Mid Century Copper Jewelry – A Different Kind of Vintage Style

In mid-century America, a new type of jewelry came into vogue made out of one of man’s oldest materials: Copper.  Lending itself beautifully to sculptural forms, copper jewelry looks fabulous in deco, mid-century, modernist, and Native American designs.  While you can find vintage copper pieces by most costume jewelry houses of that era, companies who specialized in this metal made some of the best and most collectible jewelry.  Renoir – Matisse, Rebajes, Gret Barkin, and Bell Trading Co. are some of the names to look for when hunting for vintage copper jewelry.  Madge has always been a big fan and if you haven’t heard of these makers, here is the 411, and I’m sure you will become a big fan too.

renoir copper jewelry ad
Matisse copper jewelry advertisement

Renoir – Matisse Jewelry

Renoir was one of the most famous names in copper jewelry. Founded in 1946 by Jerry Fels, the company was originally called Renoir of Hollywood, named for the company’s location. Renoir marks went through several iterations over the years including Renoir of California, 1948, Hand Made Renoir of California 1952-1954, and finally just Renoir.

Renior Copper Bracelet Witchery copy
Renior Copper Bracelet from the Witchery line
renoir jewelry mark
Renior Jewlery Mark

The company added second line of enameled copper jewelry in 1952 called Matisse. Matisse pieces are also copper with a colorful enamel overlay, differentiating them from Renoir.  Often the  same same design would be released by both lines in both plain copper as Renoir and enamel  as Matisse.  

One of Madge’s favorite designs is the artist pallet series in both brooches and earrings.  Renoir also produced a sterling silver line for a short time called Sauteur.  The company closed in 1964.

In addition to jewelry, Fels created a home decor company in 1964, C. Jeré by Artisan House, with his brother-in-law Curtis Freiler. Their goal was to produce “gallery-quality art for the masses”. C. Jeré (a combination of Curtis and Jerry) was known for metal wall sculptures manufactured in California in bold, modernist designs. The company is still in business, but unfortunately, like many other American companies, their pieces are now produced in China.  The original mid-century pieces in brass and steel are highly collectible.

Matisse Red Enamel & Copper Necklace
Matisse Copper & Red Enamel Necklace
Matisse jewelry mark
Matisse jewelry mark

Rebajes

Another well-known maker was Francisco Rebajes.  A poor immigrant from the Dominican Republic, this self-taught artist went from selling designs on the street made from tin cans to selling his own line of jewelry in a fabulous showroom on 5th Avenue. Of course, it helped that the Whitney Museum in New York City purchased those first tin cans!

Rebajes opened a small storefront in Greenwich Village.  His success led to increasingly larger shops until his final showplace that employed a large staff of craftsmen to execute his designs.  Rebajes drew inspiration from nature, primitive art, and abstract sculpture and his pieces are highly collectible.  By the 70s he moved from jewelry to sculpture.  Madge found a fascinating article online written by the daughter of a family friend with some great photos.  Check out the photo of his final retail showroom.

Here is an amazing Rebajes  brooch and earrings set from one of my favorite Etsy Shops, CherryOrchardAttic.  You can see how sculptural his pieces are.

Rejabes Modernist Brooch courtesy of Cherry Orchard
Frank Rejabes jewelry mark
Rebajes jewelry mark

Bell Trading Company

At the other end of the copper jewelry spectrum was the Bell Trading Company, designing for the tourist trade. Founded in 1935 by Jack and Mildred Michelson in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Bell sold Native American style jewelry throughout the southwest primarily to tourist shops until the company closed in the 1980s.

In addition to copper, they also made jewelry in sterling silver and gold.  Though less expensive, Bell jewelry is still very collectible for those who love pieces with a southwestern flair.

copper jewelry mark
Bell Trading Jewelry Mark

Gret Barkin

Madge has recently fallen for the work of another designer with whom she had previously been unfamiliar – Gret Barkin.  Barkin holds an unusual place in the annuals of costume design as a woman who both owned her company and designed all of the pieces.   Look for the mark – Gret Barkin, hand-wrought, New Hope PA.

Barkin and her husband Rube operated her company out of New Hope during the 1940s- 50s. Her unique modernist pieces are immediately identifiable with their signature etched and fused double layer designs.  Not a lot of information is out there on this remarkable woman who was still designing into her 90s and passed away at age 99 in 2007 but she sounds like Madge’s kind of gal.

Gret Barkin Brooch
Double Layer Design
Gret Barkin Brooch courtesy of Llovedalouh
Gret Barkin jewelry mark
Gret Barkin jewelry mark

Of course, when shopping for vintage costume jewelry, don’t overlook those “unsigned beauties out there”.  They also have a unique story to tell.

Copper Concho Necklace
Mid-Century Copper Concho Choker
Vintage Copper Brooch
Modernst Copper Brooch
vintage copper earrings
1950s Copper Clip Earrings
vintage screw back earrings
Copper Dangle Earrigns
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Deni Boardman
10 years ago

Thank you for all the wonderful info Madge. We are never too old to stop learning. Fabulous jewelry, thank you so much!

Miranda Rose
Miranda Rose
10 years ago

Thank you for this informative summary and synthesis of the prime movers in 20th century copper jewelry. The Rebajes link was incredible! just love visiting your shop!

Jennifer
10 years ago

Informative, and concise, article. Bell copper is the only one of those mentioned that I recall having run across. Now I have a couple more to look out for, along with Bell and Renoir. Thanks!

tiffany
tiffany
10 years ago

terrific info. images were so helpful!

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