Sheila Pamfiloff is such a fan of Miriam Haskell jewelry that she co-authored (with Cathy Gordon) a book on the costume-jewelry legend and her company. For Pamfiloff, the Haskell story is not just about how Haskell almost single-handedly elevated tapestry beading to a fine art, or the fact that she was one of the biggest suppliers of fashion jewelry to some of Hollywood’s most glittering stars. No, Pamfiloff is also impressed by the moxie of this smart businesswoman, who succeeded early on as a woman in a predominantly male world. To learn more about Pamfiloff and Miriam Haskell jewelry, visit Pamfiloff’s website, The Glitter Box.
I’ve been interested in jewelry since I was in high school. I’ll be 60 in September, so that’s a lot of years. I wore jewelry and collected it. I liked the jewelry of our era, the late ’60s. I must’ve had every piece of art jewelry made by every craftsperson in the area. Along the way, I also collected antique and period jewelry.
My interest in fashion jewelry came about because I was going to antique shows and became intrigued by all the pieces with rhinestones. I started to purchase some, learned more about them, and began to enjoy the various companies and styles that were produced.
I’m still very much involved in fashion jewelry, but I tend to lean more towards European pieces right now. I’ll get locked into an area and I want to learn all I can about it. I love a lot of the French and Italian designers, and I still love old Trifari pieces and 1940s jewelry. I very seldom venture out of the ’40s unless it’s something in the European area, mostly because I think it’s better constructed and the history is just wonderful. I’ve also been fascinated with Mexican jewelry forever.
I’ve had The Glitter Box for almost 13 years. There were probably about 30 sites on the net when I started mine, and that was it. It was really wonderful to be able to speak to people across the nation and the world via the Internet. Up to that point, you’d hear of a show in New York or L.A., and if you could, you’d get on a plane to go and talk to the dealers that way.
Information is much more accessible now than it was even just a handful of years ago. I do most of my research on the Internet now. It’s just so easy; much easier than getting on a plane and booking a hotel.
Collectors Weekly: How did you become interested in Miriam Haskell?
Pamfiloff: I became fascinated with long, beaded fashion jewelry. At that time, people thought that anything with beads on it was an unsigned Miriam Haskell. It took some time for me to piece together why a piece is or isn’t a Miriam Haskell. Eventually that research evolved into a book that I coauthored on the company.
Miriam Haskell, the company, is still around today. A lady named Miriam Haskell founded it in a boutique in the McAlpin Hotel in New York, 1926. Over time it just expanded. Miriam Haskell was never the designer. Many people think she was, but she was basically a superior businesswoman, the person who had the vision for the company. She may have designed early on when she ran her first boutique, but shortly thereafter she hired a fellow by the name of Frank Hess, who designed for the company until 1960.
Miriam Haskell is known primarily for beaded jewelry. Her company didn’t do a lot of cast pieces and it didn’t stray from the main idea of what the jewelry was supposed to be about—beautiful beads and execution for a sophisticated audience.
The company’s ownership has changed hands several times but it has always stayed true to the signature Haskell look. In addition to what we consider the traditional line, which includes the classic styles of the Haskell design repertoire, the company is now doing some asymmetrical, sort of ethnic-looking things, which is a step in a different direction. But it’s gorgeous.
Collectors Weekly: What influenced her designs?
Pamfiloff: I would say that nature was the primary inspiration for most of Haskell’s designs. If you look at the stamped pieces, they tend to be a little flowery-looking, with butterflies, an assortment of floral motifs, leaves and vines, that sort of thing.
Quite frankly, the company did not respond to fashion trends. They kept their look consistent. If they changed their designs to answer a decade’s trends, it would have been things like varying a neckline. The actual style didn’t change, though; they would just add to it a little bit, maybe use a fringe or a collar or a bib as opposed to a choker.
Over a very short period of time, they ended up having their designs in most of the major high-end department stores across the country, mostly on the East Coast, and then they moved into Texas, Nebraska, the Midwest, and so forth. They’ve been consistently successful. They haven’t really had a downtime.
Miriam Haskell designs were accepted by what we would call the jetsetters, Hollywood people for example. Lucille Ball and Joan Crawford were big fans. The jetsetters, the Hollywood superstar group, would come out to New York for private showings and purchase some of the jewelry for their everyday or evening wear. So the jewelry was more or less always designed towards the more couture-minded folks rather than the ready-to-wear folks.
“Haskell didn’t produce enormous quantities of boutique-style jewelry. It was handmade.”
On the other hand, Haskell produced several levels of pieces. The A level might include a very elaborate, very sophisticated, very over-the-top necklace-and-bracelet set. Pieces in the B level were a bit less involved. Something in the C level might be a very nice strand of beads with some sort of a center drop, or even just a plain strand of beads. So there was some consciousness on the part of Haskell for people’s pocketbooks, but primarily it was for the high-end market.
Within the levels, Haskell had three major lines a year and two minor lines. This started probably in the early 1930s. The spring and summer lines had a lot of bright colors. The fall line had muted colors, maybe with roughed and darker greens and reds. The holiday line would have black crystals or holiday colors such as red and green. So they were quite diverse in the color schemes. They followed the seasons.
Remember, within those lines there’d be variations on A, B, and C levels. They worked from a motif and then they would build it into something very large or they would scale it down to something more conservative and less expensive.
Collectors Weekly: Since Frank Hess was the actual designer, how much say did Miriam Haskell have?
Pamfiloff: Based on our investigations, we think she probably did do some designs early on, maybe during the beginning days of her boutique. But Frank Hess was hired expressly to be the head designer. Over time, as the company grew, they hired an assistant and then a team of manipulators. Those are the folks who would build the jewelry in-house per Hess’s design and his assistant’s instruction. Everything was handmade in New York for a very long time.
Hess would make the prototype, and then his assistant would expand upon it, perhaps even help. So first you’d have the prototype, and then the pattern used to produce the pieces would be created. Beads would be layered in a very sophisticated way, and the patterns in which they were wired or strung would be very consistent.
That consistency of craft added to the quality of the pieces. They were well thought out, composed of quality materials, and meant to be durable, even though, for a long time, fashion jewelry was meant to be worn and then discarded the next year. But people tended to hang on to these beautiful handcrafted items for long periods of time, and that’s why so many of the older pieces are still around. They survived because they were tenderly taken care of.
Collectors Weekly: Why was Haskell so popular in Hollywood?
Pamfiloff: New York was always the couture headquarters of America. You would go there if you wanted to get pieces by the topnotch designers. Buyers from the upscale department stores that were scattered throughout the country would come to New York to make their major purchases. So they would buy some Miriam Haskell pieces and it would expand that way. The Hollywood people, of course, shopped at the better department stores, too.
Collectors Weekly: Was the early jewelry signed?
Pamfiloff: No, that’s where I started my investigation. Pieces weren’t signed until the late 1940s, so we have almost 20 years of jewelry that was not signed. I’m not sure exactly why, but a lot of the fashion jewelry folks didn’t sign their stuff for a long time.
But then costume jewelry gained its own reputation as something wonderful and not something that should just be tossed away. It achieved its own status. When it had risen to that level, companies like Miriam Haskell began to mark their jewelry. At first, for a couple years, it was irregularly signed, and then it was marked consistently.
There are examples in my book that describe a lot of the stampings, the closures, and the ways in which the pieces were produced—the silvery backs and that caged look that we call tapestry beading. It’s in the execution. One of the other keys is becoming familiar with the materials.
That’s basically it—the execution and the materials. There are also watercolors and photographs out there, and until about 20 years ago it was easy to compare pieces out in the marketplace to pieces in the company archives.
The interesting thing is that Haskell didn’t produce enormous quantities of boutique-style jewelry. It was handmade. But you can look at lots of things to determine what was going on in the late 1920s. By the early ’30s, Haskell had become consistent in the ways in which they designed and produced their jewelry, where they bought their beads, and that sort of thing.
You can tell by the consistency in the design execution, too. What kind of look did they produce over and over again? If you see something that is not within the vocabulary of their design preferences, then you begin to question it.
Collectors Weekly: Were the watercolors advertisements?
Pamfiloff: Yes. They used them for promotional purposes. They were shipped to the department store or used in the design room as part of their displays. Sadly to say, some of the watercolors disappeared with one of the archives. But you can find them on the Internet. They come up for auction from time to time.
There are several sites devoted to the watercolors alone. Although these watercolors show the jewelry in exaggerated sizes, you can still compare them to actual pieces.
Collectors Weekly: Were Haskell beads made of glass?
Pamfiloff: Primarily. There were a couple of windows of opportunity when other materials came in. Up until World War II it was mostly glass beads from Czechoslovakia, France, Italy, and Germany. Sometimes you can identify Italian beads versus Czechoslovakian beads. And the findings and stampings all came from Providence, Rhode Island. They were not produced in Europe until much later.
Deviation in materials during the early years included the use of celluloid, nutshell, and enameling. Then, during World War II and the resulting shortage of metals, you see more plastics starting to be used, mostly for the perforated backs. A lot of silk thread was used at that time, too.
In the 1970s, a whole new design idea took hold, and Haskell branched out into all kinds of things using a variety of materials and construction techniques. One of the most popular lines during that period was the Egyptian line, which was inspired by King Tut exhibition that toured the United States. Many of those beads are plastic or bone. After that, they went back to a more traditional look with fine pearls and glass beads. At that time, they began to branch out and find other sources for beads and materials. That’s when they went to Europe and used some of the stampings from the old stamping houses.
Collectors Weekly: When did Miriam Haskell sell the company?
Pamfiloff: In 1950, Miriam Haskell sold the company to her brother Joseph Haskell. Joseph Haskell owned it for five years and then sold it to Morris Kinzler, who owned it until 1983, when Sanford Moss bought it. He owned it until 1990, and then Frank Fialkoff purchased it. He is still the owner of the company today.
Over time, they’ve had various designers. Frank Hess retired from the company in 1960. Robert Clark was Haskell’s next designer for approximately eight years. There was a little window there for a couple of years where there were a couple of designers. The most important one would be Peter Raines. He designed Haskell jewelry for about a year or two.
Larry Vrba came on in 1970, and he designed for eight years. Millie Petronzio became the head designer in 1980. She’s been there probably the longest of all, and she’s now going into semi-retirement. Since they now have what we call the traditional Haskell look as well as designs they produce for other companies, there are a lot of different people designing for the company.
Other jewelry-design houses looked to Haskell as the model, not the other way around. So if you wanted to do some elaborate jewelry, you were competing with Miriam Haskell, trying to siphon off a piece of that market.
Designers like DeMario and Robert did a lot of bead jewelry, but you always thought of them as the people who came after the Haskell look, and that they were trying to either expand upon it or that they fell in love with it and wanted to produce their own take on it. Even nowadays you’ll hear somebody say, “Oh, that’s very Miriam Haskell.”
It’s not that Haskell was the only company making beaded jewelry. Of course that isn’t so. You had a lot of the flapper beads and all of that. But this particular, distinct look, where you celebrate the beauty of the beads as well as the craftsmanship, can be attributed to Haskell and Frank Hess. They elevated that whole style into something quite sophisticated.
Collectors Weekly: Is Haskell known for making specific types of jewelry like necklaces and bracelets, or did she do everything?
Pamfiloff: Necklaces, bracelets, earrings, pins, brooches, fur clips, dress clips—the whole gamut. The preferred styles, however, are kind of interesting. Haskell did a lot of collars, chokers, bibs, and fringe-style necklaces. Those styles allowed the designer to spend some time building a rich bead motif. Brooches could have anything from a cluster of beads and stampings to a beautiful cascade of dangles.
It would appear that those particular styles of beading lent themselves well to the Haskell vision, so they hung on to those particular styles, only changing them ever so slightly from time to time.
There are actually collectors for all of these types of Haskell jewelry. The more elaborate vintage pieces are beyond many people’s pocketbooks. There weren’t many made and they were mostly made for the showroom and for models and that sort of thing. They took such time and they were so expensive to execute that they generally did not make many.
People still love the pearls they produced. They were actually quite well-known for their full pearl lines because they were just beautiful. The audience for these one-, two-, and three-strand pearl necklaces was quite sophisticated and discerning. So I would say that the people who generally collect Haskell range from the very serious collector to somebody who just wants a pretty strand of pearls.
Collectors Weekly: What about rarity?
Pamfiloff: We have a couple of pieces of which only four were made. And when Miriam Haskell left the company, we found out that she kept a private collection for a very long time. It’s quite by accident that we stumbled across it.
And then the company had its own archive. Most of the pieces there were prototypes. It’s hard to say what else may have existed because the records were really difficult to understand. It wasn’t until the 1950s when Sanford Moss came in as the manager and began to regulate and organize the materials that anyone kept serious track of what was actually being produced.
Collectors Weekly: While you were doing your research, did you find anything about Miriam Haskell or her jewelry that you didn’t expect?
Pamfiloff: No. But I can say that I really admire this lady. Obviously, the legacy of her dream has filtered on down through the decades. It was a man’s world. Designers were men. The owners of companies were men. The staff was men. The salesmen were men. It was all men. And then you had Coco Chanel, who just jumped right out there, and a couple of other women who carved out their own niche in the world. Haskell did that, too.
When each new designer came along and each new owner took possession of the company, it was almost as if they became custodians of the Haskell ideal. They contributed their own design sensibilities and choose materials based on what was available, but they kept the traditional Haskell look alive. They inherited a legend and they revered it.
(All images in this article courtesy Sheila Pamfiloff of The Glitter Box)