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Jewelry History

  • Dating jewelry can be challenging

    Jewelry Sleuthing: A Philadelphia Story

    I knew the answer wasn’t 1943. When dating jewelry for my website, as a first step I look for a maker’s mark. The line bracelets I was examining bore the Otis trademark, but that was the challenge. Every readily-available source I checked stated that this Providence, Rhode Island, firm commenced operations that year. But my eyes told me that the jewelry in my hands had to have been made at least a decade earlier. So my search was on – when was that company actually in operation?

    Exploring Costume Jewelry History

    Since founding TruFaux Jewels in 2010 and researching each piece I’ve added to the boutique, I’ve realized that much of the information on the Internet regarding costume jewelry history is incorrect. So-called facts are often repeated word-for-word on multiple websites without attribution. My background as a librarian demands that I verify everything I post. Usually this research is extremely time-consuming and tedious. Information on many of these companies, long out of business, is very elusive. The best source is often jewelry trade publications. For U.S. companies, I reference The Jewelers’ Circular (which became The Jewelers’ Circular – Keystone and is now JCK).

    A Trip to Philadelphia

    Because this magazine is not available in my city, I need to travel to find a complete archive of the publication. The closest research libraries are in Philadelphia and New York. On this quest, I chose the former.

    This photograph shows the Parkway Central Library (considered the research library in the city). This beautiful Beaux-Arts building opened in 1927, after 10 years of construction. It was designed by Julian Abele, the head designer at the architectural firm Horace Trumbauer Company. He was also the first black student to graduate from the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Fine Arts in 1902.

    A much-needed major renovation was completed early last year. Unfortunately, my visit about five years ago took me to a tired and dreary microfilm department.

    A Source for Dating Jewelry

    The Jewelers’ Circular published articles designed to assist those in the jewelry trade. Each issue also included ads and news submitted by subscribers. The latter was the trade’s social media of the day. Announcements of incorporations, ownership changes, showroom openings, traveling salespersons’ itineraries, and personnel changes were included. Personal items such as weddings and vacation plans were also published.

    Each city considered a major jewelry center had its own page(s). Understanding the organization of the magazine was critical, because finding what I was looking for (an announcement about Otis, Inc.’s opening) required searching microfilm page by page – not a fun task.

    I sat there for hours, slowly turning the wheel on the microfilm reader to advance through each issue. I was looking for the name of the company or its founder – Edward O. Otis, Jr. When I work like that I’m always concerned that I’ll miss something because I feel as though I’m in a stupor.


    On this day, I got lucky. In the December 1934 issue, the name “Edward O. Otis” jumped out at me. I had found his press release that announced his purchase of the assets of Wachenheimer Brothers. This well-known and well-respected maker in Providence had ceased operations earlier that year.

    I distinctly remember saying out loud, in a soft voice, of course, something like “Oh, my!”. While at the same time, in my mind’s eye I saw myself standing on one of the large tables in the reading room and shouting about my discovery.

    More to the Story

    In addition to solving my first dilemma – the correct dating of the Otis bracelets – this revelation led to further research. I then collaborated with my friend Robin Deutsch, and we published our feature article: “Bracelets by Otis: A Surprising Connection”.

    Edward O. Otis, Jr.'s Harvard classIn preparation for this post, I decided to take another look at digital resources to see if I missed anything the last time around. I found this book, which was published in 1947 for the members of Otis’ class. The entries read like the answers to a questionnaire. What a thrill to see what he wrote about his life since his graduation! Don’t forget – real people were behind these companies and the jewelry we love.

    In addition to data such as home and office addresses, occupation, spouse’s and children’s names/birth dates, the entry has a page-long essay about Otis’ life in the 25 years since university. Regarding his entry into jewelry manufacturing, he wrote:

    I bought a small bankrupt costume jewelry plant and started to work out some ideas which some might have thought ‘theoretical’ only. Starting on a ‘shoestring’ and a bank which lent very modest amounts, purely, as they stressed, on personal character, we gradually prospered and have employed up to one hundred hands. My wife has worked with me and still is my partner.

    The piece ends with these words: “I’m generally having lots of fun because I really like what I’m doing”. I feel the same way!

  • Maison Schiaparelli spring 2020 jewelry

    The Jewels of Maison Schiaparelli: Yesterday & Today

    As a long-time fan of Schiaparelli jewelry, I was delighted to see photos of the Maison’s haute couture show for spring 2020. And as one who first chooses the jewelry to wear when putting together an outfit, I was smitten when I read about artistic director Daniel Roseberry’s approach to…

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  • Bauhaus inspired architecture

    1930s Bauhaus Inspired Jewelry: A Celebration

    I cannot let this year end without telling you about the centenary of an important influence on one style of 1930s jewelry – the Bauhaus, a school of design founded in 1919 in Germany. You may be familiar with the modernist buildings and decorative arts that flowed from its philosophy…

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  • Cartier bracelets worn by Gloria Swanson in Sunset Blvd.

    Jewelry in the Movies: Cartier Bracelets

    In June last year, I wrote about “The Jazz Age: American Style in the 1920s”, an exhibition I saw in New York City. Among the magnificent jewels on display was a pair of Cartier bracelets bought by Gloria Swanson in 1930 and now part of the maker’s collection. Those bracelets…

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  • History of costume jewelry -- researcher's story

    The History of Costume Jewelry: A Researcher’s Story

    Years ago when I was a consultant, one of my favorite clients told me that I was like a terrier. He wasn’t trying to insult me – he was just acknowledging the fact that I am a tenacious investigator. I don’t stop until I have all of the answers to…

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  • Introducing the Double Clip Brooch

    For me, September always marks a new beginning. Maybe I’m still grounded in the “first day of school” mentality. Or maybe it’s the changing colors of the leaves. Either way, I’m always looking for new ideas for jeweled accessories. And I’m sure you are, too. So here’s an exciting new…

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  • Flexible choker worn by Ann Sheridan in The Unfaithful

    Jewelry in the Movies: A 1940s Flexible Choker

    Movies produced in the 1930s-1940s rarely credited jewelry. In fact, in many cases, the names of the costume designers weren’t even disclosed on-screen. For this reason, I always look closely at what the female characters are wearing in these films, hoping to recognize a jewel. Last night while watching The…

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  • The Jazz Age

    If you love Art Deco as much as I do, you never tire of seeing jewelry created in this decorative style. I’ve just returned from a research trip to New York City, where I was fortunate to see the exhibition The Jazz Age: American Style in the 1920s, currently on…

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  • Movie jewelry by Harry Winston and worn by Ingrid Bergman in Notorious

    Jewelry in the Movies: Harry Winston, ‘Notorious’

    As we eagerly anticipate this year’s Academy Awards ceremony on February 26, many of us are as interested in what the stars will be wearing as who will win. And the dazzling jewels worn on the red carpet will get as much press as the gowns they adorn. So with…

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  • 1920s flapper fashion in 1925 ‘Vogue’ ad

    ‘Downton Abbey’ Style Finale

    As North Americans eagerly await tonight’s broadcast of the first episode of Season 6 of Downton Abbey, many do so with some regret – this season will be the last. Viewers are anticipating the answers to last season’s cliff-hangers. For example, will Lady Mary marry again? Will Anna and Bates…

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  • Mellow Yellows for Spring

    Yellow, the color of sunshine, is associated with positive feelings such as joy, happiness, cheerfulness, intellect and energy. Not surprisingly, a tone of yellow is usually included in Pantone’s top 10 women’s spring/summer colors. This year’s shade is called Custard, which is defined as “Sweet and sunny … a cheering…

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  • Aquamarine for Spring

    Even though the weather outside may not feel like spring (at least where I live!), we can still look at colors for the upcoming season.  Based on their survey of fashion designers, Pantone has named the palette for women’s clothing in spring 2015:  En Plein Air, a French expression which…

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