All That Glitters: Joseff of Hollywood

Many lovers of classic film watch for escapism or for romance but have you ever watched a film such as Gone with the Wind, Gentlemen Prefer Blonds, or Cleopatra and marvelled at the realistic jewels that grace these glamorous leading ladies?

They weren’t always so realistic.  Let me take you back to the late 1920’s and the story of Joseff of Hollywood. The most prestigious name in on-screen jewellery during the Golden Era of Hollywood.  Creating timeless pieces which have been worn by screen legends such as Marilyn Monroe, Bette Davis, Rita Hayworth, Ava Gardner, Elizabeth Taylor and Lucille Ball.

It all started after watching a movie, costume jewellery designer Eugene Joseff criticised the historical inaccuracy of jewellery represented in film and set to research and design jewellery to accurately depict periods and ultimately provide costume in films.

As doors opened and contracts came in he researched the historical periods of the films by referencing rare books.  It didn’t take long for Eugene to prove himself.  Producing accurate and imaginative pieces for film proved different to everyday wear and so Eugene crafted jewels using a trade secret matte Russian gold-coloured plating that worked well under the lights of Hollywood in terms of reflecting light and made it easier to photograph than jewellery with a high gloss finish. 

As a forward-thinking businessman he decided to rent the jewellery to the studios which proved to be a good decision as it preserved his artistry and was also lucrative however, there was a problem.  Jewellery manufactures stated the designs were beautiful but impractical and impossible to duplicate.  So, using his foundry experience Eugene set up shop and made his own jewellery and by 1928 he adopted his surname for marketing purposes and became known as Joseff of Hollywood and Joseff: Jewellery of the Stars.

By this time, Joseff of Hollywood was credited with providing jewellery for the majority of movies and required assistance running the company.  A call to the Sawyer Business School provided much needed staff which included his future wife Joan Castle whom he married in 1942.  The team kept very busy during the years of the post-Depression and World War II as Hollywood met the demand of the movie-going public’s need for escapism.  (On a side note, Joseff’s contribution to the war effort was to use the foundry to make airplane parts. Joseff-Hollywood Precision Investment Castings Division still makes jet parts today).

As it has always been Hollywood movies make an impression on viewers and influence their buying and lifestyle decisions: what to wear, drink, drive and smoke (this is prior to current smoking laws!).  Stars were very popular and the public wanted to emulate them, especially women who admired the strong screen roles played by talented actresses such as Joan Crawford, Bette Davis and Marlene Dietrich.  Big Hollywood actresses such as Marilyn Monroe and Marlene Dietrich liked the costume jewellery from their roles so much they commissioned pieces for their own wardrobes.  Joseff, being an astute businessman, acknowledged the public’s fascination with the stars and his jewellery and opened his shop, “Sunset Jewellery” in 1935 to make a retail line available to the public.  In addition to this, Joseff Hollywood jewellery was sold in major department stores within America like Saks Fifth Avenue, I. Magnin, Bullock’s, Neiman Marcus, Marshall Fields, and Nordstrom’s. 

By now, the brand was a household name and Eugene wrote articles advising women on how to accessorize and was the subject of many articles in movie publications and newspapers. 

His accessory viewpoint appeared in the February 1948 issue of Movie Show magazine:

“If you want to acquire a collection, start with a brooch because you will find most use for it. It can be pinned on a suit lapel, collar or pocket…on a hat, a belt, or an evening gown. Remember, gold can be worn with more things than silver and topaz is a good stone that looks smart with almost every type of costume…”

“Earrings should be the next jewellery investment. They also have many uses. You can wear them on your hat, cuffs, shoes, as well as your ears.”

“A ring comes next in your collection and I’d suggest finding a bold ring with a large stone…something massive and distinctive. A bracelet and a necklace come last in importance because they can so seldom be worn with all your costumes or for all occasions.”

Sadly in 1948 Eugene died in a plane crash shortly after take-off ending his life a week before his 43rd birthday.  His wife, Joan continued to run the company renting jewellery to the major Hollywood studios and continuing the airplane parts division of Joseff of Hollywood established during World War II.  Later their son Jeffrey and his wife, Tina Joseff joined the company.  As an interesting side note, Joan, in addition to running the company was a generous philanthropist.  In 1956 she was honoured by the Women in the Motion Picture Industry.  Throughout the 1950s and 1960s she hosted memorable, lavish holiday parties which included yuletide trees covered with Joseff jewels.  Joan oversaw the company until her death in 2010, when the reins were passed to her daughter-in-law Tina Joseff and granddaughter Michele Joseff.

One article I read on the Joseff-Hollywood collection stated there are more than three million necklaces, brooches, tiaras, earrings, and breastplates warehoused…in individually labelled rectangular boxes that keep the trinkets dust free.  Now wouldn’t that be amazing to behold!  We can all hope that parts of this collection will tour with museums some day in the future so we can all marvel at the work of these wonderful artisans.

For the Collector

If you’re thinking of collecting Joseff Jewellery, there are some things you should know.  Joseff of Hollywood is highly collectible and has retained value over the years.  The company does not sell direct to the public and you will be hard pressed to find these gems at a vintage fair!  

However, it’s not all vintage, Joseff of Hollywood is still designing and marketing jewellery today. These are not reproductions, but actual items being sold from the Joseff warehouse. Some are from the original retail lines being discovered in the warehouse with the old Joseff Hollywood block mark. Others are made with original vintage components and stones purchased by Eugene Joseff warehoused since the 1930s and 1940s….MORE All Joseff jewellery is plated with the Russian gold-tone finish formulated and first used in the late 1920s, and production runs are still very low in comparison to mass produced costume jewellery.

As the company’s stockpile of vintage components is depleted, some styles are slightly modified or they may be retired completely. As of 2013 they were no longer using silver plating.

In the past, Joseff of Hollywood jewellery used in movie production rarely came up for sale with pieces being hard to find with the odd item appearing on eBay and at auctions but buyer beware, there are fakes.  Commencing 16 November 2017, Julien’s Auctions will be selling items from the vault collection at their Beverly Hills location.   A book about the collection is being produced by Michele Joseff to coincide with the sale. Due to this I can only assume more genuine pieces will become available for collectors in the future.

How to Spot the Real Thing!

Genuine jewellery has a distinctive look, obviously historical and a bit baroque or figural. The finish is commonly called Russian gold or antique gold which is less reflective under bright studio lighting. On the older pieces the metal has patinated (a green or brown film on the surface produced by oxidation over a long period.) and will be richer and darker; the newer pieces have a brighter, shinier finish. There is silver metal jewellery as well. The older pieces are also more intricately made, or layered. Newer pieces aren’t quite as complicated.

Most pieces are marked with either the distinctive Joseff script in a round cartouche or Joseff Hollywood in capital letters on a rounded rectangle cartouche, or block stamp.  Prices vary depending on where you buy and how rare the piece is.  

Need to Know More?

For further reading on the Joseff Family, Joseff of Hollywood, the jewellery and the stars who wore them I recommend Jewellery of the Stars: Creations from Joseff of Hollywood by Joanne Dubbs Ball.

If you are strictly interested in determining genuine to fake pieces and require examples of jewellery related marks and dating information refer to Warman’s Costume Jewellery by Pamela Y. Wiggins.

The Joseff of Hollywood website features information regarding the business and the stars who have worn their jewellery.

Images: Joseff of Hollywood website

Sources: 1. Joanne Dubbs Ball, Jewellery of the stars: Creations from Joseff of Hollywood. 2. Joseff of Hollywood website. 3. Julien’s Auctions website. 4. Pamela Wiggins, Warman’s Costume Jewellery.