Marcus & Co jewelry
Apr 11, 2018 | by Becky Oeltjenbruns
I’ve always had a soft spot for Art Nouveau: the gentle curves and botanical influences seem to soothe a soul, beleaguered by the slick technical aesthetics of our modern age. When I think of Art Nouveau’s expression in jewelry, Louis Comfort Tiffany springs to mind. However, thanks to Antiques Roadshow, I was introduced to one of his lesser known (but incredibly talented) protégés: Herman Marcus. Dear reader, allow me to introduce you to your new favorite design firm: Marcus & Co jewelry.
Like many of our beloved vintage success stories, this one begins with adventure. As a young man, Herman worked with the court jewelers of Dresden. His keen eye and eagerness to learn quickly made him an expert on European design trends. Armed with this experience and a desire to explore, in 1850 he left Germany for America. His talents evident, he quickly found work with Tiffany’s and even represented the iconic designer at the 1878 Exposition Universelle in Paris. This level of exposure was quite an achievement and a nod to his European lineage. In later years he worked with Ball, Black & Company (a bitter rival of Tiffany’s) before starting out under his own namesake in 1884. Partnering with his sons in the venture, Herman transitioned from a pop culture student to a trendsetter in his own right. His revival jewelry became their calling card, yet some of the most exquisite works have their roots in the Art Nouveau genre.
It wasn’t just the design that captivated the New York elite – it was the use of material and color (which most critics applaud as raising the bar for the entire industry). You see, a Marcus & Co piece is known for its use of bright enamel (learned at the hands of Lalique masters in Paris) and mixture of semi & precious gemstones. While it doesn’t sound very revolutionary given our current jewelry climate, it was unheard of at the time – rebellious even! Herman and his sons were convinced that the jewelry world had become too predictable in its use of materials. Going one step bolder, they even published a book on gemstones which they felt had been forgotten. This media blitz had the desired effect and went on to educate interested patrons. Bolstered by this spirit, they delighted in crafting the unexpected and had the audacious talent to do so! Exotic motifs were embraced throughout the firm’s design history and this push-the-envelope approach gained the respect of even the most selective buyer (like New York’s powerhouse Rockefeller clan).
By 1897 their appeal spread beyond the posh confines of Broadway, thanks to an exhibition at the First Exhibition of the Arts and Crafts held in Boston. Showing an amazing catalog of forty two unique pieces, they became the toast of beantown. Following Herman’s death two years later, his sons moved the operation to Fifth Avenue and continued their father’s legacy.
Collector’s note: Marcus & Co pieces were marked and sometimes accompanied with either a distinctive “M” shaped crown or a silhouette of angel wings. You’ll find examples of the markings here.
Their flagship store was known for its imaginative window displays, transporting passersby into a world of bejeweled imagination. For decades the firm continued to create, however following the Great Depression financial woes plagued the organization and by 1941 they sold to Gimbel Brothers’ department store. (Yes, the Gimbels from Miracle on 34th Street!) Although an heir stayed at the helm, the quality of the craftsmanship declined and the firm merged with Black, Starr, & Frost a couple decades later. Given that Black, Starr, & Frost is the oldest continuously operating jewelry firm in America, I find it a fitting tribute to Herman’s innovative spirit. (Especially since they were one of the first to showcase their jewelry wares in a window displays in 1833.)
While Tiffany’s will always have a special place in my heart, I must say that the daring energy of Herman Marcus & his sons is an inspiration. Underdog stories always ring true for me and something about their love of overlooked materials sparks my creativity. Seeing the beauty in the unexpected is a trait we see over and over again in our research – tell me dear reader, who is your favorite champion of the overlooked?