Michael and Joseph Chernow, the founders of the costume jewelry business we know today as Monet, had $4 to their name when they first considered entering the monogram business in 1919. The young brothers were meticulous and methodical as they laid their plans, so much so that it took them eight years to found Monocraft in New York.
Through Monocraft, the Chernows capitalized on the popularity of monogramming—the late-1920s were the height of monogram mania. Their first target was to streamline the monogramming process at automobile dealerships. The brothers had noticed how much time it took for dealers to hand paint initials on the sides of their new customers’ car doors. Monocraft offered these dealers decals that took just minutes to apply.
According to Alice Vega, who we interviewed after the publication of her book, "Monet: The Master Jewelers," the decals were a hit, and this success led M & J, as the brothers were known, to launch a new line of metal monograms that resembled the family crests of gentried aristocrats, yet were affordable to middle-class car buyers. Unfortunately, just as their business was taking off, the Great Depression hit in 1929, and the market for cars, let alone monogrammed ones, dried up...
The brothers responded by reaching out to major department stores like McCrorys and Macy’s, which would routinely monogram handbags for their customers. Until Monocraft came along, these purses and bags would have to be sent away to be customized. The Chernows gave department stores the means to keep bags in house by supplying them, for example, with storage units that made it possible to easily organize the initials without damaging them. By the mid-1930s, Monocraft was the standard for handbag monograms.
It wasn’t until the second half of the 1930s that Monocraft expanded its product line to include jewelry monograms, including dangle pins, bracelets, name chains, fobs, and watch chains. The Chernows really hit their stride with Click-Its, decorative pins that customers personalized by clicking in initials at the store counter. Click-Its were promoted aggressively in store with “mat” pages advertising the product at the counter. Demand was so great for these new products that the brothers opened their first factory in Providence, Rhode Island.
During this period of growth, in 1934, the Chernows hired designer Edmond Mario Granville. He came to Monocraft with a background in fine jewelry from Cartier. Granville remained the company’s sole designer until the late 1950s and was executive designer until his death in 1969. His leadership would span the company’s humble beginnings as Monocraft to its eventual acclaim as Monet.
As was the brothers’ practice, they researched the costume jewelry industry extensively after their success with monogrammed jewelry pieces. They concluded there was a large number of “women of discriminating taste” in the market for affordable fashion jewelry that looked like the real thing. Thus, Monet was launched in 1937 (Monocraft continued to produce initials until 1959).
Monet’s first collection was largely influenced by European fashion designers Coco Chanel and Elsa Schiaparelli. Monet pulled from both the rival designers’ schools of thought: Chanel’s style was represented by straightforward depictions of animals, flora, and people, while Schiaparelli’s could be seen in Monet's abstract and surreal pieces. The collection also included large multicolor rhinestones resembling emeralds, rubies, and sapphires, some set on clips and pins, others anchored to wide cuff bracelets. The colored stones would not last, though, as these early pieces were superseded by later collections focusing on the design and hue of the metal itself.
When the United States entered World War II, metals like brass and platinum were rationed, and Monet’s Providence factory was retooled to produce shell casings, ammunition, and seals for torpedoes. Of the jewelry the company did make, the metal of choice was sterling silver. Pins and fur clips were the most popular pieces made during the war, worn on hats, lapels, purses, sleeve hems, and evening gowns.
Some pins reflected wartime sentiments, such as the victory pins which denoted solidarity with soldiers in Europe and the Pacific. Monet was named the official Royal Air Force jewelry maker, and participated in Bundles for Britain, which raised money for civilians recovering from air raids. Other pins were more lighthearted, such as the popular figural pins—Geraldine the Giraffe, Pedro the Pup, Lionelly, Mary’s Little Lamb, and Honey Bear were gold-plated with bright enamel accents.
After the war, Monet returned to a fully operational factory. Sterling silver bracelets were plated in pink gold or yellow gold with heavy link designs. In the late 1940s, Monet introduced large single-charm bracelets. The most popular charms were the pair of lovebirds, a clover, and a perfume flask.
As postwar hairstyles became shorter, demand for earrings rose. Monet’s clip-on earrings mimicked small bows, intricate flora, fruit baskets, and wedding-band-style hoops, a Monet signature. Some designs were geometric, with metal twists and concentric circles. The color ranged from pink gold to yellow gold to silver.
In the ’50s, costume jewelry flourished as it became a part of people’s everyday fashion. Bracelets lined arms and necklaces grew bigger and longer than ever, fitting with the trending fashion for lower necklines. Monet’s heavy, chain-link necklaces of the 1940s were updated in the '50s. Slide necklaces like the Priscilla and chokers with names like Elite and Carousel were everywhere. Other necklaces sported dangling pendants and chain fringe. The complex metalwork did not stop with overall design—even the surfaces were textured and engraved .
For the fashionable teenage girl, there was the Monettes line. The Chernows envisioned jewelry that a girl could wear to the the prom or during a tennis match. Accordingly, Granville designed delicate chain necklaces ending in charm-like flowers, hearts, cupids, and perfume balls (similar to the perfume flasks of the ’40s).
Monet’s multi-charm bracelets, which drew inspiration from the single-charm bracelets of the ’40s, exploded in popularity in the 1960s. Some charms shaped liked the words “peace” and “love” reflected the hippie movement, but most were representations of animals or everyday objects such as shoes and cuckoo clocks.
Monet partnered with General Mills in 1968, a first for the intentionally small, family-oriented company. The 1970s saw the arrival of pierced earrings (until then, all Monet earrings were all clip-ons). In 1977, Monet launched Ciani, a line of fine jewelry in 14-carat gold, sterling silver, and vermeil. Some pieces included onyx, ivory, semi-precious stones, and pave diamonds. Ciani pieces were specially packaged in velvet pouches or suede jewelry rolls to differentiate them from traditional Monet lines, and each silver piece included a polishing cloth.
In the 1980s, Monet continued to expand. Its jewelry, like everything else in the culture, became louder, with bright colors and bold designs. Art Deco inspired pieces were a hit, and while new materials were incorporated, Monet designs still focused on the metal. Monet expanded its product line to include other accessories like pens, watches, and belt buckles, and the company jumped into the mail-order business by starting Complements, a catalog business, in 1988.
Monet acquired two major lines during the ’80s and ’90s. In 1981, Monet was licensed to sell the costume jewelry of French designer, Yves Saint Laurent, in the United States. YSL designs had high standards, and Monet was likely the only costume jewelry company that could meet the manufacturing requirements. After success with that line, Monet began manufacturing Christian Lacroix costume jewelry in 1995. Like YSL, Christian Lacroix used quality materials, and Monet sold the line exclusively in upscale department stores. Christian Lacroix was different from YSL, though, because the Monet staff did not have final approval on the jewelry, while the style itself was more playful and colorful than Monet’s traditional lines. A common Lacroix motif was a heart, and many pieces had multiple stones of varying colors and sizes.
Today, Monet is particularly prized by collectors for its quality. Thanks to triple-plating, it's not unusual for Monet pieces to last for decades without showing signs of wear on the finish. In addition, most Monet jewelry is marked with its name, like a fine jewelry manufacturer would do, which is unusual in the costume jewelry trade.
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