Several years ago, before the collectibles market became a feral beast, I worked at one of New York's leading auction houses. At that time, there was an almost small-town neighborhood feel to it all, and, like every small town, it had its characters.
One of them was a truly eccentric, almost Dickensian woman who would scamper through the halls, heartily greeting most of the staff by name. I knew that her name was Miriam Haskell and was vaguely aware that she designed jewelry.
Now her jewelry is an integral part of the tremendous boom in costume jewelry, her firm having produced pieces as baroque and sometimes surreal as she was.
Her productions, many of which were designed by Frank Hess, William Markle or Robert F. Clark, could be fantasies incorporating any number of materials -- metals, wood, natural shells, simulated stones, plastic, rhinestones and glass. In fact, she was one of the chief innovators of the use of glass in the 1930s.
A dazzling new book published by Harry N. Abrams, "Jewels of Fantasy: Costume Jewelry of the 20th Century," edited by Deanna Farneti Cera, not only illustrates several highly imaginative Haskell pieces but fills in her background as well.
Her career began in 1924, with a small gift shop in the McAlpin Hotel on 34th Street in New York, where she sold her jewelry. She cultivated an elite clientele that required stylish, singular, avant-garde pieces.
She discovered Frank Hess, her principal designer, when he worked as a display artist at nearby Macy's. Their collaboration began with the production of fragile handmade jewelry of glass beads and simulated pearls wired on gold backing. They worked together until 1952, when Miriam Haskell became ill and management of the firm was taken over by her brother.
In its heyday, however, the firm continued to produce objects at the cutting edge of the costume jewelry world, constantly experimenting with different materials, including Czechoslovakian, Austrian and Venetian glass beads.
With much of the firm's production focused on floral themes, she anticipated the rage for naturalistic motifs that would emerge in the late '40s and early '50s.
The unique metal finish of her pieces was achieved via a process known as "antique Russian gold," which employed a galvanizing bath that fused gold and silver on a copper and brass base.
As most costume jewelry collectors know, there was no trademark on the earliest Haskell pieces. Beginning at the end of the '40s, however, a horseshoe-shape logo was used.
Copiously illustrated with fine color plates and international in scope, "Jewels of Fantasy" (Abrams), a translation of an Italian work published in Milan last year, contains informative essays by Italian, Czech, Austrian, British and American experts.
The American section covers the period 1935 to 1968 and includes works by Trifari, Eisenberg & Sons, Hobe, Coro, et al., and demonstrates how these Americans built on the traditions of Chanel and Schiaparelli, mass-producing costume jewelry and
making it a key element of fashion.