Having the opportunity to go to a big antique show in town always makes for a fun and exciting weekend. This past Saturday afternoon, I spent the day learning about and trying on exquisite vintage jewelry from the mid-1800s to the 1950s. Dating all the way back to the Grand Period of the Victorian Era, it was fascinating to see the intricate detail of each piece and learn how jewelry was made back then by such incredibly skilled craftsman.
By the 1930s and ’40s, techniques for creating jewelry had changed, but detail and quality could still be found as I discovered after finding some of the most stunning rhinestone pins during my hunt that day for vintage pieces to add to my collection. The mark on the back of these big, bold, and unbelievably beautiful pins read the name, Eisenberg. I was quite enticed by their magnificence.
Who was Eisenberg?
Jonas Eisenberg was born in Austria. He immigrated to the United States in 1885, settling in Chicago, Illinois. Eisenberg & Sons was founded by Jonas in 1914 as an American women’s clothing company. They directed their sales toward well-to-do housewives, creating conservatively cut suits and day dresses.
Eisenberg’s ready-to-wear fashions were sold only in the finest retail stores throughout the U.S. with only one store or chain chosen per major city to carry the line. Sales were slow, so in order to make the clothing more appealing, Eisenberg outsourced pins to be worn with it by sewing or pinning them onto the garments.
The jewelry was made with brilliant Swarovski crystals and was so attractive that when customers found out they could not buy it separately, they stole it right off of the clothing. This became a huge problem for retailers, so they suggested that Eisenberg begin designing both clothing and jewelry.
Jonas listened to their idea and by 1930, his sons Sam and Harold began designing a line of jewelry marketed separately from the clothing. They marked them as EISENBERG ORIGINAL until 1935. Then Sam came up with the name, Eisenberg Ice. During the time of Al Capone and the mob in the 1920s, diamonds were also called ice. When the name was changed to Eisenberg Ice, the jewelry flew off the shelves.
The Designs and Styles of Eisenberg Jewelry
Eisenberg Jewelry, Inc. was officially established in 1940. Ruth M. Kamke was hired that same year as their head designer. When she was 16, she began designing jewelry at Fallon & Kappel who manufactured exclusively for Eisenberg. It sold so well that by 1958, Eisenberg discontinued the clothing to focus solely on jewelry design. She worked for them until 1972. After that, a team was hired to help in the designing of Eisenberg jewelry.
Eisenberg was known for their superior craftsmanship and attention to detail. They used only the finest Swarovski Austrian crystals and Czechoslovakian rhinestones which were hand-set and resistant to aging. The high lead content of the crystals added exceptional sparkle to the pieces. The metals they used included sterling silver, white base metal, silver plated, gold plated, and rhodium plated metals which rarely tarnished.
In the early ’40s, they combined unique color combinations such as pink and turquoise, pink and purple, red and turquoise, and aqua and ice blue. They also incorporated a variety of stone shapes: bell, pear, round, marquise, emerald, and oval.
The variety of jewelry styles they created included fur clips, dress clips, double clips, screwback earrings, clip earrings, pins, bracelets, choker necklaces, brooches, and their very popular circle brooches. Their jewelry sold very well despite the high price tag. During the time when a woman’s weekly salary was between $30 and $40, a single Eisenberg Original sold for $50 to $100!
Typical forms included replicas of 18th-century fine jewelry, pieces that were Art Deco-inspired, and a variety of figurals such as ballerinas, mermaids, kings, queens, and animals of all kinds.
During the 1940s, free-flowing designs with bows and swirls became popularized by Hollywood. Eisenberg Ice jewelry was often seen being worn by the actresses in the movies during that time.
Eisenberg rhinestone bow brooch, circa the 1940s
Base metals became restricted due to the need for defense production during the war, so between 1943 and 1948, sterling silver was used. Those pieces are very valuable for collectors because that was the only time Eisenberg used sterling silver. They also designed jewelry with citrine set in sterling silver and branded it “Topaz Quartz.”
Eisenberg also hired Mexican artisans during this time to produce a limited number of pieces made of a combination of 10k gold and turquoise.
During the 1950s, Eisenberg used smaller rhinestones set in fanciful curves, giving its pieces a distinctive look. Albert Weiss copied this look with his jewelry which is why you may find pieces that are signed Weiss, but look like Eisenberg.
These vintage Eisenberg rhinestone clip earrings I purchased with this look in their pink and purple color combination seem to have never even been worn. The rhinestones truly seem resistant to aging and have kept their bright sparkle and clarity:
Eisenberg used several marks on their pieces over the years, helping to identify the time period that they were created. EISENBERG ORIGINAL was used from 1935 to 1945:
From the early to mid-1940s, the letter E was often stamped due to the limited space on some of the pieces. They used EISENBERG STERLING from 1943 until 1948. EISENBERG in block letters was used between 1945 and 1950:
EISENBERG ICE was used in block letters from 1941-1958. The copyright symbol was added after 1955, seen next to the mark. There was a gap of time where the pieces manufactured between 1958 and 1970 were not stamped at all, but simply had a removable hang tag for identification in the retail stores. The company began to mark their pieces once again in 1970 using Eisenberg Ice in script letters.
The Later Years
Jonas’ grandson Karl took over the company, becoming president in 1969. The early ’70s gave their customers a new look with their line of hand-enameled jewelry in modern colors. Their designs were inspired by famous painters like Braque, Picasso, and Monet.
The pieces were baked 27 times to keep the finishes looking good even after many years of wear. Rhinestones were now prong-set or glued in with an extraordinarily strong adhesive which was, at one time, used to adhere a propeller to an engine! It is uncommon to see a missing rhinestone on an Eisenberg piece. Their rhinestone Christmas tree pins of this decade have become a favorite among collectors.
Production continued into the early 1990s. In the years, 1994 and 2000, Eisenberg reproduced a limited number of Eisenberg Ice “Classics.” These were older styles that had been previously manufactured.
The Eisenberg company ended production of all jewelry in 2011, just short of celebrating 100 years in business. As one of the finest costume jewelry manufacturers of all time, their magnificence will continue to entice vintage jewelry collectors just like me for years to come.
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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