Lawrence Vrba’s Material Mastery by Pamela Wiggins SiegelApril 3, 2013
Finding Hidden Treasures: Hunting Jewelry at Garage Sales by Jenny BraunApril 3, 2013
In Part I of this feature, we explored three major metal fabrication methods: casting, die stamping and metal manipulation. We’ll now delve into the world of creation for a look at the methods and inspirations used to design and construct costume jewelry. From a design and construction viewpoint, the three primary methods are casting, layout and manipulation.
Designs for cast jewelry typically begin with either a drawing, also known a rendering, or a basic model. The piece is then manufactured using pre-dominately cast design components, including cast mechanical elements such as necklace and bracelet joining links. Cups for stone settings are part of the casting, sometimes including cast prongs. The castings are designed and made specifically for the piece, rather than being selected from existing design parts and components.Though there are exceptions, companies that mass-produced cast costume jewelry typically did all of their own casting in-house.
Of designers and companies that created cast jewelry, Trifari is clearly at the top of the list. Over a span of several decades, this company produced a myriad of cast jewelry designs. This company’s cast jewelry from the 1940s through the 1970s is so distinct as to its construction and quality that collectors can learn to recognize a Trifari piece immediately from a quick visual examination. Trifari was also noted for casting very small, detailed designs such as people, swords, eagles, and other figurals. A company this large had many designers and many creative hands at work over the years, but the quality of their castings was consistent and a hallmark of the brand.
Two other examples of major casting manufacturers are Dan Kasoff Inc. (Florenza) and Hollywood Jewelry Manufacturing Co. (Hollycraft). Florenza jewelry designs cross a broad spectrum of period revivals, figurals, “real” looks mimicking fine jewelry, and more. It’s remarkable to note that virtually all of this jewelry was designed by one man, Dan Kasoff. His son, Larry Kasoff, provides great insight into why Florenza designs are so varied. He remembers his father spending a little time nearly every day roaming the streets of midtown Manhattan, looking at jewelry, both fine and costume. Dan Kasoff’s inspiration from these daily journeys provides an explanation as to why Florenza designs do not have one specific “look” or theme.
Hollycraft-branded jewelry was manufactured by the Hollywood Jewelry Manufacturing Company. They produced some easily-recognizable cast jewelry lines, especially those using distinctive combinations of colored rhinestones. Joseph Chorbajian was one of the founders of the company, and its chief designer. His daughter, Joyce Chorbajian, remembers her father’s instinctive and artistic eye for color. She recounted stories of her father carefully selecting beautiful combinations of colorful flowers for their enormous garden, and insisting on multi-hued Christmas tree decorations, overriding her mother’s wish for a chic and in-style, all-blue tree. Mr. Chorbajian’s sense of design and use of color obviously infused his everyday life, and served to create the stunning Hollycraft jewelry designs that we continue to enjoy and cherish today.
A second major design and construction concept is layout. The process starts with a general design idea being translated through use of a variety of individual elements. These might include die-stamped and cast motifs, pre-formed stone settings, linking rhinestone chain, bead clusters and decorative chains. The piece is created by “laying out” the selected elements of the final design, then completing the manufacturing process with rivets, soldering, and hand manipulation. Some of the components may have been created specifically for the piece by the layout manufacturer, and some may have been obtained from die-stamp companies, chain companies and other suppliers.
Because casting requires a huge commitment to equipment, workforce, and factory space, many smaller companies produced vintage costume jewelry using the less cost-intensive layout method. However, there were also a few large manufacturers that primarily used layout design and construction.
Two great examples are DeLizza and Elster Inc. and Selro Corporation. Frank DeLizza’s book, Memoirs of a Fashion Jewelry Manufacturer provides a detailed history of DeLizza and Elster’s approach to design and construction. The company’s most prolific lines, including the “Juliana” branded pieces, were created using a layout approach. Two elements often used to identify this always-unsigned jewelry, five-link bracelets and necklaces, and “figure-eight puddling,” are actually a function of their layout approach to manufacturing.
In the 1940s, William DeLizza started making soldered-setting rhinestone jewelry, and in 1955 began using two and three-section, pre-made rhinestone settings that were soldered together in series forming the famous “puddling” affect seen on the back of DeLizza and Elster jewelry. Also in 1955, the company purchased the first large chains that were used in five link segments to form the base for large rhinestone and cabochon settings. Mr. DeLizza’s book provides a wealth of details about layout design using large and unique stones, specialty metal elements and bead clusters.
Manipulation is a third design and construction method. The designer is inspired by existing elements to create a unique piece of jewelry. Similar to the layout technique, a variety of existing elements are used in the design. But in this case, the manufacturing process is mainly completed by hand-manipulation. An individual piece is typically constructed start-to-finish (many times by one person) using hand tools and mechanical methods such as metal manipulation and hand-wiring. Because manipulated design and construction is labor intensive, the jewelry is produced in smaller quantities, the pieces are rarer in the marketplace, and are highly prized by collectors.
The quintessential manipulated-design vintage costume jewelry manufacturer was Miriam Haskell. This company’s amazing use of high-quality filigrees, stampings and beads, excellent color combinations and unique designs are legendary. Several head designers worked for Haskell over the years, including Larry Vrba. As a youngster, he recalls finding interesting tidbits of beads, filigrees and jewelry findings at the Salvation Army surplus store, and putting these bits and pieces together to create his own jewelry designs. Mr. Vrba later started window-shopping at the big jewelry design houses with the resulting thought: “I can do that!” Indeed he could, and the rest is history.
One of the popular designs that Larry Vrba created for Haskell is the Egyptian-motif line. It’s fun to know that the inspiration for this fabulous jewelry was found on sample cards from the European company Framex, consisting of stampings that were created at the time of the original discovery of King Tut’s tomb in 1922. These same die-stamped elements were used to construct the Haskell Egyptian pieces. Larry Vrba continues to be a shining star in the world of costume jewelry, designing and creating fabulous one-of-a-kind pieces using both layout and manipulation techniques.
Highly skilled at manipulated design, Mark Mercy of M & M Designs, began his jewelry-making career at the side of the renowned Stanley Hagler, and continues to this day to create stunning costume jewelry. He finds his daily inspiration in perusing his large stock of vintage filigrees (including some original 17 year-old Hagler examples), settings, beads and stones. Mercy can take well-deserved pride in his work, and in the fact that not many people are designing and making jewelry as he does, using only hand manipulation, a hammer, an ice pick and three pairs of pliers. One of his unique designs was featured in the Forbes Galleries exhibit The Vintage Woman: A Century of Costume Jewelry in America 1910-2010.
COMPANIES USING MULTIPLE METHODS
While many vintage costume jewelry manufacturing companies concentrated their main output on using one of the three methods – casting, layout or manipulation – some used two or all three. Coro is a stand-out example, as their production included substantial numbers of die-stamped and other layout designs in addition to their mainly-cast jewelry lines. Their varied production is easily explained by the fact that they used several outside designers and manufacturers including Dan Kasoff Co., DeLizza & Elster and Hollywood Jewelry.
Napier is another perfect example of a company that used all three methods, and they are unique in that they designed and manufactured all of their jewelry in-house. Jewelry historian Melinda Lewis has a Napier book available for pre-order, and we can look forward to learning more about Napier’s design and manufacturing processes in the near future.
The handful of companies and designers mentioned above are just that; a small handful used as examples for design and construction techniques. You are encouraged to use this information to understand and appreciate the design and construction of your own costume jewelry treasures. Enjoy asking yourself “cast, layout or manipulated design?” and now having some tools to formulate an answer!
Mary Ann Docktor-Smith is deeply grateful to Joyce Chorbaji-an, Frank DeLizza, Larry Kasoff, Mark Mercy and Henry Swen for sharing their insights, memories and knowledge of costume jewelry design for this article.
She extends a special thank you to Larry Vrba, not only for taking the time to talk with her about his work, but also for a comment that he made about the three design approaches at a convention in Austin, Texas a few years ago. His comment planted the seed and sparked the idea for this article.
Mary Ann is a jewelry dealer, and frequently writes and lectures about vintage costume jewelry. She is an active member of online costume jewelry forums including The Jewelry Ring, a venue for her monthly Jewel Notes from Mary Ann, informative articles with an added touch of humor. Visit Mary Ann online at www.annasvintagejewelry.com.
Cheryl Killmer – Coined the phrase “figure-eight puddling” to describe DeLizza and Elster’s jewelry construction. – www.pastperfection.com
Mark Mercy – M & M Designs Fla. and Stanley Hagler N.Y.C. – www.markmercy.com
Robert Tucker – Original Coro design drawings