Judith Hendler: The Past, Present and Future by Erik Yang

Judith Hendler Necklace

Respected dealers and vintage jewelry historians Erik Yang and Matt Burkholz expand our knowledge of Acri-Gems,


In my fledgling days as a vintage jewelry dealer, a friend and I came to Dallas to sell at my first official antiques show. The vendor across from us had a dizzying array of merchandise, but one piece caught my attention: an unsigned tubular clear necklace with a huge hot pink prism drop. I asked the vendor how much, and she replied “I bought that at Saks 10 years ago and I’d like to get back what I paid, $45.” I scraped together what funds I had and scurried down the aisle with my new mystery jewel. It wasn’t until a few years later when I found another piece with its original paper tag that I discovered the maker.

After years of admiring the work and showcasing it on my website, imagine my surprise when I got a call from a puzzled lady inquiring where I had purchased the bold mink Lucite necklace on my home page. When I asked why she needed to know, she said “…because I made that necklace, I’m Judith Hendler!”

Over the years I’ve learned of many an artistic venture Judith’s had in her career, none of which surprise me considering she was surrounded by creative people in her formative years. Her mother, an aspiring costumier, created avant-garde ensembles for Judith’s aunt who was dancing at the time. Judith says “the designs rivaled Chanel,” and the duo even attempted to open a design business. Unfortunately, the times were different for an aspiring female artist back then, something Judith would also encounter and later conquer.

It wasn’t until a then small company, Neutrogena, hired her as art director that she would begin to flourish. In those days, Judith oversaw all product design, including everything visual.

However, it was behind the scene tasks like product forecasting, treatment of employees, quality control and, most importantly, customer service, that formed the core of her business.

While on a project for Neutrogena, she crossed paths with one of the most influential people in her life, Herb Ritts, a furniture designer and manufacturer working primarily in acrylic and rattan. They later married and after six years at Neutrogena, Judith left to pursue a career in commercial art.

She had a lucrative run creating original art prints for hotels and office spaces. She also assisted Herb by designing small acrylic home accessories which were heated and shaped in the same ovens used to dry her hand made art paper. She spent almost a year creating rather ambitious 15-foot paper sculptures which were displayed in a show in 1983. Judith wanted “to wear something spectacular to the opening,” so she designed a necklace using fragments of acrylic she repurposed from the scrap barrels of the Ritts Company studios. This first Acri-Gems jewel garnered more attention than her colossal sculptures! It was then Judith decided to be a jewelry designer.

After creating a small collection of samples, Herb encouraged her to approach the stores with her product. He gave her a slick burgundy attaché to house her jewels, and off she went to New York. The once eager designer returned to California devastated after being rejected by every retailer she approached. She didn’t give up, however, and continued to craft large, clear limited edition pieces.

Wearing one of her designs, she ventured into a fabric store in search of material for pouches. A dapper gentleman took notice and asked where she got her necklace. She gave him her card and went back to selecting fabrics. When the gentleman left, the store owner excitedly said, “Don’t you know who that is? That’s Nolan Miller, the costume designer for Dynasty!” Judith chased him out to the parking lot and made arrangements to bring samples to ABC studios. They unpacked the shimmering prisms and spread them over the studio floor when Joan Collins walked in exclaiming, “My god, what is that? Let’s get some for Alexis!”

Her pieces soon got deserved attention and were used in many television shows of the time including Knot’s Landing, Days of Our Lives, and Hotel. Judith Hendler’s Acri-Gems have been collected by prominent celebrities and featured in all major industry magazines including Elle, Harper’s Bazaar, and Vogue. The legend continues with her vintage pieces appearing in many of today’s fashion magazines, on websites, and in numerous blogs.

To read Part II of this feature, “A Conversation with Judith Hendler” by Matthew Burkholz, click here.

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