Marcel Boucher (1898 – 1964?) Widely acknowledged as one of the finest designers of costume jewelry in 20th Century America, Marcel Boucher was born in Paris, France in 1898. Boucher’s father died when he was a toddler and his mother supported Marcel and herself as a seamstress.
After serving in the French Ambulance Service during World War I, Boucher apprenticed at Cartier’s as a model maker. In 1923, Cartier sent him to their New York workshop. When the stock market crashed 1929, Marcel lost his job and turned to creating costume jewelry because the materials they incorporated were more easily affordable. Soon his independent work took him to Mazer Brothers where he designed costume jewelry and other pieces for them.
In 1936, Boucher designed his first personal line of costume jewelry. The pieces used gold plating enamel with three-dimensional designs and employed precious stone colors on jewelry that depicted exotic birds, insects, and flowers. These were marked with three or four-digit design numbers in the astermolds. Imitation diamond rhinestones, ruby, sapphire, emerald stones and simulated pearls were most frequently used in the jewelry.
Most Boucher items are usually signed and can be roughly dated based on their inventory number and mark. In 1944, Boucher changed the company name from Marcel Boucher Ltd. to Marcel Boucher & Cie.
Early pieces may be marked “Marboux” or have his initials in a cartouche. “MB Sterling” was used between 1942 and 1944. Pieces made between 1944 and 1949 may be marked with a Phrygian cap above his initials. Later pieces are marked “Marcel Boucher” or “Boucher.” After 1955, the copyright symbol appears before his name. He used “EARRITE” for earrings from 1950, and later, his own name “Marcel Boucher”.
Boucher was a meticulous designer who spent hours in the library assuring his designs were perfect. In 1937, having entered into a partnership with Arthur Halberstadt, the two men opened Boucher and Cie. Marcel supervised design and production of costume jewelry and Halberstadt handled the front showroom and sales.
Marcel Boucher and Cie produced Spring/Summer and Fall/Winter collections that offered as many as three hundred designs each. Every year Boucher produced a special piece for stores to showcase in their window and was called a, “first-nighter.” One of these was the “Miss America” tiara that Boucher made every year.
Boucher’s 1930s designs included exotic birds with a depth and a sense of movement not seen before in costume jewelry. Boucher used his love and sense of mechanics to add dimension and the feeling of motion to the flat jewelry of the time. Notable pieces include a celebrated “Punchinello” whose arms rose by pulling a chain; a pelican whose beak opened to catch a fish; and his “night and day” series of flowers with petals that open and close.
From his earliest designs, Boucher’s jewelry exhibited superb workmanship in metal, rhinestones and enamel. The quality is so high that Boucher pieces are often taken for precious jewelry.
In 1939, Boucher sold a collection of his designs to New York’s Saks Fifth Avenue. When the US entered the Second World War in 1941, the worldwide jewelry industry had already seen onerous metal restrictions diminish their ability to acquire materials once widely available. It was around this time that Boucher moved the company to Mexico where there was an abundance of silver and the Mexican Silver Renaissance period was off and running.
Boucher bought a house and land in Cuernavaca and traveled to the factory in Mexico City that produced his “Parisianna” line of cast sterling jewelry. After the war, Boucher sold the Mexico City operation and returned to New York. It was during these years that Boucher created a variety of designs that included a line in the cubist style, a black moor head, and beautiful bird-of-paradise designs.
In 1947, when Christian Dior launched his “New Look” collection, Marcel began designing and producing elegant sets that took inspiration from Dior’s idea of femininity and splendor.
In 1949, Sandra Semensohn joined the Boucher Company as Boucher’s assistant and replaced Halberstadt who had left the partnership. Sandra’s experience included a two-year stint in New York as a fine jewelry designer for Harry Winston.
The Boucher factory on New York’s East 23rd St had been operating for some time when Sandra joined the firm. In later interviews, Sandra suggests that little had changed from before the war. A few crafts people like the model maker Karl Albrich had been there from the start.
Initially, Marcel created the themes and design ideas and passed them to Sandra to develop or complete specific tasks. Increasingly Sandra began developing her own designs and would take them to Marcel for comment. She says he would tell her “Let’s do this one, but drop that one.-I do not like it.” Among the designs from this period is the Hummingbird.
According to Sandra, “What Marcel wanted was jewelry that was chic and fluid, with simple lines and not clumsy. Chic, chic, chic!’ was what he always called for.” In interviews, Sandra describes Marcel as, “… a pain in the neck! A nice pain, but very demanding of himself and others, very difficult, and he always wanted nothing less than perfection.”
Just before Sandra joined the firm, Marcel moved to a new showroom on an upstairs floor of the Accessory Building at 347 Fifth Avenue. Here buyers could see the jewelry, accessories and watches at once. In the 1950s Boucher and Cie had 60 to 80 employees.
Costume jewelers have almost always worked in a small world where firms almost immediately followed other’s designs. Marcel was plagued by people who pirated his designs. In the early days he could stop it by having a lawyer write a letter to a store and suggest –strongly- it was selling copies. Immediately after the war he was forced to sue Coro to stop them from pirating his designs. It was an expensive victory because the damage award was $35,000 but his attorney’s fees were $50,000.
When he decided to produce a Boucher line of precious jewelry in the 1950s, the new designs were copied and in New York’s Jewelers Row stores on 47th Street before he could even start production. While he knew who was responsible, it was then that he abandoned the idea of designing fine jewelry.
As the 50’s progressed, Boucher became increasingly dissatisfied with the lowered standards of the costume jewelry industry. Despite this, he and Sandra continued to innovate with designs and materials. In 1958 Sandra left the firm to join Tiffany & Co. as Chief Designer. After three years, she returned to, once again, have the creative freedom designing costume jewelry offered.
During this time she designed the enameled peacock with Boucher. They experimented with leather and mother-of-pearl jewelry. Boucher also designed a series of dogs. The only freelance design produced during this time was the skunk that Marcel and Neiman Marcus buyers liked.
In October 1964, Marcel and Sandra married. Very soon thereafter, he died and left the business to her. She continued to run Boucher and Cie, but Sandra was a designer, not a businesswoman. While she continued to introduce innovative costume jewelry, she eventually sold the business to Davorn Industries in 1970. She designed watches for them over the next five years and continued to mark them “Marcel Boucher” even after the sale.
It is said that Marcel Boucher was possibly the greatest designer and producer of costume jewelry in America from the 1930s through 1971. His jewelry pieces are prized for their baguettes and exciting colored stones.
The 1940 Parisianna Mexican Silver jewelry line is highly prized and sought after by collectors. Also very collectible is the jewelry group of “Exotic Birds”.
In 1979, the company was sold to D’Orlan Industries in Toronto, Canada. While the workmanship and details of the jewelry produced from the Boucher molds by D’Orlan is of high quality, it does not rival the standards of older pieces produced by Marcel Boucher.
These jewelry pieces are marked “D’Orlan” and use Boucher’s design inventory number because they have the rights to use Boucher’s original molds.