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The History of Costume Jewelry: A Researcher’s Story

The History of Costume Jewelry: A Researcher’s Story
July 10, 2018 Barbara Schwartz
Barbara Schwartz
In Jewelry History
History of costume jewelry -- 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 my questions. I always smile when I think about that characterization, and it is as apt today as it was then. Let me give you an example from my latest quest for information on one aspect of the history of costume jewelry.

The Question

When I add pieces to my boutique, I try to find out as much as I can about each one. An important part of the description of an item is the maker’s name. Unfortunately, many pieces – especially those from the 1920s – 1930s from Europe – are unsigned. Sometimes a piece is signed, but the mark is a mystery. That’s what I faced when I was preparing a group of jewelry for the boutique. What had drawn me to these pieces to begin with was a common design element: round stones channel-set in a way that I had not seen before. The mystery was the way the pieces were marked: “DRGM 1138525”. What did that mean?

The Answer

Because I knew that “DRGM” is an abbreviation for the German term for “patent”, I knew the maker was from that country. But what was their name? My starting place was Espacenet, the European Patent Office’s database of worldwide patents, but I couldn’t find that number. Knowing that historical records generally aren’t digitized back to their beginnings, I wasn’t surprised. So, I wrote to the German Patent and Trade Mark Office, paid their fee, and received the extract from the Utility Model Register – the only surviving record – for DRGM 1 138 525. It revealed for the first time the date of the patent – 1930 – and the patent holder’s name – Schreiber & Hiller.

The Quest for More

I had heard of that company in connection with two pieces marked “ESHA” in a semi-circle and “RANDEL”. Based on information I found by checking Researching Costume Jewelry Marks, I knew that these pieces were made by Schreiber & Hiller in the 1950s. But the website had no other data about them. So I looked further.

Knowing the company name, I was able to search Espacenet again. This time I found data for patents that were registered in Germany, Great Britain, and France in the 1950s. Although Google Patents is a digital library of over 87 million patents from 17 patent offices around the world, I have found it to be unreliable. In this case, it was not a useful resource. Strangely, though, I found a PDF of a 1930 patent registered in the former Czechoslovakia (one that hadn’t come up anywhere else) via a simple Google search.

I wanted to verify the 1950s trademarks with the German Patent and Trade Mark Office. Although I searched their database, I found nothing. Correspondence with that office revealed that their digitized data goes back only to 1995. However, monthly issues of their Trade Mark Journal from 1950 to the present are online. With instructions from one of the customer service representatives, I was able to find the two trademarks as well as a third that was stamped on one of my pieces: “SIMEX”.

Armchair research is great while it lasts. Because I was missing important data on the company, such as the date of their incorporation and the names of the owners, I had to leave my office to look elsewhere. Based on my experience in researching American costume jewelry makers in business the first half of the 20th century, I know the value of trade publications. In addition to providing business advice to their subscribers via feature articles, these magazines were like social media in their day. Companies would send in news that is relevant for costume jewelry historians – such as incorporations, changes in ownership and/or locations, showroom openings – as well as announcements regarding weddings, vacations, and traveling salespersons’ itineraries.

The closest library with holdings of the German jewelry-trade publication Deutsche Goldschmiede-Zeitung was the New York Public Library. I went to New York City for a week in February, going to the library every day to leaf through issues of that publication, page by page. Although I don’t read or speak German, I was able to find pertinent information about the company’s incorporation in 1920, notice of the death of one of the partners in 1939, and ads and examples of their creations in issues from the 1950s.

Because this company was located in Pforzheim, Germany, an important center for jewelry and watch-making, I knew I needed information from a local source. The city had been destroyed by extensive bombing in 1945, so I was skeptical about the existence of historical documents. But I got lucky – I found the website of the city archives online (in German, of course). I guessed who they were and found their email address. Fortunately, the archives had some files on Schreiber & Hiller, and the staff readily answered my questions.

Collaboration

Research is a time-consuming and often expensive pursuit. It can also be lonely, but I love it! And I particularly enjoy collaborating with my good friend and colleague Robin Deutsch. This project was the second time we pooled our findings to bring new information to the jewelry-collecting community. I’m lucky to have found someone who shares my passion for vintage costume jewelry and whose research style complements my own. We call ourselves “partners in crime” and look forward to our next caper.

The Result

With so much information to share with the community interested in the history of costume jewelry, Robin and I wrote a feature article on this German maker. You can read their story in “Schreiber & Hiller: A Jewelry Mystery Solved”. Take a look at their beautiful jewelry here.

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