By Susan Klein Bagdade – Exclusively for CJCI
I confess. I saw the Eisenberg design cards a decade ago. When I was writing my book Mid-Century Plastic Jewelry, I contacted Carole and Stan Smith, owners of the Ralph Singer Jewelry Company, to see how costume jewelry was molded as they were the only manufacturer of costume jewelry in Chicago where I live. I did my homework before the visit and found out that they may have manufactured Eisenberg’s first jewelry. When I arrived, I asked Carole about this rumor and she showed me a file full of original design cards that dated from the 1920s through the 1950s. She said she had heard that too, but had no proof. And then she randomly pulled a card from the thousands in the file and we both gasped – the card said “Eisenberg.” Just like that we had found the missing link.
But how to present this precious material! For years Carole and I discussed the possibility of books and articles. It had to be a big splash. I had a regular column called “Bling & Things” at that time for Antiques & Collecting Magazine, but it seemed we needed something bigger than that – this was incredible information! Antiques & Collecting Magazine went out of business and life and time passed. Then when I heard the CJCI convention would grace our great City of Chicago, I knew this was the time and the moment to present this material in all its wonderful glory in its home city!
There are so few companies today that actually produce costume jewelry in the United States, let alone in Chicago and that retain their original records, it is simply amazing. Revisiting the Eisenberg cards this summer at their factory was an incredible experience, but there was so much more valuable information. Ralph Singer Jewelry Company (known then as Agnini & Singer) produced costume jewelry for a whole host of dress manufacturers, department stores and even corporations. The information contained in those cards was simply a gold mine! Unknown jewelry that was produced for such companies as J.L. Hudson, Elgin Watch Company and even General Mills, will now be able to be identified. The range and style of the Ralph Singer production is quite varied, from cold-painted metal to rhinestone encrusted. With this information, we can now safely say that the Ralph Singer Company was and is the most important manufacturer outside of the East Coast.
The Ralph Singer Jewelry Company was founded as the Oreste Agnini Company in 1921 by Italian immigrant Oreste Agnini. Agnini was born in Naples, Italy in 1885 and immigrated to the United States in 1902. On Agnini’s World War I draft registration card, he lists his occupation as a designer for Sears Roebuck. Soon after the company’s founding, he takes on a partner. His cohort, Ralph Singer, was born Rafaele Cantalupi in 1887 and migrated from Lombardy, Italy in 1908. Singer had been a diamond setter and was rumored to have worked for Gustavo Trifari in New York. The company first manufactured hair combs and shoe buckles.
In the mid-1920s, the Oreste Agnini Company took on a major customer, Eisenberg & Sons, a ready-to-wear dress company. Eisenberg was founded in 1914 by Jonas Eisenberg, a Polish immigrant, who came to the United States in 1884. The buttons, buckles and dress clips that adorned their frocks were such a hit that the items were being stolen right off the dresses. In 1928, the chairman of Chicago department store Carson Pirie Scott & Company suggested to Jonas Eisenberg that they consider manufacturing jewelry, as well as dresses. These original adornments are the work of the Oreste Agnini Company.
Eisenberg & Sons is not the only dress manufacturer client of the Oreste Agnini Company. They also created costume jewelry embellishments for such dress manufacturers as Charles Hyman, Chicago, Illinois; M&L Rothschild, Chicago, Illinois; Ladies Leader Garment Company, Minneapolis, Minnesota; Lion Dry Goods Company, Toledo, Ohio; and Grace Ashley, St. Louis, Missouri. These are a few examples, but the list goes on.
Early on, costume jewelry was created for others and not under the Oreste Agnini Company moniker. Other interesting commissions include jewelry for the Elgin Watch Company, the Illinois Watch Company, and even a sheaf of wheat pin for General Mills.
Sometime in the late 1930s, Ralph Singer’s arrangement with Eisenberg & Sons ended. The majority of early Ralph Singer for Eisenberg jewelry is not marked. In about 1935, Jonas’ son Sam Eisenberg coined the name “Eisenberg Ice” after the diamonds that Al Capone’s mob refers to as “Ice.” The “Eisenberg Original” mark was first used around 1938, likely around the time they began using their new supplier Fallon & Kappel. We can presume that with rhinestones and other findings in short supply due to the approaching war in Europe, Eisenberg moved its production to a bigger company, Fallon & Kappel in New York City. Perhaps with the closer proximity to the costume jewelry capitol of the world, Providence, Rhode Island, the supply chain was guaranteed.
Without their major customer, Eisenberg, the Oreste Agnini Company, produced its first jewelry in the 1940s under the moniker “Ora.” Ora in Italian means hour and the jewelry is advertised as “Jewels of the Hour”. “Ora” is also a combination of the names Oreste and Ralph. In 1954, the company also hired Anne Geyer, who had been the head designer for Tiffany & Company. At its height, Agnini & Singer employed 200 people.
Eisenberg & Sons continued their arrangement with Fallon & Kappel from 1943 to 1972. Eisenberg’s arrangement with F&K is an interesting one. Designer Ruth Kamke sketched jewelry with no particular client in mind. F&K’s other clientele included such notable costume jewelers as Weiss, Hattie Carnegie, Chanel & Schiaparelli. When a client came into the F&K showroom, they would choose the quantity and color of the available season’s designs, which were then exclusively consigned to them. F&K, however, would not go into production for less than one gross, which is 144 pieces. One complete line per season is ordered for each salesman and each showroom. Fallon & Kappelused “fancy cut” rhinestones, which had to be ordered in advance. During World War II, due to certain metals being requisitioned for the war effort, Eisenberg pins were manufactured out of sterling silver and even 14k gold! In 1958, Eisenberg abandoned the garment business, to concentrate exclusively on jewelry. During this Fallon & Kappel period, Eisenberg jewelry went from being a dress accessory to a free-standing, important piece of jewelry. Eisenberg jewelry was so expensive that in the 1940s some pieces cost between $40-50, which was the equivalent of a whole month’s salary at that time. Eisenberg Jewelry production never returned to Chicago.
Agnini & Singer continued to thrive, but went in an entirely different direction. In 1950, Ray Pausback, the son-in-law of Ralph Singer joined the company and developed a fraternal line of jewelry that continues to this day. The company concentrates on “emblematic jewelry” for Shriners, Masons, Elks and Lions Clubs. In 1953, Oreste Agnini retired and Ralph Singer purchased his half of the company. In 1984, the Ralph Singer Company was purchased by Stanford Smith, Sr., the father of current owner Stanford Smith, Jr.
Ralph Singer & Eisenberg are the two most important costume jewelry companies to have come out of the Midwest. The fact that they are joined makes their histories even more interesting. The amazing archive at the Ralph Singer Jewelry Company, will now allow for many pieces of unsigned costume jewelry to be identified. Not even from the major costume jewelers, like Coro and Trifari, does this depth of an archive exist. But the best part of this story is that both the Eisenberg and Ralph Singer companies are still in business. Ralph Singer is actively manufacturing in Chicago.
The F&K years of Eisenberg have been well documented, but the early years of Eisenberg have always remained a mystery. Now we can document that early jewelry. “Eisenberg Ice” – has melted.
To see additional design cards and more examples of jewelry, click here.
Susan Klein Bagdade is the author of Mid-Century Plastic Jewelry (Schiffer Publishers). She presented this information on the Eisenberg and Ralph Singer Co. connection at CJCI Convention 2014.