I have always enjoyed arts and crafts with especially fond memories of the classes I took at camp each summer during my elementary school years. Popsicle sticks, googly stick-on eyes, yarn, felt, and glitter were some of the crafty items I remember using to make what I considered “art.”
What a surprise it was when I recently discovered that a fabulous costume jewelry designer got his inspiration from the Arts and Crafts movement. This movement took place between 1880 and 1910, but it inspired a talented man named Jerry Fels during the 1940s.
The Beginning of Renoir
Jerry Fels was born in 1917 in Brooklyn, New York. He studied at the Art Students’ League and National Academy of Design in New York, developing talent for painting, sculpture, and design.
Fels worked for a time as the creative director for Gertz department store, but at the outbreak of World War II he joined the Air Force and became a B-17 fighter pilot. After the war was over, he moved to California. In 1946, he and two partners, brother-in-law Curtis (Kurt) Freiler and Nat Zausner, started a company specializing in copper jewelry with geometric, modernist, abstract forms. They called it Renoir of Hollywood.
Zausner did not stay with the company for long. The name then changed in 1948 to Renoir of California. The artistically talented Fels directed jewelry design and sales while Freiler, who had managed a factory in Germany, ran the production side of the business.
The Arts and Crafts movement from which Fels got much of his inspiration, emerged as a reaction against the lower quality machine-produced goods, encouraging creativity among artists and craftsmen for hand-crafted pieces using inexpensive materials.
Although copper is a simple base metal, it can be polished to a high sheen to bring out its beauty. It is also malleable, making it easy to form into jewelry such as bracelets, bangles, earrings, necklaces, and brooches.
Renoir was known for its solid copper cuffs and hinged bangles. Although they did end up moving to mass-production, the high quality of their copper finish was never compromised. They invented a special finish used in the final stage of the baking process to keep the copper looking like new, always brushing and polishing the pieces by hand.
This is a pair of Renoir copper clip earrings from the 1950s:
Renoir marks included HANDMADE RENOIR OF CALIFORNIA which was used from 1952-1954 and Renoir in a cursive script used the years following:
Another belief within the Arts and Crafts movement was that good design should be available to many with a lower price point. Fels also believed this to be true and priced most of his pieces under $10.
The business grew quickly as bold, copper jewelry became very trendy during the 1950s, especially among progressive, arts-minded people who were not drawn to the sparkly, glitzy rhinestone jewelry. Soon, they had 300 people employed.
A New Look Called Matisse
In 1952, Fels and Freiler established a subsidiary company called Matisse Ltd. Matisse jewelry was also made from copper, but it was decorated with colorful enamel, taking their jewelry in a whole new direction. This is a stunning Matisse white enamel and copper necklace from my vintage costume jewelry collection:
Matisse jewelry had a higher price tag than Renoir because of the more expensive enameling process. These new enamel pieces were a huge hit with celebrities in Hollywood such as Lana Turner and Betty Davis. Some of their most popular pieces were in the forms of maple leaves and artists’ palettes.
This is a pair of beautiful Matisse copper clip earrings from the 1950s with a cobalt blue enamel:
The Matisse mark was used after 1954 on the back of each piece and was also printed on cardboard earring cards and boxes. Sometimes, the pieces were signed MATISSE RENOIR. A copyright symbol was added after 1955:
Fashions began to change during the 1960s as more elaborate jewelry was worn with simple, A-line dresses. This led to a decrease in the demand for the look of Renoir and Matisse jewelry. By 1964, they closed their doors.
Fels and Freiler continued their vision for crafting with copper at their California studio. In 1963, they began to use the name C. Jeré, a combination of their first names, on wall sculptures and home accessories they had designed and created by hand.
Their works were marketed by their own corporation Artisan House. The goal, as described in an interview with Jerry Fels in Modernism magazine, was to be able to produce “gallery-quality art for the masses.” Artisan House was sold in 1972, but it continues to produce sculptures.
The two business partners lived long enough to see their jewelry become collectible, demanding much higher prices than for what it was sold when it was first produced. Jerry Fels passed away in 2007 at age 90 and Curtis Freiler died in 2013 at 103.
I missed the Arts and Crafts movement by several decades but as Fels and Freiler demonstrated with their Renoir and Matisse jewelry, you can be a part of the movement no matter when you were born. And I have a pretty cool googly-eyed popsicle stick piece of “art” I made years ago to prove it!
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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