal, Countess of Harewood – The Princes von Thurn und Taxis – The Duchess of Windsor


3: Society

Countess Mona Bismarck – Lydia, Lady Deterding – Daisy Fellowes – Ganna Walska – Barbara Hutton – Helena Rubinstein


I want to then look at one collector from each group to highlight their story and jewels.

1: Screen Actresses and a Diva: Merle Oberon


I have always admired Ms. Oberon’s work. If you haven’t seen Wuthering Heights (1939) (photo of scene below) costarring Laurence Oliver, it is a must!


Her striking features were due to being born to a mother who was Indian and a farther that was British. He died when Merle was a small child, which had her and her mother relocate from Bombay to Calcutta. The fact her mother was dark skinned created a lot of prejudice against Merle and left her ashamed of her past. Her background was kept secret when she became a star. How did Merle go from India to Hollywood? With her stunning looks she always had admirers and one of them offered her a chance to go to France when she was in her late teens. The fling ended when the man met Merle’s mother but now with her in France she found another man who offered her a part in a film he was directing. She moved to London where she worked as a hostess at a café while getting small roles. As she climbed up the ladder to stardom she had suitors and husbands that gifted her with amazing jewels. One of my favorite pieces is a necklace by Cartier bought in London, 1938. The beads are emeralds with diamond spacers (pictured below).


Another fun set to see was a set of brooches in turquoise and diamonds by Van Cleef & Arpels (below).

Merle_brooches_turqMerle also had earrings and a necklace to match. She also wore some of her real jewels in her movies. The 1967 movie, Hotel features the turquoise necklace and earrings. The 1938 movie, The Divorce of Lady X, also features an antique emerald and diamond necklace owned by the actress as she costars again with Laurence Oliver. I could not get a good photo of that stunner for this post. Many of her jewels were auctioned by Christie’s in April 1980 after her death in 1979.

2: Aristocracy: Gladys, Duchess of Marlborough


The next collector I chose because of her story being unique to all the others in this group. Although it is the usual start with Gladys being very beautiful and charming, pursued by many eligible bachelors. Gladys declined their advances and pursued learning, mastering new languages and increasing her knowledge of art. This was rare for a woman, especially one in high society to not marry, but Gladys had an independent spirit. Her admirers gifted her with jewels throughout her years. One in particular was the Duke of Marlborough, she met him in 1897 when she was about 16 years old and he was 26. The Duke was engaged to a Vanderbilt whom he married but always kept in touch with Gladys.  He was married 26 years to his first wife when he had it annulled and finally got Gladys to marry him when was now 40. She was hesitant because she loved her life without constraints. She did get some major perks and one of them was the jewelry. Below is an imperial pearl and diamond tiara.


This belonged to the Romanovs, the Duke bought it after the Bolsheviks sold it and other items of royalty off. Another item of great beauty is this amethyst and diamond sautoir by Cartier, a great example of art deco jewelry (picture below).


The marriage was not successful they separated in 1933 and the Duke died in 1934. She disappeared out of much of the public view. She was tracked down by a biographer whom heard of her through mentions in a diary by an admirer. The biographer found her in a little village and got her story. She died in October 1977 at age 97 and her jewels auctioned in 1978.

3: Society:  Helena Rubinstein

I had not heard of this woman until reading this book. Helena Rubenstein is the founder of the beauty product line that bears her name. Helena was born in Poland in 1870 and traveled to Australia at 18 to spend time with her brother’s family. She packed several jars of beauty cream with her for the harsh Australian weather. She shared this cream with her new Aussie friends who were happy with the results. The cream was not invented by her but she ended up partnering with the maker to open shops in Australia to sell this cream.  She married and had children but continued building her businesses. The jewelry was mostly bought by her. She would buy what she called ‘quarrel jewelry’. When she and her husband would have disagreements she would indulge herself with a beautiful piece of jewelry.


She loved chunky jewelry which I found interesting because of her petite size. She height was only 4’10’’. She acquired quite a bit of jewelry and in this book it had a story about her experience with airport security. Her jewels were sold big and colorful that Helena would lie and say they were costume and security always believed her! Below are some photos of her and her jewelry.


I really enjoyed this book and could not cover it all in one post. I hope the women I highlighted help guide you into reading more on them or finding other books that give more details into the life of the collector. Please let me know your thoughts or if you have a question about this book! Look for more book reviews this summer!