Henrietta Kanengeiser was just a teenager when her family left Austria for the United States around 1900. During the trip, Henrietta asked a man who the richest, most successful person in America was, and he told her, “Andrew Carnegie.” Some years later, when she was in her 20s, she adopted “Carnegie” as her last name, and the rest of her family, trying to blend in to American culture, followed suit.
Upon their arrival, the Kanengeisers settled into an Austrian ghetto in New York’s Lower East Side, where they hoped to work in the garment factories. Henrietta eventually got in with Macy’s as a salesgirl, a position that promised a lot of mobility for a girl of her background. At Macy’s, she became a student of women’s clothing—her job in the hat department earned her the nickname “Hattie.”
When she was in her early 20s, in 1909, she opened her first shop, Carnegie-Ladies Hatter, with her friend, seamstress Rosie Roth. Initially Roth developed the dress-making side of the business, but within a few years Carnegie bought her out, taking over the clothing design. This shop lead to a chain of exclusive boutiques across the United States, and eventually an $8 million fashion empire.
In 1918, the young entrepreneur founded Hattie Carnegie, Inc., which debuted her first full-scale clothing line. Like Coco Chanel, Hattie Carnegie—a self-made fashion icon who stood only 4-foot-10-inches tall and embodied the look of the “Gibson Girl” with her curly blond hair and big blue eyes—created head-to-toe looks with accessories like hats and costume jewelry.
While it’s believed Carnegie produced jewelry to complement her clothing, particularly her trademark “little Carnegie suits,” her official line of marked jewelry did not hit the market until 1939. Like Chanel and Elsa Schiaparelli, Carnegie flourished in the “cocktail jewelry” movement (1935-1960), where pieces like brooches and demi-parures of necklaces, bracelets, and earrings put the finishing touches on outfits.
Carnegie’s designs—whether it was hats, clothing, or jewelry—were adored by Hollywood stars and other American celebrities including Tallulah Bankhead, Joan Fontaine, Norma Shearer, and Joan Crawford. Carnegie seemed to have a sixth sense about the taste of American women, flying to Paris on a regular basis and then returning home to adapt the latest look to U.S. sensibilities.
In the 1930s and 1940s, her clothes were considered smart, neat, and tailored. She particularly excelled at the little black dress. In contrast, her jewelry designs were downright wild, giving a touch of flair to otherwise conservative outfits. She commissioned a wide array of talented jewelry designers to work in a variety of styles, but in general, Hattie Carnegie pieces tended to stay away from all-paste copies of gemstone fine jewelry. She employed plastics, enamels, and gilt metals. Her brooches became iconic in the 1950s...
One of her more popular jewelry collections is the Oriental line, inspired by Far Eastern and Indian motifs. This includes elaborate metal human figures detailed with tiny rhinestone and faux pearls that can stand up of their own, as well as things like a figural elephant carrying a howdah and a snuff-bottle pendant.
Other collected Carnegies include the animals in her menagerie of stylized brooches, which took inspirations from the African art that influenced Paris fashion in the 1930s. These figures, produced well into the 1950s, were made of Lucite in bold colors like red-orange, emerald green, ivory, and turquoise blue, and were trimmed with rhinestones, colored beads, and gilt metal. Collectors covet the fish and long-horned goats, but the anteater is the most prized of all.
Some of Carnegie’s top jewelry designers included Kenneth Jay Lane, her protege Norman Norell, and Nadine Effront, a French sculptor and onetime student of George Braques. Years after Carnegie’s death in 1963, Effront designed a popular Greek-themed collection for Hattie Carnegie jewelry, using atypical materials such as terra cotta, tortoise, and hammered gold.
Lane, meanwhile, served as the creative director at Hattie Carnegie jewelry before he struck out own his own in the ’60s with a wildly popular line of giant plastic earrings adorned with rhinestones. His creations were eventually worn by Elizabeth Taylor, Audrey Hepburn, Barbara Bush, and Nan Kempner.
Carnegie jewelry, whether animal-inspired or abstract, is noted for its attention to detail and creativity. For example, a gilt-metal apple has a tiny slice cut out. The jewelry line also has a traditional, romantic side, with necklaces and bracelets made of double- and triple-strand crystal, glass, and rhinestone beads, graceful chokers with trailing chains, and large brooches with giant shimmering stones in rich colors.
Carnegie died in 1956, so the Hattie Carnegie jewelry that was designed before then, under her direction and requiring her approval, is most valued by collectors. These items, usually ranked highly in costume jewelry guides, are worth collecting, even if they are damaged or are missing rhinestones.
The most common mark features “Hattie Carnegie” in script on a cartouche, so jewelry marked in this way is less valuable than, say, pieces marked with the letters “HC” on a diamond in an oval frame—that 1930s mark is rarely found. Pieces may also be marked just “Carnegie,” while those with “Hattie Carnegie” in an oval hang tag are from the 1970s.
Larry Josephs took over the Hattie Carnegie firm in the late 1960s, and in the 1976, the company was acquired by Chromology American Corporation. The Hattie Carnegie brand was still being used in the late 1970s, particularly on designer lines like Yves Saint Laurent for Carnegie (1978), Anne Klein for Carnegie (1979), and Valentino for Hattie Carnegie (1979).