Miriam Haskell (1899 – 1981) Like Hattie Carnegie, Miriam Haskell is not especially known as a hands-on designer. However, like Carnegie, astute business skills gave Haskell the ability to see potential in others. Miriam could also market her name into an internationally recognized brand.
Haskell was one of four children born to Russian, Jewish immigrant parents in the small Indiana town of Tell City. Her parents owned and operated one of the town’s dry goods stores that sold fabric and cloth. Miriam went to high school in nearby New Albany before beginning studies at Chicago University. She stayed for three years, but did not graduate.
In a story she often told, Miriam left Indiana in 1924 for New York City with only $$500 in her purse (not a bad sum for the time) and by 1926 had acquired a business permit that let her open a gift shop style boutique – Le Bijou de L’Heure – in The McAlpin Hotel near Herald Square where she sold costume jewelry. Within a year, she opened a second location on West 57th Street called, The Miriam Haskell Company.
The year 1926 was a good one for Miriam. It was then that she also hired Frank Hess, a window dresser at Macy’s, who she soon appointed as her chief designer. Hess remained with the Haskell firm until Miriam left the company then went out on his own.
While experts still debate how many Miriam Haskell designs are hers or Hess’ (by many, he’s considered the more prolific of the two), there is no argument that Miriam Haskell sold costume jewelry of elegant artistic ability. Haskell creations use faux pearls, rhinestones, turquoise, shells Bakelite, and coral hand-wired in brass and copper to create unique depictions of flowers, animals, and other natural elements in beautiful designs.
Haskell’s jewelry was instantly recognizable for these designs and materials. It was a new jewelry style whose value lay in its workmanship even though the materials were comparatively inexpensive. These included metal findings from Janvier, Prat and Joseph, glass beads from Paris’ Gripoix and Rousselet, crystal stones from Gablonz in Bohemia, and Venetian beads. The jewelry was handmade and handset using gold tone metal, an antique, Russian gold metal finish developed by Haskell and Hess.
Among Haskell’s clients was the noted showman Florenz Ziegfeld whose Follies showgirls appeared on Broadway wearing Miriam Haskell creations. Bernard Gimbel of the department store chain and John D. Hertz, Jr., of the car rental company also were Haskell patrons and, like Ziegfeld, among Miriam’s lovers.
Miriam Haskell creations took their inspiration not from real, precious jewelry but from the highly stylized, colorful, and obviously fake jewelry of Coco Chanel as well as native, regional jewelry. Hess’ artistic vision and Haskell’s business acumen made a great partnership.
Haskell’s business was an almost instantaneous success due to her ability to predict fashion trends and her talent for choosing great sellers. Miriam’s jewelry was entirely handmade.
The only electrical tool her craftsmen used was a drill with small bits for piercing holes in the metal supports. These pieces usually consist of a base of filigree made of stamped metal (or plastic when metal was scarce during World War II), ornamented with beads, seed pearls, small pieces of glass and wood, and berries often arranged in clusters.
Because of the workmanship involved, Haskell’s jewelry was always produced in limited quantities and included clips, bracelets, necklaces, and earrings. The intricacy of the work and the designs allowed Miriam to command higher prices than most of her costume jewelry contemporaries.
Miriam Haskell creations were most recognized for workmanship and meticulous detail. Each bead, crystal, and pearl was hand-chosen and hand-wired to an intricate brass filigree backing and ultimately backed to a second filigree that concealed any trace of its construction. One piece could take as many as three days to create.
During the Great Depression of the late 1920’s and into the 1930’s, Miriam’s clientele grew rather than shrank. Hollywood stars and middle-class women who wanted to enliven the previous season’s wardrobe with pretty jewelry gravitated to Haskell designs. In 1933, the company moved to the eighth floor of 392 Fifth Avenue.
Miriam Haskell’s affordable art glass and gold plate sets remained popular throughout the Depression and the company opened boutiques at Saks’ Fifth Avenue, Burdine’s as well as stores in Miami and London. Haskell jewelry was worn for publicity shots, films, and personally by movie stars like Joan Crawford and Lucille Ball, as well as by Gloria Vanderbilt and the Duchess of Windsor. Crawford is said to have owned a set of almost every Haskell design produced from the 1920’s through the 1960’s.
In 1937, when the Ohio River flooded, Haskell sent boxcars of necessities to New Albany and returned to Indiana to assist in relief. During WWII, she contributed to the war effort and asked Hess to create new patriotic, metal-free designs using natural materials and plastics.
Sadly, the war’s horrors that included the incarceration and extermination of millions of European Jews and other minorities, affected Miriam’s health and emotional stability. Only in her fifties, she became ill and, in 1950, lost control of her company to her brothers.
In the 1950’s, Haskell jewelry had incredibly elaborate designs that used stones, pearls, beads, and filigree in new, unique, and exciting ways. Morris Kinsler bought the business in 1954 and, in 1984, Sanford Moss became the owner. The business was sold again in 1990 to Frank Fialkoff and still produces Miriam Haskell jewelry using the same quality and originality of the Miriam Haskell name.
None of the jewelry was marked between 1926 and 1947. Miriam’s brother Joseph ultimately introduced the first regularly signed Miriam Haskell jewelry. There was a brief time in the 1940’s when a shop in New England wanted all the pieces they received to be signed by Miriam. That mark was a horseshoe shaped plaque with Miriam Haskell embossed on it. Pieces with this signature are rare.
Once marking began, the company used many different ones to identify the jewelry. The most well-known is “Miriam Haskell” in metal on the clasp, the hook, in a crescent shaped cartouche or oval stamp.
After Hess retired as chief designer in 1960, he was succeeded by Robert Clark who worked for the Haskell Company from 1960 through 1968. Peter Raines along with Larry Vrba succeeded Clark from 1968 through 1978. In 1978, Camille (Millie) Petronzio became chief designer.
As for Miriam, she retired to an apartment on Central Park South where she lived with her widowed mother for nearly three decades. However, as time passed, Miriam’s behavior became increasingly erratic and she moved to Cincinnati where her nephew, Malcolm Dubin cared for her until she died in 1981.
It was a sad ending to an exceptional life. Haskell not only produced exquisite affordable jewelry, she also exemplified the grit and ingenuity of a pioneering and independent businesswoman like Coco Chanel, one of her contemporaries.
Miriam Haskell’s spectacular, custom-made jewelry is sought after, collected and cherished by women worldwide. Some of the best and most collectible Miriam Haskell jewelry was made when Frank Hess was head designer.
While Miriam Haskell pieces are often unmarked, early unsigned pieces can sometimes be identified by the vintage art work and advertisements the watercolorist, Larry Austin created to sell and promote them. This art typically feature sophisticated looking models wearing fashions of the time that are adorned with larger than life examples of Miriam Haskell bracelets, necklaces, and pins. These watercolors are rare and also highly collectible.
CAVEAT EMPTOR: Experts say that Miriam Haskell jewelry is often duplicated and several companies use and have used similar techniques, findings, and stampings. When purchasing unsigned Haskell, note the piece’s construction and the materials used. Frank Hess was a perfectionist so any sloppy wire work is proof that the piece is badly restored or NOT Haskell.
Today Miriam Haskell vintage costume jewelry, particularly from her golden years of the 1940s and 50s, is highly sought after by collectors and can command high prices although it remains possible to find reasonably priced pieces on auction sites.