Jewelry with star power
Nov 18, 2020 | by Becky Oeltjenbruns
Let’s go back to a time before Netflix, when Hollywood was the mecca for glamour and glitz. The heyday of the studios and the mega stars. When we think of those sirens of the screen (Vivien Leigh or Elizabeth Taylor), we often think of the costume designers behind the scenes. After all, Edith Head’s signature looks permeate nearly every great film from the golden age. But while Edith brought the glamour, it’s a lesser-known name who created the glitz. Meet Eugene Joseff, a Midwestern lad who, like many ambitious young men of his day, wandered into the advertising industry. But around the time of the Great Depression he found himself heading West. Opportunity was calling and its name was Hollywood.
By 1929 Los Angeles boasted a population of 1.2 million people. A fraction of the size of the Big Apple, but a growing behemoth in its own right. In the early days of the film industry it was all about connections and Eugene made a great friend in costume designer Walter Plunkett. (Next time you watch a retro movie, pause on the credits. I’ll betcha that the name listed will either be Edith or Walter!) At any rate, I would have loved to be a fly on the wall during their budding friendship. Walter must have sensed the artist within Eugene because he convinced him to try his hand at costume jewelry for the movies.
We read about tech companies today that started in someone’s garage and the brand “Joseff of Hollywood” followed a similar trajectory. In his earlier days Eugene had worked at a foundry, so with Walter’s encouragement he transformed his home into a working studio. What I find really interesting about his process is the attention to detail. It didn’t surprise me to learn that he and Walter collaborated on Gone with the Wind. One, because of their friendship and two, because of their similar work ethic. Walter spent time in the South, prior to filming, devoting himself to understanding how the place impacted fashion. He pored over the script, tailoring each look to perfectly capture the emotion of a scene. Dedication was his middle name. Eugene seemed to share this passion. One of the reasons costume designers enjoyed working with him was his extensive research library. His database was essential to the design process for period films.
Want to take a tour of the factory and drool over all the awesome? Check out this amazing article
In addition to having an eye for genres, Eugene also understood the film industry. His detailed study of antique pieces, when combined with his technical know-how, meant that a Joseff original was known for its accuracy yet simplicity of construction. So if a director’s vision changed on a whim, Eugene’s pieces could rise to the occasion and still deliver the wow! This was a key competitive advantage for Eugene, but his practical approach is responsible for at least one other major innovation. You see, in the early days of cinema, lighting was nearly a star in its own right. A matte finish on his jewelry meant that a Joseff piece would glimmer, but never overpower a scene. His palette ranged from acrylic to plastic to platinum. This diversity of materials inspired some wildly creative and unique designs. (A stunning example is the headdress from the film The Great Ziegfeld.)
As Joseff originals flooded the big screen (by some estimates he made about 3 million pieces!), Eugene began to realize that it wasn’t just the Hollywood icons who wanted to make a grand entrance, the everyday woman deserved a chance to be in the spotlight. After some prodding from his actress clientele, he created a retail line for department stores. I can almost imagine the thrill of going to the movies with your beau, watching Olivia De Havilland on the big screen, and knowing you shared the same taste in jewelers. Talk about a feather in your cap!
If you want to bring jewelry with star power into your costume jewelry collection, Joseff of Hollywood is a wonderful addition. As with any other vintage jewelry brand, you’ll want to let the markings be your guide. Pieces made before 1950 will be marked “JOSEFF HOLLYWOOD” in block letters. From the 1950s onward, the marking is simply “Joseff” and the style reads like a signature. There is a slight deviation in the labels from 1950-1970 and 1970-today. It’s easiest to compare and contrast the pictures to see the nuance between the labels. Here is an amazing spot to review them and read other FAQs about this iconic brand.
Many of the brands we’ve discussed in previous features have since closed up shop. But I’m so thrilled to know Joseff of Hollywood continues to thrive and remains family-run. For the collector this means if you can’t find a vintage piece in the wild, you have a very good chance of finding it in the online shop. So ask yourself which vintage movie star you want to channel today & treat yourself to a piece of history!