April 03, 2016
BY STUART MESIRES
One of the most famous American Hollywood costume jewelry designers, Eugene Joseff, was from Chicago. Known as the “Jeweler to the Stars,” Joseff made most of the jewelry that was used in Hollywood movies in the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s. Born in Chicago on September 25, 1905, he started his professional career at a Chicago advertising agency. Joseff also worked as an apprentice at an art foundry, where he learned how to work with metal, discovering his true passion. In 1928, he left Chicago to escape the Great Depression and moved to California to work in one of the few booming industries of the period: Hollywood. There, he met and befriended Walter Plunkett, one of the all-time great Hollywood costume designers.
Plunkett often invited Joseff to the movie sets that he was working on. It was there that Joseff noticed modern jewelry was being used in period films. This incongruity bothered him, and he took it upon himself to create historically accurate jewelry. Soon after that, he found himself in business making jewelry for films. He was a stickler for detail and researched period jewelry extensively by combing through books and visiting museums. Manufacturers often complained that Joseff’s designs were too intricate to produce and that his standards were too high. Employing the skills that he had learned as a metal foundry apprentice in Chicago, Joseff decided that his company would not only design jewelry but would also produce it. He named his company Joseff of Hollywood. His designs were a hit, and he changed the way that movie studios viewed jewelry in films.
Joseff of Hollywood produced over 90% of all of the jewelry that was used in films from the 1930s – 1950s, including such films as, A Star is Born (1936); The Wizard of Oz (1939); Gone With The Wind (1939); Casablanca (1942); Anchors Aweigh (1945);Easter Parade (1949); Singing in the Rain (1952); To Catch a Thief (1955); Ben Hur (1959); Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961); Cleopatra (1963); and My Fair Lady (1964).
Joseff was an innovator not only because he created a new genre of jewelry design, but also because he created a metal finish for his pieces called “Russian Gold.” The finish had a coppery gold matte look and solved the problem of over-reflectivity that metal can have when being filmed under bright studio lights. Moreover, Joseff’s pieces were deceptively light in weight, minimizing fatigue when the jewelry was worn for hours on end during filming. Joseff further innovated by making the decision to rent his jewelry to the movie studios instead of selling it to them. Because of this rental model, he was able to generate a stream of income by renting the pieces over and over again to different films.
In 1937, Joseff of Hollywood began to produce jewelry to be sold at retail. The pieces were inspired by the jewelry that the company had made for films. It was sold exclusively at high-end retail department stores and was marked, “Joseff” or “Joseff Hollywood.”
The pieces Joseff produced ranged in style from historical period pieces, to Asian and Middle Eastern influenced styles, to imagery, such as animals, birds, fish, insects or astrology. Despite the diversity of subjects, Joseff’s pieces are always recognizable as his.
The pieces Joseff produced ranged in style from historical period pieces, to Asian and Middle Eastern influenced styles, to imagery such as animals, birds, fish, insects, or astrology. Despite the diversity of subjects, Joseff’s pieces are always recognizable as his.
Joseff died tragically in an airplane crash in 1948. His wife, Joan carried on his legacy by taking over the business. She worked with not only the film studios but later on with television shows such as, ‘I Love Lucy’ and ‘Queen for a Day’.
Joseff of Hollywood’s business changed in the 1950s as Americans became more prosperous and women’s tastes changed from costume jewelry to real jewelry. Their business was also affected by the film industry in the 1970s when more realistic movies became popular which required less costume jewelry than the over-the-top films that had previously been in favor. The heyday of American costume jewelry came to an end in the 1970s, so did the popularity of Joseff of Hollywood. Vintage pieces can still be found today and Joseff of (Chicago!) Hollywood’s legacy can still be seen today in all of the amazing films that he helped to bring to life.