Copper, like gold, is a metal that has entranced mankind for millennia; it has a rich warm lustre and is easily worked. The story of copper costume jewelry belongs almost exclusively to two individuals: Francisco Torres Rebajes ("re-ba-hay"; see below and box opposite) and Jelly Fels.
Rebajes produced jewelry from the 1930s through to the end of the 1950s, and in his day was the leading exponent of copper sculpture and design. He was the archetypal bohemian artist, flipping from the sublime to the ridiculous; but his pieces always projected the feel of genius. Working his way up from the gutter, he created artistic and useful objects hammered and cut from discarded cans. His first creations were bought by the fashionable inhabitants of his neighbourhood, Greenwich Village, New-York. Success followed success and by 1942 he owned a factory employing 40 workers and had shops throughout New-York, including a flagship store on the famous Fifth Avenue.
Across the continent, the other main proponent of copper jewelry was hard at work. Jerry Fels was born in Brooklyn in 1917 and studied at the Arts Student League and then at the National Academy of Design in New York. He set up the "Renoir of Hollywood" jewelry firm in California in 1946 with Curt Freiler and Nat Zausner. Throughout the 1940s they produced copper jewelry inspired by the Arts and Crafts tradition. They moved to mass-production, but the high quality of finish for which the firm had become well known was never compromised. Keenly priced, generally below the $10 mark, the jewelry sold very well, exhausting the company's stock each year.
In 1952 a new line was added to the company called Matisse Ltd, which incorporated enamelled plaque highlights to the jewelry. So successful was the new line that to this day it is the enamelled pieces for which the firm is known, and these pieces fetch the highest prices. Over time both lines of jewelry became more abstract and streamlined, borrowing from the popular art of the day.
Rebajes Copper Cuff Bracelet & Earrings, late 1950s
The early pieces produced by Rebajes, up to the 1940s, were almost exclusively in silver. The greatest proportion of his copper jewelry was made during the 1940s and 1950s. Rebajes loved the extra dimension he could achieve by not only superimposing one piece on another but also having parts of the piece move with the wearer. This bracelet demonstrates this superbly, because the three decorative panels in the centre of the cuff are loosely hinged to the body of the bracelet, and so respond to motion.
Matisse Copper Enamelled Necklace & Earring Set, mid-1950s
This design was one of the most popular produced by Matisse. Called "Nefertiti", it was inspired by the art of ancient Egypt. Unfortunately, the earrings shown here are not the exact matching earrings originally sold with the necklace, although they look similar. Both sides of these pieces were enamelled to reduce cracking while firing. This blue is one of the most common colours; rarer colours such as black fetch more money.
• Rebajes made silver versions of some of his designs; these are very collectable indeed.
• Remember that enamel is a form of glass and if dropped it will easily chip and crack.
• Never polish copper jewelry: a chemical cleaner will strip off the varnish, leaving the copper to rust and go green.
Even as he grew more successful, Rebajes still designed and sketched all his designs by hand. His designs show influences from a broad spectrum including Picasso, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Man Ray. He delved deep into exotic cultures, as shown by designs in the form of "Ubangi" heads, Brazilian masks, African figures, and Pre-Columbian forms.
Leaves, flowers, and animals were the favourite themes; many reflected his Spanish origins through rich Hispanic styling. Copper was Rebajes' favourite material by far, but one can also find pieces made from silver, aluminum, nickel, and tin and sometimes a mixture of two or more. Although not known for its enamel work, the firm did produce some enamelled pieces and also jewels incorporating twigs and semi-precious stones.