A Conversation with JUDITH HENDLER by Matthew Burkholz

Judith Hendler

Ms. Hendler is wearing a clear lucite modernist articulated 2-piece pendant necklace which harkens back to mogul designs with its exaggerated disc in crescent design and is BOLD in design and conveys strength and power.

Matt Burkholz and Erik Yang further their introduction to Judith Hendler’s manufacturing processes, creativity and, of course, her “jewelry of timeless elegance” dating to the 1980s.


Matt: What kind of machinery and training did your workers use in the ‘80s workshop?


Judith: To the best of my knowledge, no one else worked with the acrylic in the same manner. Because I began with Swedlow acrylic, which is extremely hard polymer, we couldn’t manipulate it like softer plastics. I purchased lapidary equipment we modified for our use and all pieces were cut as though they were stones rather than plastic, then ground and polished by hand. Looking back, I marvel at what we did. I had no experience in this area, and while my husband trained me on the saws, sanding and drilling equipment, I had to learn through trial and error on the lapidary. Once I learned, then I had to find people I could train to work the process. We made our own everything. The only thing we purchased were metal findings used to secure the jewelry together. It usually took three to six months before someone was really competent in all phases of making the jewelry. We also dyed everything by hand, which was another long learning process. There was no real formula for dying and all things were matched by “eye.” I always had to alert buyers that if they wanted things truly matched in color, they had best buy at that moment for there was no guarantee the next color batch would be exactly the same!


Erik: At the height of production, how many artisans/employees worked in the studios, and who handled the accounting/shipping?


Judith: At peak production I employed seven people plus myself, and when really busy we brought in front office part-time help. We needed people who knew me, my methods and how to work with the material. We pulled all nighters more than once. My long time friend Arlene March ran the office but I, however, was the shipping clerk. I personally checked practically every package exiting our factory to the stores!


Matt: What’s the difference in quality between the original Swedlow acrylic and other material?


Judith: The Swedlow acrylic was aviation super-durable “cross-link polymer.” Unlike other plastics, it could not be melted and reused. Aircraft nose cones and windows were manufactured with this plastic, so each piece had to be clarity perfect and any small blemish would assign the material to the scrap pile. Awful for Swedlow, but a bonanza for me! Mr. Swedlow, a business associate of my husband, originally sent a container of scrap to my husband who figured out methods to flatten and rework the acrylic to make furniture. This manufacturing also created a lot of scrap, which I, as an artist, saw as a windfall and opportunity! I gleaned from these leftovers and started making jewelry long before recycling was fashionable!


I eventually outgrew the Swedlow-Ritts castoffs and had to purchase other acrylic. I only used the finest materials available, with the majority being Plexiglas or Lucite (trade names rather than types of plastic), which will melt at proper temperatures and is recyclable. More than once a very distressed customer walked into Saks or Bullock’s where I was doing a personal appearance, carting a necklace they had left on the dashboard of their car in the sun, returning to find the collar distorted.


Erik: I have seen several crazed pieces on the market and others appear to be seconds. Sellers typically say this is original to the manufacturing process. Is it?


Judith: No, on both counts. There are several causes of crazing (small cracks in the acrylic), but they all come down to too much stress on a porous material. While the Swedlow plastic can handle almost any amount of stress, other plastics cannot. The usual cause of crazing is alcohol in perfume. All store personnel working with the jewelry were instructed to make sure customers received a care card calling attention to a hard and fast rule: “Make-up and hairspray first, jewelry last.” As for seconds, yes, there are some circulating on the market. Just as other businesses find a way to use ‘imperfects’, so did we. At the end of each season my staff and I put together a seconds/sample sale, a decision based purely on economics.


Matt: What colors sold best in the 1980s?


Judith: Hands down, clear or the combination of clear-frosted or brushed, was always the front-runner. It outsold everything two to one! It was timeless, went with everything and could transition from day to night. Color would visually attract customers to the case, but clear, black, black and white, and white ruled the sales figures. I had the wonderful distinction of being the only white jewelry Saks Fifth Avenue would carry!


Matt: What stores carried your work, and how much did pieces cost in the period?


Judith: My first major retailer was Bonwit Teller in Beverly Hills, a wonderfully elegant old-school department store. They also graced their windows with the large, paper sculptures I was still doing at the time. It was a special place to start. Saks Fifth Avenue was next with 22 stores across the country, and then came Robinson’s, Bullock’s, Bloomingdale’s, I. Magnin, Carson Pirie Scott, and a myriad of small, upscale, fashion-forward boutiques as well as Holt-Renfrew in Canada and Japan.


At Saks, the personnel used to tell their customers the Judith Hendler line was an extremely affordable investment. Necklaces retailed for $55 to $75, earrings for $35 to $55, and bracelets and cuffs $35 to $75. Considering their prices today, indeed they were a good investment!


Erik: When did you introduce the use of sterling silver hardware in your collection?


Judith: In the late ‘80s Saks decided they didn’t want anything in their fashion jewelry department under $100. It was a real dilemma. I couldn’t just double or triple my prices for the same merchandise without giving the customer greater value, but I couldn’t continue on with Saks unless I had higher price points. For me, justification for the higher price point was the addition of sterling silver to the pieces. I was not happy about this; it meant for the first time integral parts for my jewelry came from someone else. I designed silver earring and neck collar connectors and added them to the acrylic pieces. It worked! All, including me, were satisfied, and it added a new dimension and tone to the line which resonated nicely.


Erik: Customers always comment about the clever mechanism of your neckrings. How did it come about?


Judith: The original necklaces were actually collars of crystals surrounding the neck. They were over-the-top and showy, and I still have a few in my private collection. However, I couldn’t convince any of the stores to carry them. I was constantly told if I would just scale down the necklaces they would be interested in the line. I finally, in desperation, tried cutting the acrylic in thin strips and bending it. It looked better but it still had a “loving hands at home” look. The real breakthrough came when Herb found his old boat winch and wound up a heated 6 foot length of acrylic on it creating the neckring. The look was great, but attaching it to the crystal was still a mystery. After combing the specialty hardware stores in Los Angeles, I came across some very small eye hooks I screwed into the ends of the bent rods, opened up one side and realized I had inadvertently created a hook. It was a real eureka moment. Not only did the crystal look wonderful suspended from the acrylic neck collar, but the collar distributed the weight of the crystal so it became comfortable, and created a gravity closure making the necklace easy to take on and off. The neckring is really my trade mark. It is very wearable and emblematic of Judith Hendler Jewelry. The neckring collar became a standalone item, and was probably the most successful and sought after piece in the entire collection.


Matt: When did you realize you were “collectible”?


Judith: About 3 years ago a neighbor inquired, “Judith, have you seen your jewelry on the Internet?” Said friend then pulled up Erik’s website and I almost passed out! There was one of my very early $85 Swedlow necklaces and a $55 matching bracelet, retailing for $950! After a very lengthy phone conversation with Erik, we made arrangements for him to visit my studio to see my “new old stock.” I am definitively a pack rat and had quite a bit of jewelry on hand that had never been liquidated. Under Erik’s careful guidance, we selected pieces for him to take back to Dallas to post on his website and the rest, as they say, is history. I also appreciated you featuring my work in your Palm Springs store, where we showed vintage Acri-Gems with great success! The demand I have seen, as well as the encouragement of both of you, have propelled me to reenter the market with new ideas and new designs. And while at the time “jewelry of timeless elegance” was just a slogan, it has proved to be more than prophetic. Thank you to all who share and appreciate my vision and work, and I look forward to more in the future!


HOW DID JUDITH HENDLER SIGN HER JEWELRY?


Very few of Judith’s original pieces were signed, although she did sign some of them with an engraving pen when she did personal appearances in the 1980s. The earlier pieces are signed “JH.” A few came with a silver paper sticker reading “Judith Hendler” in block letters and/or were on paper cards featuring the Hendler logo. Customers also received felt storage bags with the Hendler logo when making a purchase.


Recently, Judith has begun to engrave her name on the neckring of pieces jewelry collectors bring to her at shows or events. She signs these vintage pieces with her full name “Judith Hendler,” if space allows and simply “JH” when the surface is small.


To read Part I of this feature, “Judith Hendler: Past, Present & Future”, click here.


Photography of Judith Hendler jewelry courtesy of John Hylton for Route 66 West www.route66west.com and Erik Yang of The Lush Life Antiques www.thelushlifeantiques.com.


Photo of Judith Hendler courtesy of Judith Hendler www.judithhendler.com.


To view more pictures from this article click here.