Thursday, 21 February 2013

Trifari Jewelry

Fruit Salad Necklace & Earring Set
The story of the Trifari firm, especially its earlier years, demonstrates the triumph of good design and quality over mediocrity. Here was a firm that valued not only its designers but also its suppliers and workers from top to bottom. At its head was the triumvirate of Gustavo Trifari Sr, Leo Krussman, and Carl Fishel. Trifari was a great designer and so headed the design team and oversaw manufacturing; Krussman was in charge of the overall running of the firm; and Fishel was a salesman of genius presiding over a nationwide army of salespeople. Their headquarters were in New York but the heart of the company was the manufacturing plant in Rhode Island.

Born in Naples in 1883, Gustavo Trifari had already designed and produced jewelry by the age of 17. He emigrated to the United States in 1904 and joined the jewelry firm of Weinberg and Sudzen in the capacity of office supervisor and designer. 

Fruit Salad Starburst Brooch He left this company five years later and entered into partnership with his uncle Ludovico Trifari, with whom he produced costume jewelry under the name Trifari &Trifari. In 1912, this company was dissolved (for unknown reasons) and Gustavo reopened under his own name "Trifari", selling mainly silver hair ornaments set with stones, but also combs, buckles, and heel covers. Leo Krussman joined Trifari as sales director and head of administration in 1917.The firm went from strength to strength, producing fashionable costume jewelry in a great variety of designs.

With the addition of Carl Fishel, the company changed its name to Trifari, Krussman, and Fishel, and the stage was set, with one exception: designer Alfred Philippe, who was employed at the precious jewelry firm of William Scheer in the United States designing collections for Cartier and Van Cleef & Arpels, and who joined Trifari in 1930 as chief designer.

Alfred Philippe's arrival heralded a new phase in American costume jewelry production, one that was to last 40 years for the Trifari firm and still has repercussions in the world of fashion to this day.

Pearl Belly Turtle Brooch The sudden jump in the quality of production and innovation of design set the firm on the road to remarkable success and unequalled growth for a costume jewelry firm. Commissions to produce jewels for Broadway musicals heightened its success, and demand for costume jewelry imitating precious jewels increased.

One of the puzzling aspects of the great popularity of Trifari's jewelry was the very size of the company itself. By its very nature, the middle to lower ranges of costume jewelry was made to be almost disposable as fashions changed.

Since the fashion world was changing at an ever-increasing rate, how was such a large manufacturer able to keep up, especially considering that designs had to be approved for manufacture at least 10 months in advance? It was, of course, a gamble and there were two methods by which they could reduce the odds. First, they could attempt to influence fashion itself. 

Sterling Jelly Belly Frog Brooch
This they did by advertising and by doing so on a scale that would have an effect, so Trifari went national with the first coast-to-coast advertising campaign for a costume jewelry manufacturer. Second, they could produce an enormous range of designs catering for as many tastes as possible. The gamble paid off and Trifari prospered.

It is worth analyzing the main themes of their design production. The popularity of the "real" look saw Trifari imitating the style of the precious jewels of the day. One innovation was the "Invisible Set" stones, which copied the hidden settings used by Van Cleef & Arpels. Trifari used these stones around 1937, and the pieces were generally marked "KTF", an early signature of the company."Fruit Salad", or "Tutti Frutti", stones also have their origin at around this time. 

These are moulded glass stones in the shapes of leaves and small fruits, generally in bright primary reds, greens, and blues, as well as shades of moonstones, coral, and turquoises. They took their inspiration from the precious jewels of Cartier, following the Egyptian revival style of the "Tree of Life". They were often set into white metal, which was pave set with clear crystal stones.

Sterling Jelly Belly Frog Brooch
  • Real Jelly Bellies were designed by Alfred Philippe. 
  • Fake Jelly Bellies were made in New York in the early 1990s, and everyone was caught out in the early days of them coining on the market.
  • Nowadays, a knowledgeable and reputable dealer should be able to spot the fakes.
  • Only certain models were copied by the forgers, among them the pig, the heron, the frog, the horse head, the spider, the penguin, the Pekinese, the frog on the lily-pad, and the fly.

Fake Jelly Bellies

The prices achieved by some Jelly Bellies can be very high indeed and, as with all other high-valued antiques, they have attracted the unwelcome attentions of the forgers. Spotting a fake Trifari Jelly Belly is very difficult indeed, but here are some guidelines.

Sterling Crown, 1944 Only the sterling silver Jelly Bellies were forged; the Jellies in base metal were not, but unfortunately there are few models in base metal.

Look out for plating that is too yellow: the plating on an original should look as though it is slightly tarnished (not necessarily worn). The areas in which crystal rhinestones are set should show the white silver metal beneath, indicating that these areas were masked off before plating.

Probably the best way to tell the fakes from the real is on the back of the piece. The Trifari signature was generally put in a recess in the metal and was therefore not subject to much wearing. It should thus look relatively crisp. The copies rely on their signature being cast from the originals and are therefore less crisp.

Following on from the demand for imitation precious jewels came the tailored look, to which Trifari deftly turned in the late 1930s, almost preempting the change in fashion. Retro-style pieces made of folded metal imitating bows and swags were now gold-plated and complemented the strong lines of the day's fashion.

Invisible-set Earring, late 1950s The prohibition enforced by the United States government on the use of white metal, especially tin, during the American involvement in the Second World War caused a crisis in the costume jewelry world. The metals used by Trifari contained as much as 96 per cent tin, which overnight became prohibited. In 1942, Trifari and many other manufacturers turned to sterling silver, which was so popular, not only with the public but also with the design teams and manufacturers, that they continued using it after the prohibition on tin was lifted.

From around 1941 Trifari produced its "Clear Line". This was a range of mainly animal and flower brooches comprising a Lucite "belly" surrounded by a metal mounting. They were the costume equivalent of the natural rock crystal stones used by precious jewelers.

These brooches have come to be known as "Jelly Bellies" and they are very collectable today. The range of designs is staggering and the entire range has still not been documented. The earliest designs were large "sailfish" with a large curved Lucite body and a crystal pave-set fin on base metal. From 1942, the metal was changed to silver and a plethora of designs followed.

Leaf Garland Bracelet & Earrings, mid-1950s The next major move for Trifari was the introduction of Trifaniurn in 1947.This was an alloy developed by the firm to replace silver, which had been used since 1942. It is a soft aluminum-based metal, relatively light and with the ability to be cast into intricate shapes.

Two years later came the year of the "Moghurjewel”. Heavily influenced by the sumptuous look of royal Indian jewelry, these were the last of what was termed the "heavy look" ranges. Trifari's Moghul jewelry is typified by primary-coloured cabochons, commonly in the form of deeply carved flower or "melon "shapes. The colours are reminiscent of sapphires, emeralds, and rubies all set into the richest gold. The shapes of the jewels are the abstracted organic forms common in royal Indian jewels.

In 1953, Trifari pulled off a coup de grace when Mamie Eisenhower wore Trifari's faux pearls for the Inaugural Ball. This was a real coming of age for costume jewelry, placing Trifari and costume jewelry as a whole centre stage. When her husband, Dwight D. Eisenhower, won a second term in office, Mamie commissioned Trifari to produce a custom set of pearls for her second ball. Also in 1953, Trifari produced a line of "Royarthemed jewels in honour of Queen Elizabeth II's coronation. 

Multicolour Floral Spray Pin & Earrings, early 1950s Norman Hartnell, the designer of the future Queen's Coronation gown, sold the line in his shop: it was an instant hit. For some time now, costume jewelry had been big business and the biggest companies producing jewelry were very large and wealthy affairs. Firms needed to protect themselves and their investments, and in the fashion world this meant protecting their designs.

For many years, smaller companies regularly produced copies of the larger firms' jewellry, managing to get their copies into the shops very soon after the originals went on sale. This was a major headache for companies such as Trifari, because although they could patent an invention or mechanism related to a piece of jewelry, they could not protect its actual design. That was until Trifari entered a court battle and set a precedent with his sterling crown, declaring jewelry designs to be works of art and therefore protected. From this time onward all Trifari jewels bore the mark.

Gilt & Pearl Necklace & Earring Set, late 1950s
From the 1950s to the beginning of the 1960s, Trifari produced a large quantity of jewelry in textured gilded metal. These were almost always in parures sets of necklaces, earrings, bracelets, and brooches. They were usually set with pearls and rhinestones and made the perfect accompaniment to any day-wear. They were also produced in white metal but in far fewer numbers. So many of these were made that for most people they will be their only experience of Trifari.

In 1968, Alfred Philippe retired, and for many people this marks the end of the line for interesting pieces from Trifari. Other designers took over the helm, such as Andre Boeuf. The three original "rhinestone kings" handed over the company to their sons, who guided Trifari up to 1975, when it was sold to the Hallmark corporation.

Writer – Steven Miners
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