I love spending a lazy afternoon at an old-fashioned town square, complete with charming boutiques, patio cafes, and of course, antique shops. I never know what I am going to find which makes it a bit of an adventure. It is such a treat to discover high quality vintage jewelry that is signed by the designer.
This happened to be one of those lucky days. I walked into the corner antique store and slowly took a look around. When I peered into one of the glass cases, I spotted a pair of blue micro-beaded glass and rhinestone earrings that really caught my eye. I just had to get a closer look!
When I flipped them over, I was elated! They were stamped with the signature of one of my most favorite jewelry designers…Miriam Haskell.
Success from the Start
Miriam Haskell was born in 1899 in the small town of Tell City, Indiana, located across the Ohio River from Louisville, Kentucky. She was one of four children whose parents were Russian Jewish immigrants and owners of a dry goods store. After attending high school in New Albany, she studied at Chicago University for three years but never graduated.
Haskell moved to New York City in 1924 with $500 at a time when costume jewelry was beginning to become fashionable. Coco Chanel had just launched her vrais bijoux en toc, or “real fake jewelry” collection.
Two years later, Haskell opened a jewelry boutique called Le Bijou de L’Heure (Jewels of the Moment) in the old McAlpin Hotel in New York City.
America’s obsession with French fashion propelled her toward success as her jewelry was modeled after the European costume jewelry. Haskell had the only line in America that could truly compete with the French.
That same year, she opened a second boutique on West 57th Street and partnered with Frank Hess, a window dresser from Macy’s who became her head jewelry designer. They traveled together all over Europe to Paris, Gablonz, Venice, and Wattens, home of Daniel Swarovski’s crystal factory, to find materials for her jewelry.
The company was now becoming quite successful, and by the 1930s they relocated, opening boutiques in Miami, London, and at Saks Fifth Avenue and Burdine’s department stores. Haskell then set up a workshop on Fifth Avenue, hiring a staff of approximately 20 people to produce her designs. Many were European refugees who had learned the trade in Europe’s jewelry houses.
It was a combination of the detail, quality, and workmanship of her jewelry that gave her so much success. Every piece was handmade and sometimes took as long as three days to create! Each bead, crystal, and pearl was picked up by hand and then wired to an intricately stamped brass filigree backing. It was then backed to a second filigree to conceal any indication of its construction. This was one of the unique and distinctive features of Miriam Haskell jewelry.
The filigrees were plated in antique Russian gold, an alloy that is formed by fusing gold and silver on a copper base to give it a warm, matte finish. The end result was beautiful, meticulously detailed jewelry.
Adjusting to the Economy
Haskell was sensitive to the economy and historic events going on in America. Throughout the years of the Great Depression (1929 – 1939), her company offered pieces that were both affordable and glamorous, using inexpensive materials such as art glass and paste or rhinestones.
During World War II (1939 – 1945), she asked Hess to create metal-free jewelry with natural materials and plastics as bead supplies were limited and base metals were banned with the growing need for defense production in the military.
Once the economy improved, Haskell used more costly materials such as natural gemstones, pearls from Japan, and handmade glass beads from Czechoslovakia, France, and Russia.
Here is a 1950s Miriam Haskell pearl clip earring that I repurposed into an adjustable ring:
She also incorporated unusual metal findings and added larger, more elaborate pieces to her collections such as this beautiful necklace I recently found with a gold vermeil chain and a stunning pearl and filigree pendant:
They were then distributed exclusively to the finest stores and boutiques.
Making a Name for Herself
Haskell increased in popularity as she designed for the couture of her friend Coco Chanel. These two were a part of a new class of independent women. They both started out designing jewelry that would complement high fashion clothing in an exclusive boutique, giving them a special bond.
Haskell also created custom-made pieces for celebrities and high society women which were often worn for publicity shots and films. Some of her best clientele included Joan Crawford, Lucille Ball, and the Duchess of Windsor. Soon, her stunning jewelry became highly sought after, as well as collectible.
In the midst of her success, the war was having a detrimental effect on her health and emotional stability. Her brother, Joseph Haskell, bought the company in 1950 and took it over. He began to consistently add her signature to her jewelry as a horseshoe-shaped plaque with her name embossed on it. It was later replaced by an oval MIRIAM HASKELL plaque or tag which is still found on the company’s jewelry today:
Frank Hess continued to design for the company until 1960.
Haskell moved into an apartment in New York and lived with her widowed mother throughout the next few decades as her behavior became increasingly erratic. In 1977, Haskell moved to Cincinnati where her nephew Malcolm Dubin took care of her. She passed away at age 82 in 1981.
Miriam Haskell has left an incredible legacy with her mark of a creative mind and determined spirit that continues to live on through her jewelry. If you happen to own or find a piece with her signature, you now know it is one to be treasured.
Today, Miriam Haskell jewelry is still made entirely by hand. Her vintage pieces, particularly from the 1940s and ’50s, are highly collectible. Finding those gorgeous 1950s blue beaded clip earrings was an incredible treat on that lazy afternoon!
*Haskell history courtesy of Big Bead Little Bead.
Kimberly Moore is a vintage costume jewelry expert, blogger, speaker, and author of Beauty in a Life Repurposed. To learn more, visit her website at kingdomsparkle.com.
Read more articles in » blog