Hattie Carnegie | January 29th, 2015

It’s not every day that you discover a fabulous find during a pursuit for unique vintage costume jewelry to repurpose. My latest find was exactly that…a pair of brightly colored orange clip earrings from the 1950s, perfect for transforming into statement rings:

Not only were they my favorite color, but they also had the signature of an incredibly desirable designer Hattie Carnegie.

Hattie’s Story

She had not always been called by that name. Henrietta Kanengeiser was born second of seven children on March 15, 1886 in Vienna, Austria. Her father was a Jewish artist and tailor who introduced her to the world of fashion.

In 1892, she immigrated with her family to New York. As the story goes, while sailing on the ship that took her and her family to a new life in America, Henrietta asked another voyager, “Who is the richest, most successful person living in America?” She was told it was Andrew Carnegie.

She never forgot that answer and in 1909, changed her last name to Carnegie. Eventually, the rest of her family adopted the Carnegie name as well, which was a common practice among immigrants.

An Eye for Fashion

After arriving, they settled into an Austrian ghetto in New York’s Lower East Side, looking for work in the garment factories. As a young teenager, Henrietta went to work for several millinery establishments, including Macy’s, as a salesgirl in their hat department. She was soon given the nickname “Hattie.”

In 1909, when Hattie was in her early 20s, she and her seamstress friend Rose Booth opened up a little hat shop called Carnegie-Ladies’ Hatter on East 10th Street in New York. Rose developed the dress-making side of the business since Hattie could not sew. However, it was Hattie’s innate sense of style that contributed greatly toward making it a success.

Four years later, they were able to move to a larger space on the Upper West Side. In 1918, Hattie bought out Rose so she could take over the clothing design and began doing business as Hattie Carnegie, Inc.

At this time, all of the fashion came out of Paris, France. Hattie studied the styles of the Parisians and flew to Paris on a regular basis. She would choose the finest styles and then adapt them to her customers. Even though she could not sketch or sew, Hattie was very good at communicating exactly what she wanted her talented employees to create.

In 1923, she opened the famous Hattie Carnegie boutique near Saks Fifth Avenue. Her shop carried her own ‘Hattie Carnegie Couture’ collection, imported Paris couture from designers such as Chanel and Dior, and lines that included furs, ready-to-wear clothing, cosmetics, and even chocolate!

Success from Hat to Hem

Her company was quite innovative and in 1928, it was one of the first to launch a high-end, ready-to-wear line called Hattie Carnegie Originals. They were also responsible for introducing the “head-to-hem” boutique concept. She did not carry shoes, so it was often said that a lady at Hattie Carnegie could be dressed from hat to hem.

Hat by Hattie Carnegie, shown in Ladies Home Journal, 1948

Hattie’s business had now grown to be the size of a small department store. In 1929, just before the stock market crashed, her company brought in $3,500,000! She became established as a top name in the fashion industry.

The Crash began to affect her formerly wealthy customers, so in 1934, Hattie started a new dress line called Spectator Sports with a lower price tag of $40 per dress. This was still high for that time, but not as expensive as buying a custom-made dress.

A Touch of Pizazz 

It was not until 1939 that Hattie had an official line of marked costume jewelry which she produced to complement her clothing. She was known for her little black dress, so her jewelry designs, being big, bold, and abstract, gave the perfect touch of pizazz to a simple, conservative look.

Hattie, like Coco Chanel and Elsa Schiaparelli, prospered greatly during the cocktail jewelry movement (1935-1960). Hollywood stars and socialites admired and wore her jewelry which helped to promote her name even more. Hattie’s brooches became iconic during the 1950s.

Here is a pair of her big and bold clip earrings from the 1950s that were hand-wired with tiny baroque pearls:

The most common mark is HATTIE CARNEGIE or Carnegie in script. Other marks include HC or HAC in a diamond shape.

Hattie loved her poodles and used one of them as a logo for her company. Here she is pictured in 1955 with her black toy poodle, Onyx. She also had a white poodle named Opal.

Continued Success

During the Great Depression, Hattie’s business thrived even more. By 1940, her operation was so large that it employed over 1000 workers! Hattie Carnegie was now a department store complete with a handbag shop, fur salon, Custom Salon, a millinery, ready-to-wear hat and clothing shop, a jewelry department, antiques, and a cosmetics and perfume department.

One of Hattie’s top jewelry designers included Kenneth Jay Lane who served as the Creative Director for her jewelry before he went out on his own in the 1960s.

Closing the Doors

Carnegie died at age 69 on February 22, 1956. Former employee Larry Joseph bought the business but had to close the Custom Salon in 1965. Hattie was so closely identified with the company that it was difficult for it to continue its success without her. The business at the time of her death was estimated to be worth $8 million a year.

Jewelry, hats, and accessories continued to be produced and the Hattie Carnegie brand was still being used in the ’70s on designer lines like Yves Saint Laurent, Anne Klein, and Valentino. But by 1976, the business had closed its doors.

Hattie Carnegie jewelry designed under her direction before 1956 is most valued by collectors and commands a high price today.

She definitely lived up to the name she gave herself representing success and a beautiful spirit of determination.

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.

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