It was the year 1939. World War II had just started and an urgent call went out for Americans to donate any scrap metal they had to the war effort. All base metals were now critically needed for defense production.
For jewelry designers like Harry Iskin, this greatly impacted the way he could manufacture jewelry. A ban had just been placed on using the exact kinds of metals he used to make his jewelry. This ban affected all jewelry designers who used base metals, giving birth to the Retro period (1937-1950).
Harry Iskin was born in London, England on September 30, 1886, to Russian parents. When he turned 22 in 1908, they immigrated to America and became U.S. citizens.
In 1917, Iskin got involved in the jewelry business as an engraver but had to put his career on hold after he was drafted to serve in World War I.
He resumed after the war ended, starting his own business manufacturing wholesale jewelry. In 1936, Iskin Manufacturing Company was moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to accommodate his growing business. Two years later, he rented additional space on the west side of Manhattan in New York City.
Now that World War II had started and the ban on base metals was in full swing, Iskin had to use finer metals instead, such as gold, sterling silver, and vermeil (sterling silver plated with 12k or 14k gold). At times, he would use yellow gold with rose gold as a contrasting accent in his designs:
Iskin used rhinestone accents sparingly because they were not easily imported from Europe during the war as European trade had been blocked. He used a variety of colors including pink, green, red, lime, purple, and blue. However, Iskin would only use one color as he did not like to mix different colors of rhinestones on the same piece. They were always nicely prong-set rather than glued.
Iskin’s designs ranged from simple to ornate. Most featured a floral or bow motif. He incorporated curlicues, ribbons, pleats, and leaves. These were all common elements of jewelry designed during the Retro period. His look became quite popular, and soon, link bracelets, earrings, and necklaces were added to his line of jewelry.
Here is one of Iskin’s gold 1940s Retro pins combining a bow with curlicues and leaves:
Harry Iskin’s mark used by his company was the distinctive letter I inside of the letter H on a circular cartouche:
On December 28, 1953, the New York Times classifieds listed an auction notice for a “Receiver’s Sale in Bankruptcy.” Unfortunately, Iskin Manufacturing Company had gone bankrupt and had to auction off all of its equipment, machinery, stock, and supplies which took place on the company’s property in Philadelphia on January 6, 1954.
Iskin died in 1968 at the age of 82. Today, Harry Iskin pieces are extremely collectible and have a very recognizable look.
We can all learn a valuable lesson from Harry Iskin who did not even let a major world war stop him from following his dreams as a jewelry designer. When the circumstances of life send you down a different path, it may be the one on which you were meant to be traveling all along.
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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