American Silver Jewelry: An Affordable Collectible

Many people remember that fantastic Cartier necklace on view years ago at an auction, gallery or antique show. Far fewer are fortunate enough to have the taste and means to afford it.

However, discerning collectors with an eye for beauty and a limited pocketbook needn’t despair. There is an alternative. Silver jewelry offers a design aesthetic at an affordable price point. It also draws less attention than gold from would-be thieves.

In fact, armed with determination and some knowledge, you can find remarkable examples of signed American silver jewelry from the late 19th century and earlier in the 20th, often priced under $1,000. In the following paragraphs, I will illustrate this idea with a few selected examples.

Silver growth: Silver jewelry became a large industry in the 1880s and 1890s in response to growing demand for wearable, affordable jewelry. Several manufacturers offered a full range of silver articles, including flatware, hollowware, jewelry and novelty items.

One such company, George W. Shiebler Co. of New York City, became known for its imaginative and often fanciful jewelry with images based on the Homeric style, leaf work, sea motifs and Art Nouveau (Fig. 1). In the early 1880s, after introducing hollowware made out of naturalistic silver leaves, the company created leaf-form jewelry with serrated edges. For polychromatic effect, silver-gilt spiders, flies and beetles were attached to the surface, much as Tiffany and Gorham had done on the surface of their Japanesque-inspired silverware from the late 1870s. Shiebler’s other jewelry depicted themes from the sea, including bar brooches with a crab scampering in the water or shells superimposed on one another.

Companies such as William B. Kerr & Co. and Unger Bros. in Newark, N.J., created silver jewelry based on the Art Nouveau style. It was stamped to imitate repouss and then backed with a sheet of silver to give a more substantial effect. Both companies offered a variety of jewelry with women’s heads, often surrounded by swirls of hair or metamorphosing from butterflies, motifs taken from French jewelry. The Unger brooch epitomizes this style with a woman’s face flanked by wings, her flowing hair disguising the space between the two.

Other makers used a variation of this theme. On the Gorham match safe, for example, the concept is interpreted with two butterflies clutching onto the hair over the woman’s temple while another butterfly serves as a pectoral ornament.

Flower images also were part of the Kerr and Unger design repertoires, used either in a naturalistic manner or in the Art Nouveau style. On the Kerr girdle or belt, chains connect sections composed of two daisies joined by a long loop. Fabric usually was woven through the loops and attached at both ends.

Silver belt buckles were popular in the last two decades of the 19th century and in the days of the Gibson Girl and the Floradora Girl. They were accompanied by a belt attachment and beltings in silk, satin or moir, usually 2″ wide. Tiffany & Co. made buckles in various styles, including the illustrated example with a hand-hammered surface and chased pearling design dating to 1880. The F.M. Whiting buckle from the same period is a variation on Shiebler’s leaf brooches with silver insects applied to a cutout leaf. The Gorham buckle, from the turn of the century, was pierced with the image of a moth (another common Art Nouveau motif) and set with opals.

Bridging the centuries: The silver jewelry tradition continued unabated into the 20th century with the artist-craftsman fabricating hand-wrought, one-of-a-kind pieces.

Peer Smed, who produced exceptional objects in the “Jensen” taste, trained in Denmark and then moved to New York City, where he worked for Tiffany & Co. and later opened his own shop. His hollowware is collected by such museums as the Museum of the City of New York and the Art Institute of Chicago. The illustrated bangle is decorated with an applied decoration of a poppy flower.

Among the most significant innovators of the post-World War II American studio jewelry movement in New York City were Sam Kramer and Ed Wiener, who reinterpreted the modern art movements into jewelry forms. Both maintained retail shops in Greenwich Village, offering their jewelry to an avant garde clientele who appreciated their work. The Kramer bracelet is made up of five circular links, cut and raised on one side toward the center, the elevated side supported by a post. The Weiner ring is shaped much like Jean Arp’s biomorphic forms, resembling an eye. Oxidation provides color contrast, giving the illusion of depth.

Today, American silver jewelry remains a popular collectible, provided it is stylistically significant and signed by an important maker or artist. Of course, condition is critical, and wearability is as important now as it was when the pieces were created. Keep on looking.