As it appeared in Antique Week, August 28, 2006
by Joanne Victorie Wiertella
Photography by Willa Davis
A “Jewel” of a Collection
Prior to the Industrial Revolution (1750), almost all work had been done with hand tools. Many of the new technologies developed during the 18th and 19th centuries caused dramatic changes. Improved mechanization, transportation, and communication had transformed the Western world—Europe and America—from primarily agrarian to industrial societies. This had a profound effect on aesthetics as well. The change in thinking from “utilitarian” and “purposeful” to “decorative” design was one result which remains with us today.
America in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s was an exciting time. It saw mass production methods, a growing middle class with available discretionary funds, and a growing demand for products. The creation of mail order catalogs like Marshall Field, Sears, Roebuck and Company, Montgomery Ward, Macy’s, and many others met this need. For the first time, the American middle class woman could purchase, at an affordable price, the lovely fashions and possessions previously available only to the “grand ladies.”
One of these items, always important to a lady, was the jewelry box—more popularly called Jewel Box–a repository of her most precious jewelry and memories. When before, each jewelry container had been hand-constructed by one metalsmith, now the most delightful cast metal creations were produced in many designs and were available (because of new mass production methods) to every lady in America! The growth in popularity of these “Art Metal” jewel boxes (also called jewel case and casket) paralleled the growth of shopping from catalogs. Jewel boxes were promoted as “dainty gifts for Milady” or “M’lady’s jewel box,” and were made in sizes ranging from the smallest ring box to the very large handkerchief and glove boxes.
Art Nouveau was the predominant design style in the United States between 1900 and 1910. Art Nouveau is a French term meaning “new art” which was coined by Maison de l’Art Nouveau, a Paris gallery that opened in 1895. This was a romantic style, influenced by the art forms of Japan, with many motifs taken from nature–flowers, women, birds, and vines—and recognizable by “whiplash” curves and asymmetrical elements. Of the Art Nouveau jewel boxes produced in the United States, those with the floral motifs were abundant.
Roses and poppies were the most popular, and there were many interpretations of these two flowers on jewel boxes. Daisies, four-leaf-clovers, lily of the valley, pond lilies, grapes, violets, carnations, holly, and a myriad of other flowers also decorated jewel boxes. This may be due, in part, to the not-long-past Victorian Period (1880-1900), when the “significance of flowers” had such an important role.
The Victorians were noted for communicating their sentiments through flowers—so much so, that specific sentiments were assigned to a great variety of flowers and plants creating a “language” all of its own. Entire conversations could be carried out using only a bouquet of flowers. This suited the Victorian concern for detail, and many books have been written on this subject. Even Collier’s Cyclopedia of Social and Commercial Information, published in 1883, contained an entire chapter on “The Language of Flowers,” specifying which flower spoke on behalf of each sentiment.
A second and important contributor to the importance of floral motifs was the “Flower of the Month” concept, promoted by the jewelry and related trades during the early 1900’s. Floral motifs had always appeared on flatware, jewelry, and metal objets d’art like jewel boxes. Fueled by the desire of the public for more decorative objects, the jewelry industry had improved production, distribution and marketing methods. Little by little, the role of flowers as a decorative motif became the central theme. Manufacturers assigned specific flowers to birth months. And so we find jewel boxes, too, decorated with roses for love (June), carnations for admiration (February), and holly for foresight (December).
Art Nouveau jewel boxes were as lovely within as they were without. All jewel boxes were lined. The most common linings were fine silk, faille, jacquard, and satin. Silk had always been prized as a precious and luxurious fiber. Its lustrous appearance has unceasingly captured the fancy of the ladies throughout history. By the 20th century, America was a major importer of silks from Japan and China. Because silk was easily dyed, it was available in a rainbow of colors, although usually the very pale hues of pink, green, and blue, were used in jewel boxes. The linings were usually trimmed with a fine silk twisted cording.
During the early 1900’s, there were many American manufacturers that produced art metal wares—jewelry boxes being one of the most popular items. Many of these manufacturers have long passed into history but one, Rogers Brothers, still exists today. There were several “Rogers” brothers in business at the turn of the century, and the name gained national recognition due, in large part, to the wide distribution of mail order catalogs. The name became so popular that other companies tried to adopt it, and lawsuits abounded. The original Rogers family was primarily associated with flatware, but one brother, N. Burton Rogers, maintained his own art metal company and produced many Art Nouveau jewel boxes.
Other American manufacturers of jewel boxes were The (M.S.) Benedict Mfg. Co, Jennings Brothers Mfg. Co. (J.B.), Kronheimer & Oldenbusch Co. (K&O), the Weidlich Brothers Mfg.Co. (W.B.Mfg Co), Brainard & Wilson Corp. (B&W). These companies produced entire “lines” of jewel boxes, as well as other art metal decorative items such as clocks, candelabras, statues, and so on. All of these companies also “signed” or “trademarked” many of their pieces (with the initials indicated above) and, for that reason, we can identify much of their work today.
By 1915, the popularity of these art metal jewel boxes had reached their peak. World War I caused production of art metal wares to be reduced and the continuity of fashion was broken. The earlier naturalistic, yet interpretive Art Nouveau flowers, leaves, and vines, had become “conventional” floral decoration.1925 saw the virtual end of these beautiful cast metal jewel boxes. Americans were on to different styles and different materials.
Fortunately for us today, Art Nouveau jewel boxes can be found nearly everywhere—if you look carefully—antique shops, malls, antique shows, the internet, re-sale shops, even garage sales, though rarely. Because jewel boxes are, in some ways, as yet “unrecognized” by the general public as a valued antique collectible, they are often mislabeled, mis-priced, and mislaid. Prices range from $20-$700 each. Art metal Nouveau jewel boxes seem to be one of the “best kept secrets,” for there actually are many serious collectors in the United States and elsewhere—some with collections as large as 600 boxes! JVW