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