Renoir/Matisse (Est. 1946 1964) What’s in a name (or two)? For Jerry Fels (1917 – 2007?), the names of the great painters Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Henri Matisse were undoubtedly influential to a young man born in Brooklyn, New York whose interests were in art and design.
Fels grew up in an atmosphere that encouraged his artistic inclinations. His parents, Leah and Harry Felsenstein, supported his education in the fine arts. He is known to have regularly visited The Brooklyn Museum where he sketched the art of the Old Masters. It’s reported that, in front of the museum, he sold one of his drawings for two dollars.
Before he turned twenty, Fels joined the Art Students League and then the National Academy of Design in New York where he developed his talents for painting, sculpture and design. After working as an Art Director and executive for the Gertz chain of department stores, he enlisted in the Air Force at the beginning of America’s involvement in World War II and became a B-17 fighter pilot. In October 1945, he returned to the United States, moved to California, and embarked on the work that dominated his professional life.
The post-war years were the era of the American Arts and Crafts movement. Jerry’s jewelry creations were specifically associated with the ‘California Lifestyle’ portion of the movement.
In 1946, Fels and two partners established the Renoir Company in Hollywood. Originally named, “Renoir of Hollywood,” the name changed around 1948 to “Renoir of California.” Renoir creations were inspired by the Arts and Crafts era, when copper was a favored choice of artisans who produced hammered hollowware.
Renoir was known for solid copper cuffs and hinged bangles. Decorations on the pieces ranged from twisted strands of copper wire, mimicking the look of rope, to spring-like wire coils that were gently flattened then polished to produce rows of what appeared to be semi-circular loops.
Copper was a popular choice metal for metalworkers active in Arts and Crafts designs during the 1930s to 1950s. Renoir made jewelry of contemporary abstract designs that leaned toward modern art. The pieces had a hand-hammered look but also used rhinestones as a key material.
Copper is an attractive metal whose malleability makes it easy to form into bracelets, bangles, earrings, necklaces, and brooches. Whether polished to a high sheen, enameled, or used as a backdrop for one or more signature stones, copper holds its own with the more precious metals like gold-and-silver.
Playing with geometry was a specialty of Renoir designers. The company’s “Swiss cheese” bangles came in several styles some featuring a wide ribbon of copper punctured by holes and others that flipped this effect so the holes stood in paradoxical relief to the copper base. Squares and rectangles, chunky arrows, angle-shapes, and balls of various size were also incorporated in Renoir pieces, as were leaf shapes and other floral motifs.
Considering Fels’ interest in art, it’s not surprising that one of Renoir’s most recognizable designs is a brooch-and-earrings set based on an artist’s palette, complete with brushes in the thumb hole. This same design would be updated by Matisse, the Renoir subsidiary Fels and his partners established in 1952.
In the updated design, Fels’ craftsmen added enameling to the surface of the palette to differentiate it from the copper brushes used in the Renoir creation. Matisse palettes came in shades of red, orange, green, and blue.
Like the palettes, Matisse’s maple leaf sets were anchored by a uniform copper outline—in this case, a leaf with a stem that ends in a spiral—and different enamel treatments on top. Of these, the ones that paired gold, blue, or red with black plus accents of copper berries sitting in relief on the surface of the leaves, are the most memorable.
At first, Matisse was a separate firm, but soon became part of the Renoir Company. Also using copper as its primary medium, Matisse jewelry added the sparkle of enamel decoration to the surface and took the jewelry in a new direction. The business grew and at one point employed nearly three hundred people.
The Matisse line of costume jewelry has some recognizable marks: the Renoir copyright mark in cursive script, the Matisse mark on the back of each piece and printed cardboard earring cards and boxes. These identifying marks are important determining factors for authenticating true pieces.
The mark “Hand Made Renoir of California” was used from 1952 – 1954, and “Renoir” was used thereafter. After 1954, pieces bore the copyright mark. In the mid-50s Renoir also created sterling silver jewelry in a line named “Sauteur.”
The Matisse mark was only used on enameled pieces starting in the early 1950s. The Sauteur line by Renoir was originally sterling pieces produced from the mid-1950s until 1960. To accommodate changing styles and the difficulty of producing the same copper designs in sterling, the line was redesigned with a brushed a gold finish. These “Golden Glow” pieces were only made from 1961 – 1963.
Even though both Renoir and Matisse jewelry was worn by film stars such as Lana Turner and Bette Davis, both companies ceased production in 1964 as fashions changed and demand evaporated.
Jerry Fels was also a sculptor who formed a design group named ‘Curtis Jere’ or ‘C. Jere’ (last name pronounced Ger’ ray ), with his brother-in-law Curtis Freiler. Their goal was to produce “gallery-quality art for the masses.”
Jeré (a combination of Curtis and Jerry) was known for metal wall sculptures manufactured in California in bold, modernist designs. There were a variety of home accessories that included wall sculptures, portrait busts, and lamps made from various metals including copper, steel, brass, bronze and other mixed media. Jerry Fels specialized in design and sales, and Curt Freiler ran the production side of the business. Original mid-century pieces in brass and steel are highly collectible.
After a lifetime of metal design, Jerry Fels passed away at the age of 90. His partner in C. Jere, Curtis Freiler, was also long lived, passing away in 2013 at age 103.
Renoir & Matisse pieces are miniature works of brilliant sculptural art and well worth collecting. The bold, modern designs still look fresh even when worn today. The geometrically shaped jewelry garners the highest prices. Renoir/Matisse creations are so special that anyone who knows what to look for will instantly recognize it anywhere.