- Mar272021Barbara Schwartz
Women’s History Month inspired me to highlight one of the most brilliant female jewelry designers you have never heard of. Ruth Kamke was the fiercely-talented woman behind the sparkling creations of Eisenberg Jewelry, Inc. for over three decades. Let me start by telling you a bit about her employer.
Fallon & Kappel
Eisenberg & Sons, a Chicago-based dress manufacturer established in 1920, contracted with other companies to design and produce their dress ornaments and jewelry. Fallon & Kappel (F&K) was one of their suppliers and a leading jewelry maker of the day, creating for fashion houses such as Chanel, Hattie Carnegie and Schiaparelli. Eisenberg became the firm’s client in the 1930s when the dress company launched a separate jewelry line.
“Using only the most magnificent imported stones, incredible molding techniques, and detailed finishing work, [F&K] established themselves at the top level of costume jewelry manufacturing … Jewelry with the Eisenberg Original mark could cost the equivalent of a woman’s monthly salary” (Schwartz & Sutton 195). The photo above shows their spectacular Pearl Bracelet with Diamanté in Sterling. Here are two more examples of their premium quality pieces in the TruFaux Jewels boutique.
The graceful leaf brooch on the left is substantial in weight and size (3 ½” x 2 ½”) and was made in two layers with square and round diamanté accents. Earrings like those on the right were challenging because they required separate designs for the right and left ear, to frame the wearer’s face.
Enter a Brilliant Young Designer, Ruth Kamke
In January 1940, F&K hired 15-year-old Ruth Kamke (née Wortmann) as an enameller. “Ruth grew up surrounded by fashion books and trunks of wonderful fabrics, and by a love and appreciation of detail, style and, most importantly, of fantasy” (Tollemache 3). Her mother was a dressmaker and designer, and Ruth had studied fashion and design in high school.
After only one week on the job, the firm offered her a position as their first in-house designer. Until that time, they had been using only freelancers, which was common in the industry. Many of their designs, though beautiful, could not be manufactured for a variety of reasons. Kamke’s success at F&K was due to her incredible talent as well as her technical knowledge. She worked closely with the model makers and learned the aspects of production required to take a design from drawing to finished product cost-effectively. Not unusually, in her early years with the firm, she couldn’t afford any of the jewelry she created for them.
The War Years
World War II significantly impacted Eisenberg Jewelry in several ways. First, the supply of base metals, used in most costume jewelry making since the 1920s, was limited to the war effort. Costume jewelers had to switch to sterling silver, which Eisenberg used until 1948. Importation of magnificent stones from Austria (Swarovski in particular) came to a halt. The shortage of materials forced F&K and Eisenberg to sign a mutually exclusive contract – the former would supply only Eisenberg, who would buy from only F&K. At the same time, Kamke became the client’s sole designer.
I am not alone in believing that Eisenberg pieces produced from 1943-1948 are among the finest costume jewelry ever made. These big, bold and beautiful designs by Ruth Kamke were created with the finest quality stones hand set in sterling silver. Sophisticated and timeless, they were in vogue in the era and are coveted and worn with pride by collectors today.
Here are two additional examples which, like all featured in this article, were Kamke’s work. The earrings on the left illustrate how the shape of a stone influenced her. The large amethyst and diamanté bow on the right is a lovely example of her use of colored stones, which she particularly liked.
The End of an Era
Kamke continued to work for F&K until 1972, when the firm suddenly closed, thus ending her connection to Eisenberg. After two years as a freelance designer, she accepted a position with Panetta, where she stayed until her retirement in 1987. She died in 2017.
Thanks to the authors cited below, Kamke’s name has not been lost to history. The Tollemache article, which was based on exclusive interviews, documents her story in detail. After it was published, the next issue of the magazine included her letter of thanks to the many readers who had contacted her. In it Kamke stated: “Knowing that my creations are still alive and well and are meaningful to so many people is overwhelming. I am gratified, since designing consumed a good portion of my life. Your responses have made me feel it was all worthwhile”.
I am so pleased she received these well-deserved accolades in her lifetime for jewelry design talent that still sparkles to this day.
Schwartz, Sharon G. and Laura Sutton. Eisenberg Originals: The Golden Years of Fashion, Jewelry, and Fragrance, 1920s-1950s. Schiffer Publishing, 2017.
Tollemache, Nicholas and Linde. “The Designs of Ruth Kamke”, Vintage Fashion & Costume Jewelry, vol. 10, no. 1, Winter 2000.
This post was featured on Links à la Mode fashion roundup by Independent Fashion Bloggers.
More fashion articles:
- 38 Life Lessons on Personal Power, Love, and Magic by by Sparkling Carla
- Borrowed From The Boys – March Style Not Age by Style Splash
- Great Settings– The Little Black Diamond by Carole Shashona
- The Essential Clothes of the Feminine Wardrobe by Karen Marie’s Boutique
- Streetwear accessories by 10Beasts
- How I styled my RL classic blazer by Looking Fabulous at Fifty
- Sep262020Barbara SchwartzRead more
As the months of near-quarantine drag on, the idea of dressing up to stay at home may seem like an oxymoron. You may be surprised to learn that psychologists are encouraging us to do just that. Studies have shown that how we dress affects how we feel about ourselves. So…
- Aug092020Barbara SchwartzRead more
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…
- Feb192020Barbara SchwartzRead more
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…
- Dec192019Barbara SchwartzRead more
As far back as I can remember, I’ve always loved black-and-white films from the 1930s-1950s. More recently, though, I’ve realized that their one drawback is that we can’t usually see the splendour of the jewelry often worn by female characters. Here’s a case in point: In the photo above from…
- Oct302019Barbara SchwartzRead more
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…
- Aug152019Barbara SchwartzRead more
If you were walking along East 49th Street in New York City in the 1950s, at number 42 you might have seen this diamanté-studded gold-tone mesh necklace with dangling pearls and crystal beads (shown above) in the window. That address was home to Hattie Carnegie Inc., a well-known fashion house…
- Jun272019Barbara SchwartzRead more
Pearls have been called the gem of queens and the queen of gems. For centuries, they have been associated with love, marriage, seductiveness and femininity. Not surprisingly, pearls have been a popular choice for wedding jewelry for generations. High-quality imitations have been fashionable since Coco Chanel started wearing them herself…
- Feb082018Barbara SchwartzRead more
With Valentine’s Day less than a week away, romance is in the air. Everyone is thinking about roses and the color red. But I’ve decided to offer a different take on romance, with Hobé brooches. Pieces from the late 1930s through the 1940s by the incredible jewelry designer William Hobé…
- Oct162017Barbara SchwartzRead more
Before I even knew his name, I was a fan of Paul Flato jewelry. I was introduced to his talent when I first saw Holiday, a 1938 film starring Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant. During that viewing many years ago, I remember wondering if the fabulous three-strand diamond necklace Hepburn…
- Jul242017Barbara SchwartzRead more
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…
- Feb222017Barbara SchwartzRead more
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…