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Spotlight On Miriam Haskell

Miriam Haskell was a celebrated American jewellery designer, businesswoman, and costume jewellery pioneer. Her original, yet affordable hand-made costume jewellery became popular during some of America’s most testing periods, such as the Great Depression and the Second World War.

Rising to prominence around the time Coco Chanel launched her vrais bijoux en toc (real fake jewellery) range in Europe, Miriam homed in on America’s penchant for French fashion and modelled many of her designs on European costume jewellery.

In this blog, we cast the spotlight on Miriam Haskell, illuminating her life, jewellery designs, and pioneering costume jewellery company, before showcasing some of her Art Deco jewellery pieces.

Miriam Haskell’s early life

Miriam was one of four children born to Russian Jewish immigrant parents in Tell City, Indiana, at the turn of the twentieth century. Her parents owned a dry goods store specialising in fabric and cloth, somewhat akin to a British haberdashery shop.

She studied for three years at Chicago University – but did not graduate. In 1924, at the age of 25, Miriam embarked on a life-changing journey to New York City, with just $500 in her purse. Less than two years later, she was issued a business permit and opened a gift shop-style boutique – Le Bijou de L’Heure – in the McAlpin Hotel.

Haskell’s career in jewellery

In the same year, Frank Hess, a Macy’s window dresser, joined Miriam’s firm as a jewellery designer. Hess’ artistic flair dovetailed with Miriam’s sharp business acumen, leading to the opening of a second shop within a year, this time on West Fifty-Seventh Street.

The pair enjoyed continued success throughout the remainder of the 1920s, before relocating to Fifth Avenue in the 1930s. Their affordable art glass, strass, and gold-plate parures were hugely popular throughout the Great Depression and provided a springboard to open boutiques in Saks Fifth Avenue, Burdines, and stores in London and Miami.

Celebrity clientele

Miriam counted movie stars such as Lucille Ball and Joan Crawford on her clientele list, as well as royal figures such as Wallis Simpson and the Duchess of Windsor. In fact, Joan Crawford was such an admirer of Miriam’s designs that she collected almost every piece produced during the 40s and 50s, before being auctioned at New York’s Plaza Art Galleries following her death in 1977. Celebrity publicity shots featuring her iconic designs, as well as credits for film and theatre productions, cement Miriam’s status in such illustrious circles.

Public appeal

Esteemed clientele aside, Haskell’s designs appealed to the general public due to their exceptional detail, artistry, and price. After designing a piece, her craftsmen – many of whom were European refugees who honed their craft in European jewellery houses – wired intricate multi-layer motifs on to the filigree backings. This tight embroidery and meticulous wiring are the chief markers of Miriam Haskell’s signature style. The finished products were beautifully detailed pieces for which Miriam paid her workers handsomely.

Haskell’s jewellery designs

During the Great Depression of the 1930s, Miriam’s costume jewellery fused style with affordability, using less expensive materials such as art glass, strass (paste), rhinestones, and gold plate parures. Many of her signature pieces were characterised by faux baroque pearls, Russian gold filigrees, and the expression of nature through delicate flowers, leaves, and berries.

When European bead supplies were curtailed during World War II, she contributed to the war effort by instructing Hess to create patriotic non-metal designs. These pieces used natural materials and plastics, while the beads and crystals were sourced closer to home.

After the war, Miriam reinstated the use of high-end materials, such as Japanese pearls, the use of which made her designs increasingly elaborate and vibrant. These pieces featured more substantial focal articles and necklaces with multiple bead strands.

Controversy and later life

Some question whether Miriam was the company’s artistic force, or whether this moniker should belong to Frank Hess. Regardless, it is undeniable that Miriam built a pioneering company in a patriarchal industry – and period.

In 1950, Miriam’s deteriorating health – induced by war trauma – forced her to sell the company to her brother Joseph Haskell. She moved in with her mother, but over the next two decades, her behaviour grew more erratic, and she exhibited extreme symptoms of clinical depression and OCD. In 1977, she moved in with her nephew in Cincinnati, before her passing at the age of 82

Miriam Haskell’s vintage costume jewellery

Today, Miriam’s vintage costume jewellery – particularly pieces from the golden period of the 1940s and 50s – is much sought after by collectors. It is worth noting that much of her jewellery was not signed before losing her company in 1950, so confirming a Miriam Haskell piece typically involves some research.

We stock several pieces from the Art Deco period and beyond, showcasing the signature style that Miriam Haskell so effectively pioneered.

Art Deco Citrine Sapphire Pearl Necklace, circa 1935

This majestic necklace is set with sixteen rich, honey-yellow citrines, languidly linked by alternating blue sapphires and freshwater pearls. A bold statement piece woven together with vibrant, artistic embroidery.

Double-strand Emerald Bead Necklace, circa 1980

This show-stopping necklace features a double line of 473 natural emeralds linked by two 18k gold bars, each set with sixteen bright white brilliant cut diamonds. A true modern masterpiece.