Friday, 21 October 2011

Making: Polymer Clay Beads

History of Polymer Clay

In 1939, German doll-sculptor Kathe Kruse made the first formulation of what would eventually become known as the polymer clay brand Fimo, and gave it to her young daughter, nicknamed Fifi, as a modelling material. Years later in the 1960s, the formulation was sold to Eberhardt Faber. At the same time, other companies were experimenting with polymer-based materials, including American firm Polyform, who initially intended their Sculpey brand to have industrial applications. When the product was deemed unfit for its original purpose it was shelved until someone saw its potential as a modelling compound.

In the beginning, polymer clay was marketed heavily as a toy, its rainbow colours and ease of use making it a popular craft material for children. Yet from these humble beginnings, polymer clay has very quickly progressed into a varied and rich art form, thanks to those pioneering artists who first saw its hidden promise and began to experiment. It may not have the centuries of history and tradition that glass, ceramics and fine art have accumulated, but nonetheless, over a period of less than a century, artists and crafters working with polymer clay had explored a wide range of possibilities, encompassing and modifying techniques from other media as well as discovering innovative methods that were particularly suited to the properties of polymer clay. Some of these ground-breakers include Nan Roche, whose book The New Clay is widely regarded as the original polymer clay bible, Marie Segal, who helped Polyform create the first line of clay in the traditional artists’ colour palette, namely the Premo! brand. Also Donna Kato, whose demonstrations of polymer clay crafting on television introduced it to a new audience, and Judith Skinner, discoverer of a foolproof and easy method for making gradient colour sheets, ever after known as the Skinner Blend in her honour.

In recent years, polymer clay work has begun to be accepted as a legitimate art form, with prominent artist Elise Canning organizing gallery exhibitions showcasing the best of polymer clay artistry; the Racine Art Museum holds an extensive collection of fine art polymer clay, as do several other museums and galleries across America; finally, polymer clay is starting to evolve past the stigma of its beginnings!

Potential for Polymer Clay

Modern day polymer clay is a synthetic plastic made up mostly of polyvinyl chloride and various pigments; many polymer clay brands also carry lines of clay that have special properties, such as inclusions of shimmering powders, transparency, and glow-in-the-dark effects. In its raw state it is a soft, malleable material that can be sculpted and manipulated in a variety of ways, and when set in an ordinary oven it becomes firm and stable. Currently, the main brands of clay comprise Premo, Sculpey, Kato Clay, Fimo Classic and Soft, Viva Decor Pardo, and Cernit.

It’s not difficult to see why artists of all types, including sculptors and traditional painters gravitated towards polymer clay. It is available in a wide range of colours, with the potential for further colour mixing by the artist. It can be worked like ceramics, and yet unlike earthen clay, raw polymer clay has a lengthy open time; in effect, an unfinished piece can be manipulated and even left over long periods of time and returned to later without any difficulties, as long as the clay is kept cool and dry.

A further benefit of polymer clay is the low cost of starting up. Although there are many advanced tools available for the avid clayer, professional results can be achieved with just a few packets of clay, some old household objects, and practice, and the finished work can be safely cured in a domestic oven. (Curing refers to the process of baking clay at the recommended low temperature, often around 100 degree centigrade, to remove the active plasticizers in raw clay, and transform it into its baked, solid state). Many clayers find a pasta machine to be an invaluable tool for conditioning clay and rolling smooth, even sheets, although a acrylic roller or brayer can also serve the same purpose; simply tape two lolly sticks, or two stacks of playing cards parallel to each other on your work surface, and roll the clay out between them, resting your roller on these guides as you roll, for a sheet of consistent thickness.

Working With Polymer Clay

If you are interested in jewellery making, you will probably be most interested in using polymer clay to make beads and other components. Very simple beads can be made by twisting and rolling two colours of clay together to get a marbled clay, and forming this into your desired bead shape. To make the bead hole, piercing with a cocktail stick or thin knitting needle works well, or you can drill the bead holes following curing, which will ensure you don‘t distort your bead shape. In order to bake the beads, it is a good idea to thread them onto a length of wire or onto cocktail sticks and suspend them over a baking tray, or alternatively, you can accordion fold a piece of card and suspend the beads over this. Beads and other objects can also be rested on a bed of corn starch, which is easily dusted away following baking.

Polymer Clay Bead Making Techniques

One popular way to embellish polymer clay beads is the art of millefiori, or caning. Taking its inspiration from the glass-working method of the same name, polymer clay caning involves building an image or motif in cross-section and then stretching or manipulating the length of clay to a smaller diameter. When the length of clay, or cane is cut into, the original image can be seen running through it in miniature, in much the same way a word or picture runs through a stick of seaside rock. Pieces of the cane can be thickly sliced and baked as is to make charms, or thin slices can be shaved away and applied over a base bead to build up a decorative pattern.

The images above show a Polymer Clay flower cane in progress

Another widespread technique involves stamping or impressing raw clay with different textures to create an interesting effect. Anything that will not be ruined by contact with polymer clay can be used as a texture, including old pieces of fabric, sandpaper, wooden objects and metal implements. Plastics can also be used in this way, although be careful about leaving plastic objects in prolonged contact with raw clay as certain types can react with the plasticizers and cause a messy chemical reaction. Tools from other crafts and arts may also be used to great effect, including stamps, carved linoleum blocks, stencils and embossing folders.

Various surface materials can be combined with stamping and texturing for further embellishments. There are several brands of paints and inks that can be applied to raw or baked pieces, allowing you to stamp or draw an image onto your clay canvas. Metal leaf may also be adhered to raw clay, and a variety of colourful foils are available for use with polymer clay. A complex surface effect can be achieved by transferring a piece of metal leaf or foil to a sheet of raw clay and running it through a pasta machine to produce a crackled effect. You can also apply a light wash of inks onto this crackled sheet for extra colour and depth.

Glitters and powders, including crumbled chalks, are an easy way to add instant sparkle and colour to polymer clay as well. Simply brush onto the clay before curing, or use a clay-compatible varnish to adhere the glitter to a previously baked piece. A particularly effective product is mica powder, a very finely ground organic mineral that when brushed onto clay provides a beautiful shimmer, and which can be used to highlight raised or depressed areas in your work.

However, whilst there are many products available that are perfectly compatible with polymer clay, it is wise to make sure that what you are using will not react with the clay, either by checking with other artists, or by performing a test on a scrap piece of clay. Certain varnishes and paints, for example, will either fail to dry properly on raw clay, or worse, chemically react over a period of time; even if something appears dry, it may start to turn tacky up to two years later or more!

The image above shows a stamped Polymer Clay pendant with mica powder highlights

After making and curing your polymer clay beads, you may find there are small surface imperfections or fingerprints on them (although sometimes fingerprints can add a certain charm to handmade items!). To achieve a smooth finish and remove these marks, it is a good idea to wet-sand your beads with sandpapers, starting with a low grit (I.e. a courser grade sand paper) and working up through progressively higher grits until you get the look you want. You can then coat the beads with a compatible glaze or varnish for a high shine, or buff the beads with a rough cloth or piece of denim for a more subtle sheen. Take note, however, that if you have used metal leaf, foil or other embellishments on the top layer of your beads, sanding will remove most of your work, so try to ensure your beads are as smooth as possible before curing in this case, and protect the embellishments with a coat of varnish afterwards.

Advantages Polymer Clay in Jewellery Making

Learning to create polymer clay beads is a fun and satisfying addition to your jewellery skills, but there are also many advantages to using polymer clay components in jewellery pieces. Like paper beads they are a lighter alternative to glass and gemstones, you can incorporate larger beads and a greater number without adding an excessive amount of weight, making the piece more comfortable to wear. Even lighter beads can be made by using a foil armature inside a veneer of clay.

The almost unlimited potential for colour mixing also means that a colour swatch can be readily matched, allowing you to create a coordinating and complementary colour scheme with ease. Using a combination of the techniques described above, nearly any pattern can be replicated too, including the organic patterns and textures of gemstones, woods and stone; it is no wonder polymer clay been nicknamed the chameleon clay. Many eyes have been fooled by polymer clay’s talent for mimicry!

Using Polymer Clay Safely

Whilst polymer clay is certified non-toxic, there are certain precautions you must take to ensure your safety. At the correct temperature, polymer clay will cure safely inside your domestic oven, but if taken too far above that temperature the clay will burn, and produce unpleasant fumes. If this happens move the burnt clay outside, and make sure any animals are kept well away, especially birds, who can be particularly susceptible to chemical fumes. If you are at all concerned about using your home oven for curing polymer clay, you can place your pieces in a oven-safe bowl and create a ‘tent’ out of cooking foil to contain any odours.

In addition, any household or kitchen tools which have been used for polymer clay should not be used for food preparation or use afterwards; make sure you collect a separate set of tools for your polymer clay, and cure your creations on a dedicated baking tray or bowl. Similarly, polymer clay cannot be applied to or used to decorate anything that will have direct contact with food or drink.

Related Websites:

Polymer Clay Daily – a showcase of the best of polymer clay artistry
Polymer Clay Central – the original online hub for polymer clay providing tutorials, information and reviews
Glass Attic – a wealth of polymer clay information collected over the years.

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This post was supplied by Hazel Ward of Continuum Designs - one of our Talented Bead Makers

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Wednesday, 27 July 2011

History: Man Made Faux Pearls

The rare perfect sphere of a natural pearl, lustrous as silk and round as a full moon, has for many centuries been a prized possession and signifier of wealth. The soft creamy colouring flattered the skin tones of many a wearer, and their creation within the sealed environment of an oyster shell was nothing short of magical (the ancient Greeks believed the pearls formed as a result of lightning striking the sea). From Cleopatra, Elizabeth I to Elizabeth Taylor, leading ladies, and plenty of gentlemen too, appreciated the value and the beauty of these natural gems. Emperor Julius Caesar, was allegedly such a devotee of the pearl that he was rumoured to have been partially driven to invade England based on his desire for British pearls. He also passed a decree stating that only aristocrats would be permitted to wear pearls within the boundaries of Rome. For those who could afford them, pearls were worn as conspicuous displays of wealth, good taste and sophistication. Natural pearls don’t dazzle the eye in the way that cut gemstones can do, instead they rely on perfection of shape or unusual size to speak of their rarity and cost.

As with many rare and expensive natural products, from the earliest times a cheaper and more readily available alternative to the pearl was sought so that those who couldn’t afford the real thing could purchase a convincing lookalike. In Ancient Rome glass beads were coated with silver and then coated again with glass in an attempt to replicate the lustre of pearls. Small balls of clay coated with mica powder and then baked, were another early attempt to create the appearance of natural pearls. During the 13th century the Chinese learnt that they could cultivate pearls in the shell, but it was man-made ‘pearls’ that could be mass-produced that had the greatest impact on the fashionable taste for the wearing of pearls as their low cost made them available to a wide market. Initially the scale of production was limited to the workshops of Murano, but by the 19th century, Paris and Rome were the two centres of a bead making industry furiously catering for the pearl-laden fashions of the day. A young middle-class lady could afford to dress her lace with Roman pearls, and the wealthy wife of a landowner would wear Parisian pearls as part of her daytime toilette, reserving her finest natural pearls for soirees.

Two forms of faux pearls were manufactured in Italy, the earliest, produced from at least the 13th century, and hailing from the ingenious glass workshops of Venice, were imitation glass pearls. Some of these pearls were apparently made from an intriguing mixture of powdered glass, snail slime and egg white. This mix was pressed into shape and a hole inserted into the bead before the mixture hardened. In 1440, a publication revealed the secret of making pearls from shells and fish scales. The Venetian pearl merchants felt so threatened by the trade in false pearls, that they made it illegal to produce them and violation was punished by the loss of the maker’s right hand and a ten year enforced exile. The Venetian glass makers guild was just as tough in their decisions to protect their own interests! – see our article on the History of Venetian Glass.

The second form of imitation pearls to originate in Italy, were known as Roman Pearls (later this term was sometimes also applied to blown glass imitation pearl beads). These were formed from alabaster coated with an essence extracted from fish scales.

A business card for Antonio Lacchini from the 1900s inviting viewings of the pearl making process (Source eBay)

This extract from the London Literary Gazette and Journal of Belles Lettres, Arts, Sciences, Etc., quotes from a fictional work entitled Tales of the Moor (published in 1828), by the writer, Amelia Gillespie Smyth. One of the tales characters recounts a visit to the city of Rome:
“I had intended to devote the evening, much of which remained before me, to a stroll beyond the walls, in the lone Campagna, which was alone wanting to complete my mental panorama; but on returning to my hotel, I found that business, trifling enough in itself, but important to my character as a true and loyal knight, would require my presence in an opposite and more ignoble quarter. I had been enjoined by my sister, and by one whose behests were perhaps still more imperative, to preserve and bring home a large quantity of the highly esteemed Roman pearls; and finding that the precious packet had not, as promised, made its appearance … I resolved to be my own messenger, and to console myself for other privations by a glance at this manufacture, peculiar to Rome; the fish, somewhat resembling the sardine, whose produce gives its activity, being limited to the neighbouring coast.I was not sorry to be led once more into a quarter of the city which I had rarely trod; through streets spacious, and chiefly formed of the deserted palaces before alluded to, adjoining to, nay even within some of the most decayed of which, a population of the wretchedest description support existence, Heaven alone knows how! In one of these large waste buildings was the manufactory I sought; and the number of persons whom I found employed in its dilapidated apartments, threw some light on the mystery I had just been endeavouring to fathom. They were, of course, chiefly females, but differing as widely in person and manners as the nature of their occupations was powerfully contrasted. In a sort of outer vestibule, some coarse Trasteverine Amazons, the very originals from whom Pinelli must have taken his frightfully accurate sketches of a she fight in that privileged Rione, were characteristically and congenially employed in the extracting from piles of the half-decaying fish the material which communicates to the artificial pearl its truly natural lustre. Here, again, sat a group of ordinary-looking women, mingled with some meagre and emaciated men, busied in forming the rude bead of alabaster, which, cut while that substance is yet soft, is, when properly rounded, coated over with the lustrous fluid before mentioned. This pearl, through far superior in nature and durability to the compound of wax and glass which the more volatile Parisian employs to the deceive the eye, has yet, especially when worn in any quantity, the disadvantage of such an overpowering weight … They are finally polished and freed from adhering impurities by the hands of female artisans.”

The Engineer and Mechanic’s Encyclopaedia (Vol 2) by Luke Hebert, published in London 1849, has this to add:
“Roman pearls are formed of a very pure alabaster, considerable quarries of which exist near Pisa, in Tuscany. The process is as follows: – the alabaster is first sawn into slices, the thickness of the pearls required; the pearls are then formed with an instrument which bores a small hole in the centre, at the same time that the required shape is obtained. The next thing in the process is their immersion in boiling wax, to give them a rich yellow hue, and afterwards to cover them several times with the silvery substance obtained from the scales of the bleak. The singular beauty of this ornament, which perfectly resembles the real pearl, the varied patterns in which they are arranged, and their extreme cheapness, render them an object much sought after; while their solidity is such, that they may be dashed to the ground with violence without receiving the slightest injury; being thus rendered far superior to those of French manufacture, which are at once more fragile, and considerably less imitative.”

The French beads referred to rather snootily in both of the above quotes, are those manufactured according to the method attributed to a rosary maker in Paris, by the name of M. Jacquin. In the second half of the 17th century Jacquin patented a method of making fake pearls from hollow blown glass spheres that were coated on the inside with ground fish scales, applied in a liquid form that was granted the poetic name, essence d’orient. The hollow balls were then filled with wax to give them a weight similar to a natural pearl. Legend has it that Jacquin noticed that water containing scales from the ablette, or the bleak, produced reflections that resembled those produced by the nacre on a natural pearl.

The ablette, or bleak, is a small fish of 5 – 10cm in length.

He managed to extract the protein that created this effect (guanine) and used it as an imitation nacre essence. Diderot’s Encyclopédie, published in France in 27 volumes between 1751 and 1772, has two plates of illustrations demonstrating the production of Perles Fausses using this essence to create beads.

Plate II above, shows the production of the glass spheres, blown from a length of tubular glass (the glass used is girasole a glass-type produced in Murano and in appearance was supposed to imitate opal, with a milky-white colouring). The ladies on the left of the illustration are, Fig. 2, using a table-top lamp and blowing to create the spheres from the glass tube. The second lady, Fig. 3, is using a table-top lamp to melt and smooth out the openings of the glass spheres were they have been cut from the tube. The other figures in the room are producing the glass tubes that the ladies are working with. The tables shown beneath the interior scene have four table-top mounted lamps or burners, with a foot pedal or bellows beneath to presumably assist the draw of the flame.

Plate III above, illustrates the next stages in the manufacture of false pearls. The lady seated at the table in the centre of the image is descaling fish so that the scales can be dissolved to produce a pearlescent liquor. The liquor presumably must sit in the pan to the right of this lady, although according to a 19th century source quoted in Glass in Jewelry by Sibylle Jargstorf:
"About 20,000 fishes were need to produce just 3.5 kilograms of scales. This quantity was reduced into 0.5 liter of concentrated liquid, which then had to be diluted for lining the beads"
So this solitary worker is simply representative of the labour involved! Fig. 2 and Fig. 3 have the job of blowing the fish scale liquor inside the glass spheres produced by their fellow workers in Plate II. The beads are placed in a basket and agitated by the cradle that sits on the table between them (the same table is shown again beneath the interior scene, and it is clear to see that the cradle can be rocked by the use of a foot pedal. This agitation ensures that the entire interior of the glass bead is covered with the pearlescent liquid. Hanging at the windows behind Fig. 3 are sieves filled with beads that are drying out in the air that flows into the room.

Next, the beads are passed to ladies Fig. 5 and Fig. 6 who have the job of filling the interiors of the beads with soft wax and finishing the beads. Fig. 5 is dipping the bead into wax held in the bowl in front of her, but it could also be blown in using a tube and the mouth. Fig. 6 then inserts a piece of rolled card that pierces a hole in the wax and forms the central core of the bead. The detailed instructions for creating these card cores are given beneath the main illustration. Fig.6 then uses a knife to trim the card as it protrudes from the bead as can be seen below.
In the above photograph it is possible to see the shape of the neck of the tube as it is still present either side of the beads. (Source: The Bead Database)

A guide entitled A History of British Fishes, by William Yarrell, published in 1836, gives some more detail about the extraction of the pearlescent lustre from the scales of the fish.
“On the inner surface of the scales of Roach, Dace, Bleak, Whitebait, and other fishes, is found a silvery pigment, which gives the lustre these scales possess. Advantage has been taken of the colouring matter thus afforded to imitate artificially the Oriental pearl. When this practice was most in fashion, the manufactured ornaments bore the name of patent pearl, and the use was universal in the bead-trade for necklaces, eardrops, &c. At present, it seems confined to ornaments attached to combs, or small beads arranged with flowers for head-dresses. So great was the demand formerly at particular times, that the price of a quart measure of fishscales has varied from one guinea to five. The Thames fishermen gave themselves no trouble beyond taking off the side scales, throwing the fish into the river again ; and it was the custom for hawkers regularly before selling any white-fish, as they were called, to supply the beadmakers with the scales.
The method of obtaining and using the colouring matter was, first carrying off the slime and dirt from the scales by a run of water ; then soaking them for a time, the pigment was found at the bottom of the vessel. When thus produced, small glass tubes were dipped in, and the pigment injected into thin blown hollow glass beads of various forms and sizes. These were then spread on sieves, and dried in a current of air. If greater weight and firmness were required, a further injection of wax was necessary. Of this pigment, that obtained from the scales of Roach and Dace was the least valuable ; that from the Bleak was in much greater request ; but the Whitebait afforded the most delicate and beautiful silver, and obtained the highest price, partly from the prohibitory regulations affecting the capture of this little fish, the difficulty of transmission, and rapid decomposition.
This art of forming artificial pearls is said to have been first practised by the French. Dr. Lister, in his Journey to Paris, says, that when he was in that city, a manufacturer used in one winter thirty hampers of Bleak. Our term Bleak, or Blick, according to Merrett, which has reference to the whiteness of the fish, is derived from a Northern word, which signifies to bleach or whiten.”

The mass-production of false pearls using the methods above described, happened within the 19th century, and other countries and glass-making centres also produced their variations on Roman or Parisian pearls. German and Bohemian glass bead makers used their own version of the opaque white girasole glass to produce hollow round beads which they would then either coat on the outside with a suitable finish, or blow silver into line the inside of the glass. The production of the interior lined glass pearls continued until the Second World War. The baton for glass pearl production passed at the end of the 19th century to the Spanish island of Mallorca (or Majorca), when the German born, Eduard Heusch (1865 to 1937), founded the company, Societé des perles de Indes E. Heusch & Co. In 1890 he had obtained the first patent validated for pearl production, and he had a vision of creating a man-made glass pearl that was impossible to differentiate from the a natural pearl. In 1902 he set up a factory on the island of Mallorca, famous for its tradition of glass-blowing. From 1906 French glass makers brought French-made machines to the island to mechanize aspects of the process, and a group of glass pearl factories was established under the name SA Fabrica. Other factories and producers moved to the island as the conflicts of World War I forced makers from Paris to Barcelona. In the early 1920s a system of manufacture was perfected that used an opal kernal – a perfectly circular core of opalescent glass crystal. By 1943, the company that Heusch had founded was known as Majorica, and was the world’s leading producer of pearls, manufacturing more than 2.5 million pearls. Trade continued during World War II, which meant that at that time Spain was virtually the only source of glass pearls in the world. During the war the company exported more than a million pearl necklaces to America. In 1952 came another breakthrough in the company’s quest to create a ‘true’ imitation pearl, when after testing many shell and marine products, a formula was produced that could be layered many times over the glass bead, replicating the accumulation of nacre on a natural pearl, and producing the visual and tactile appearance of a true pearl. The formula and details of the technique used remain a trade secret.

This image from the Majorica factory, dating from 1975, shows a something of the production method where individually pin mounted beads are dipped into trays of the secret liquid pearlescent coating. A short video history of the company also gives some insight into the manufacturing process. (Source: Majorica). 

Majorica continues to create high quality beads for the luxury costume jewellery market with over 450 designs. Other market sectors are today served by mainly Czech and Chinese manufacturers of dip coated glass beads, often producing colours not found in nature but created with an eye for fashion, these beads retain the pearl lustre finish that many of us appreciate and wish to use in our jewellery designs to signify a sense of history and the beauty of nature, without the price tag.

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Tuesday, 28 June 2011

People: Miriam Haskell (1899 to 1981)

Miriam Haskell, seen below, was a celebrated American jewellery designer and business woman. She was noted for her original but affordable hand-made costume jewellery, which successfully reflected, and was sensitive to, both the economic times and historic events in America, be it the Great Depression of the 1930s or the war years of the late 1940s. Coming to the fore in America at a time when Coco Chanel had just launched her vrais bijoux en toc, or real fake jewelry, collection in Europe, Miriam was able to ride on an American obesssion with French fashion and model her early jewellery on European costume jewellery, competing directly with Chanel and Italian designer Elsa Schiaparelli.

Portrait of Miriam Haskell from the late 1930s. (Source – Malcolm H. Dubin nephew to Miriam Haskell)

One of four children, she was born in the small town of Tell City, Indiana, to her Russian Jewish immigrant parents. They owned one of the town’s dry goods stores carrying fabric and cloth, somewhat akin to an English haberdashery store. Miriam progressed through High School in nearby New Albany before studying at Chicago University for three years, but without graduating. In 1924 Miriam set off for New York City with a fabled $500 in her purse, more than likely loaned to her by her shop keeper father. On the 30th July 1926 a business permit was issued in Miriam’s name, allowing her to open a gift shop style boutique –Le Bijou de L’Heure – in The McAlpin Hotel on 103 Sixteenth Street.

Miriam Haskells first store window – Le Bijou de L’Heure (or Jewels of the Moment)

That same year, Miriam was joined by Frank Hess, a window dresser from Macy’s, who became her jewellery designer. With Miriam providing the business acumen a second shop was opened within a year at West Fifty Seventh Street. Continuing success saw the company relocate to 392 Fifth Avenue in the 1930s, going on to open outlets at Saks Fifth Avenue and in Burdine’s department stores, as well as a boutique shop in central London. In this short time frame Miriam had established herself as the owner of a costume jewelry company, with a clientele of society women including Gloria Vanderbilt, movie stars such as Joan Crawford, and Lucille Ball, and royalty in the form of Wallis Simpson, the Duchess of Windsor. In fact, it is said that Joan Crawford was such an admirer of Miriam Haskell designs that she collected nearly every piece that was produced from the 1940s to the 1950s (all to be auctioned off by New York’s Plaza Art Galleries upon her death in 1977). Publicity shots of these celebrities and others wearing her jewellery, along with design credits for films and theatre productions, and interviews all confirm her status within these illustrious circles. As a friend of Coco Chanel’s she also created pieces for Chanel’s couture collections.

During the Great Depression, which in America hit in 1929 and lasted a decade, Miriam Haskell’s costume jewellery provided affordable pieces which matched the glamour of the time, but used cheaper art glass, strass (paste) or rhinestones, and gold plate parures to achieve the look. When the economy merited it Miriam used more expensive natural gemstones alongside handmade beads from Czechoslovakia, France, Germany, Italy, and Russia, whilst incorporating unusual metal findings and stamps in the designs. Whilst many of her signature pieces were known for their use of faux baroque pearls, Russian gold filigree metal work, and the inclusion of nature in the form of berries, leaves and intricately detailed flowers. She would often travel with Frank Hess to Europe on buying trips to Paris, Gablonz, Venice, and Wattens in Austria, which was the location of the Swarovski crystal factory. With European bead supplies curtailed during the Second World War, she in turn contributed to the war effort, asking Frank Hess to create patriotic new metal free jewellery designs, using natural materials and plastics, with the required beads and crystals purchased closer to home. After the war, Haskell renewed her use of high end materials, including pearls from Japan, and her designs became ever more colourful and vibrant. They also became more elaborate including larger focal pieces, and necklaces with multiple bead strands.

Running clockwise from left to right Egyptian Earrings c1925, a Flower Brooch in Mother of Pearl c1935, a Pearl Lily Brooch c1935, and a Naturalistic Gold and Pearl Brooch c1930
Running from left to right a Turquoise Bead Brooch c1940s, a Gilt Hinged Cuff Bracelet c1940, a Red & Brown Wood Bead Necklace c1945, and an elaborate Yellow Necklace c1945

Running clockwise from left to right a Flower Necklace and Earrings c1950, a Six Strand Crystal Necklace c1940s, a Purple Choker Necklace c1950, and a Turquoise Bead Lariat c1950
As with all success stories there has to be some degree of controversy. On this occasion it lies in whether Miriam was an artistic force within the company or ‘merely’ the business brains, and whether the credit for the jewellery should really lie solely with Frank Hess. Her nephew, Malcolm Dubin, who looked after her in later life, is often quoted to confirm the strong hand that she had in the overall designs as well as individual pieces. Regardless, what is undeniable is that, like fashion designer Hattie Carnegie before her, Miriam was a strong independent women who built a ground breaking company from scratch that still bears her name today. All the more remarkable because she was operating in an industry run by men, be it the company owners, the designers, the craftsmen, or the salesmen. It is also inconceivable that the Miriam and Frank would not have collaborated on the jewellery designs if only in terms of outline and direction, as this would have been key to growing the business. And as can be seen in the advertisement below and in the example jewellery pieces above, the results really do speak for themselves – pointing to the perfect partnership of artistic taste and business acumen!

This advertisement from 1958 is for a Miriam Haskell piece entitled Cascade – a shimmering fringe of baguettes in a lustrous golden setting

Being a strong independent woman also saw her take a number of prominent and influential lovers including Florenz Ziegfeld, who decorated the chorus line dancers of his Ziegfeld Follies with her designs, Bernard Gimbel of the Gimbels department store chain which included Saks Fifth Avenue, and John D. Hertz, Jr., only son of the founder of the Yellow Cab Company and the Hertz car-rental group.

In 1950, Miriam was forced to sell the company to her brother Joseph Haskell, due to poor health. It is said that the horrors of the Second World War began to affect her health and emotional stability, and the opportunity was taken to rest control of the company from her. Living in an apartment on Central Park South with her widowed mother through the next two decades, her erratic behaviour intensified and she displayed symptoms of depression and obsessive compulsive disorder. In 1977, she moved to Cincinnati, under the care of her nephew Malcolm Dubin, where she later died at the age of 82, on the 14th July, 1981.

In 1954 Joseph Haskell sold the company to Morris Kinsler. Frank Hess continued to design for Haskell until 1960 when he went into semi-retirement. Hess was succeeded by a number of high quality head designers, namely Robert Clark (from 1958 to 1968), Peter Raines (from 1968 to 1970), Larry Vrba (from 1968 to 1978), Roberta Stone (in 1979), and Camille Petronzio (from 1978 to date). The company was sold again in 1983 to Sanford Moss, who had been an employee of the company since 1958. In turn, Moss sold the company in 1990 to Frank Fialkoff with whom it still resides today. Renamed Haskell Jewels Ltd, it produces the luxury Haskell Line, with every piece still handmade in NYC often utilising the jewellery house’s vast supply of vintage beads and filigrees, as well as M. Haskell which is termed trend based jewellery aiming to be on the cutting edge of fashion. They also produce several private label jewellery lines under licence for Betsey Johnson, J Lo by Jennifer Lopez, O Oscar by Oscar de la Renta, and Christopher Radko’s jewellery. In 2008 they partnered with Kenneth Cole jewellery.

Today Miriam Haskell jewellery, particularly that from the golden period of the 1940s and 50s, is much sought after by collectors of vintage costume jewellery and can command high prices, though it is still possible to find reasonably priced pieces on auction sites, as well as left over stock of beading materials and findings which didn’t find their way into her end pieces. It is worth noting that her jewellery was very seldom signed before she lost control of her company in 1950, so confirming a piece as Miriam Haskell requires a degree of research. (A good reference book for this task is Miriam Haskell Jewelry co-wriiten by Cathy Gordon and Shelia Pamfiloff alongside the well catalogued advertisements produced to promote each new range). It was her brother, Joseph Haskell, who upon taking over the company introduced a Miriam Haskell signature, perhaps to strengthen the association between the jewellery, his sister, and their customers now that she was no longer at the helm of the company. That said, for very short period in the late 1940s, a New England jewellery shop did enforce a signature on her jewellery in the form of a horseshoe shaped plaque embossed with Miriam Haskell. These pieces probably constituted less than one percent of early jewellery production and as such a piece with this signature would now be a rare find.

This interest in Miriam Haskell jewellery also extends to collecting contemporary advertising watercolours produced by Larry Austin to promote her jewellery. These typically featured sophisticated looking models wearing the fashions of the day whilst sporting larger than life examples of Miriam Haskell bracelets, necklaces, and pins as seen below.

Two watercolours by Larry Austin used for advertising purposes in the early 1940s

Related Websites:

Miriam Haskell . . . the official company website for Miriam Haskell
Miriam Haskell Jewelry . . . Guide to Miriam Haskell jewellery by Cathy Gordon and Shelia Pamfiloff
Costume Jewelry: The Jewels of Miriam Haskell . . . a coffee table history by Deanna Farneti Cera

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Saturday, 28 May 2011

History: Steampunk

Steampunk as a concept came to prominence in America in the mid to late 1980s as a sub genre of science fiction writing, focusing on an alternate reality where the world is still moving forward on the basis of steam power. It is typically, though not exclusively, centred on Victorian era Britain, enveloping all aspects of life including technology, fashion, culture, art and architecture, but with an underlying science fiction, fantasy, or supernatural twist. This setting, both in terms of location and time, presents a crossroads in history when the modern world of industry, science and technology was born and the world could travel in any number of directions.

It is sometimes thought of as having a similar fan base to Cyberpunk but this is not the case, and it may well owe its existence to a reaction against the themes of breakdown and radical social change through technology that this overly dystopian genre embodies. Although Steampunk does have an element of social deconstruction and rebellion, it has a far more positive overall outlook on the world in general, as well as an aesthetic focused on a specific historical time period and a strong do it yourself ethic. As a philosophy it embodies the Victorian’s optimism for the future, founded on the Industrial Revolution and Empire, alongside the somewhat purer ideals of creativity and self reliance. In turn it creates a striking contrast between the rampant commercialisation, mass production and waste in our world and a nostalgia and appreciation for the hand crafted artistry, quality and beauty of the vintage and antique of yesteryear.

In taking technology as an example, the Steampunk vision would include such fictional machines as those envisaged in the writings of H. G. Wells and Jules Verne, alongside real technologies such as the computer, but developed as the Victorians may have envisioned them. Other examples of Steampunk focus on the path not taken, taking forward technologies that have fallen by the wayside or not reached their full potential in the 21st century, such as dirigibles, analog computers, and other mechanical forms. To look at this concept in reverse it would be like giving a Victorian era inventor, such as Charles Babbage, Alexander Graham Bell, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Thomas Edison, or George Stephenson the briefest look at the technology of the future and then sending them back to their respective workshops and offices to design and build something from what they had glimpsed.

Pausing to look at the work of Jules Verne and H. G. Wells it is worth noting that these authors described theories and technologies that were far in advance of their time:

The portraits above show Jules Verne (1828 to 1905) and H.G. Wells (1866 to 1946).

  • French author, Jules Verne, wrote about space, air and underwater craft decades before these modes of transport had taken a practical mechanical form. This startling point is underlined by the publication dates for each of his most notable works – Voyage au centre de la terre 1864 (Journey to the Center of the Earth); De la terre à la lune 1865 (From the Earth to the Moon); Vingt mille lieues sous les mers 1869 (Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea). Even more remarkably, in 1863, Jules Verne had written a novel called Paris au XXe Siecle (Paris in the 20th Century) about a man who lives in a world of glass skyscrapers, high speed trains, gas powered cars, calculators, and a worldwide communications network, yet cannot find happiness and comes to a tragic end. Verne’s publishers thought the novel’s pessimism would damage his growing popularity, and strongly suggested he put off publishing it. Verne put the manuscript in a safe, where it was discovered by his great-grandson in 1989. It was finally published in 1994.

  • The first non-fiction bestseller by English writer H. G. Wells was Anticipations of the Reaction of Mechanical and Scientific Progress Upon Human Life and Thought 1901. Originally serialised in a magazine it is considered by many to be his most futuristic work, as he anticipates what the world will be like in the year 2000. Wells tells of trains and cars resulting in the dispersion of population from cities to suburbs, the decline of morality as men and women seek greater sexual freedom; the defeat of German militarism, and the existence of a European Union. And in an interesting contrast to Jules Verne, he does not expect to see successful flight before 1950, and declares that my imagination refuses to see any sort of submarine doing anything but suffocate its crew and founder at sea! His early novels, called scientific romances, invented a number of themes now classic in science fiction in such works as The Time MachineThe Island of Doctor MoreauThe Invisible ManThe War of the WorldsWhen the Sleeper Wakes, and The First Men in the Moon. In 1933 Wells went on to predict in The Shape of Things to Come that the war he feared most would begin in January 1940. As we know the Second World War broke out in September 1939 just four months earlier than he predicted.


The term Steampunk is said to have originated from science fiction writer Kevin Wayne Jeter (born 1950), who was was looking for a general descriptive term to describe works by Tim Powers (born 1952) – The Anubis Gates; James Blaylock (born 1950) – Homunculus; and his own book Morlock Night.

The image above shows the front covers for books The Anubis Gates (1983), Homunculus (1986) and Morlock Night (1979).

Each of these novels was set in the 19th century and followed the general conventions of the speculative fiction of the likes of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne. It was this commonality that Jeter was looking to capture in a single word or phrase. In a letter printed in the April 1987 issue of science fiction magazine Locus, Jeter wrote:
“Enclosed is a copy of my 1979 novel Morlock Night … it’s a prime piece of evidence in the great debate as to who in the Powers / Blaylock / Jeter fantasy triumvirate was writing in the gonzo-historical manner first. Personally, I think Victorian fantasies are going to be the next big thing, as long as we can come up with a fitting collective term for Powers, Blaylock and myself. Something based on the appropriate technology of the era; like steampunks, perhaps … “
The term was then later attributed to Jeter by Michael Berry writing for the San Francisco Chronicle in 1987:
“Jeter, along with fellow novelists Tim Powers and James Blaylock, seems to be carving out a new sub-genre of science fiction with his new book. Whereas such authors as William Gibson, Michael Swanwick and Walter Jon Williams have explored the futuristic commingling of human being and computer in their Cyberpunk novels and stories, Jeter and his compatriots, whom he half-jokingly has dubbed Steampunks, are having a grand time creating wacko historical fantasies.”

Having coined the term it is typically thought that Jeter’s novel Morlock Night established the genre, but looking back to the 1960s and 70s, earlier proto influences can be identified suggesting an evolution rather then a fixed point in time. Keith Laumer’s Worlds of the Imperium 1962; Ronald W. Clark’s Queen Victoria’s Bomb 1967; and Michael Moorcock’s Warlord of the Air 1971 all have Steampunk qualities. In turn, Harry Harrison’s A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah! 1972 describes an alternative British Empire set in 1973, with atomic locomotives, coal-powered flying boats, and ornate submarines, all set off by Victorian dialogue. In 1992, William Gibson and Bruce Sterling brought the genre real attention and popularity with The Difference Engine. This centred on an alternative Industrial Revolution where the historical figure Charles Babbage, mathematician and engineer, is able to realise his plans for a programmable, mechanical, analog computer. Babbage’s Difference Engine brings the Information Age into the Steam Age, along with the resulting struggle between the working classes who fear the new technology and the Upper Classes who embrace it.

Moving away from science fiction literature and into mainstream media the world of film and television has also played its part. An obvious example being Walt Disney’s Academy Award winning 1954 motion picture adaptation of Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and in particular the depiction of Captain Nemo by James Mason, and the visualisation and design of his "submerging boat", the Nautilus. Another example would be the figure of the eccentric inventor Caratacus Potts, played by that master of accents Dick Van Dyke, from the 1968 musical film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, along with his many promising inventions including, of course, that car. From television the key example is the American series The Wild Wild West, running from 1965 to 1969. It starred Robert Conrad and Ross Martin as two secret service agents, James T West and Artemus Gordon respectively. This half science fiction half western production, followed the two agents as they travelled aboard a private train across the West fighting evil as they went, with Artemus designing the gadgets.

The images above show cinema posters for Walt Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Warfield Productions Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, plus promotional material for The Wild West television show.

In turn, in the last few years the influence of Steampunk can be seen in computer games such as the Bioshock series, graphic novels (building on the success of writer Alan Moore and artist Kevin O’Neil’s The League of Extraordinary Gentleman), the Japanese anime film Steamboy from 2004, and the latest Sherlock Holmes film with Robert Downey Jnr in the lead role. Steampunk also brings vaudeville, musical theatre and the circus to music, with the likes of Battle Circus and Abney Park. In May 2008, multimedia artist and sculptor Paul St George exhibited an outdoor interactive video installation linking London and New York City, all wrapped up in a Victorian era-styled telectroscope. In fact, in terms of mainstream interest Google Trends took note of the Steampunk movement in 2006 and has registered a steady gain in its popularity ever since.

The image above shows the New York end of Paul St George’s Telectroscope installation.

With all the contraptions and gadgets detailed in novels and films, it was only natural that some people would want to start building these gadgets and bring Steampunk to life. Everything from computers, furniture, musical instruments, telephones, watches, and vehicles have been Steampunked. It is at this point that Steampunk becomes a design aesthetic built around creativity and imagination. There is no better place to view some of these makes than at the Steampunk Workshop, but by way of a small example here is a borrowed image from the site, depicting a LCD computer monitor. Home decor allowing, which screen would you rather be sat in front of you right now?

The image above shows two views of a fully functional Steampunked computer monitor.

Steampunk Jewellery & Components

This design aesthetic, and do it yourself ethic, most easily carries over into personal style with both clothing and props being made in a Steampunk style, both by the individual and commercially, for example at the Steampunk Emporium. Clothes are largely Victorian, alongside American Western, but with the addition of technology hinting at a more adventurous life than a typical Victorian may have actually enjoyed! And with this clothing comes a need for jewellery and the components necessary to make Steampunked jewellery. By way of an introduction, here are four distinct Steampunk jewellery items.

The images above show a Fondobjects Spanish Pill Box ring; an Antige Steampunk Jewelry Vintage Watch Topaz earrings; a Ghostlove New Era brooch; and lastly a Catherinette Rings Black Rose Cameo necklace.

To see further examples that you can make yourself, you could do no worse than purchase a copy of Jean Campbell’s Steampunk Style Jewelry, as it captures the essence of Steampunk across 30 different projects and is full of photographs, both to supplement the step by step instructions and to display the finished article. Another book released more recently is Steampunk Emporium by English jewellery artist Jema Hewitt which comes in hardback and Kindle versions! Jema designs and creates unique objects d’art incorporating vintage and found objects with polymer clay, filigree, and beads. Both books go a long way towards answering the question – just what is Steampunk jewellery?

Steampunk jewellery components are based on a basic colour palette of brass, bronze, copper and iron along with dark silvers such as gunmetal, brushed aluminium and titanium. High sheen gold and silver are rarely used as they do not reflect the antique feel and industrial solidity that Steampunk embodies. That said there are several do it yourself methods for darken these metals, take a look here

This metal foundation is often then softened by blending in the romantic femininity of the Victorian age, so alongside the hardness of the metal you will often find coloured beads integrated into the designs. With amber, cranberry, ivory, olive and pastels reflecting the traditional colours used during the Victorian period. Alongside the beads antiqued paper, filigree, glass, lace, leather, and pearls, in varied tones and shades, can be used.

Other elements that are core to this form of jewellery are motifs, usually though not exclusively, reflecting age, industry and time. The most popular steampunk motif is the gear which is obviously symbolic of industry. Watches of all types, including wrist and pocket watches, are used to reflect time and the idea of clockwork. Old-fashioned antique skeleton keys are also popular, as are other found objects such as belt buckles, chain, charms and milagros, hinges, metal beads, military medals, monocles, pill box cases, stampings, thread cutters, and old metal buttons. Again industrial hardness is often softened by the inclusion of Victorian style cameos, filigree work, lockets, as well as embellishments depicting blossoms, flowers, petals and leaves, along with other naturalistic components such as animals, birds and insects. There are also some less obvious motifs that may not be as readily connected with either industry or the Victorian era. For instance, the fashion for cephalopods, namely cuttlefish, octopuses and squids, which is based on their links with pulp fiction and also the works of H. P. Lovecraft and Jules Verne.

The montage above shows a range of largely vintage Big Bead Little Bead beads, embellishments, findings, and other components that might one day find themselves alongside a found object in a piece of Steampunk jewellery.

In addition to the actual jewellery make, many resulting pieces also come packaged with a story, firmly placing the object in the wider Steampunk world. This may be in the form of a simple leaflet, or something more elaborate such as a wooden presentation box with an engraved brass plate, concept drawings, instructions for use, and a 'history' for the object.

Resources & Further Reading

This article was only ever intended as an outsiders view - looking through a small window into the world of Steampunk! However, if it has stirred your curiosity then have a look below for some hard copy and on-line resources written and undated by genuine Steampunkers. These will undoubtedly lead you to other areas within this fascinating genre!


The Steampunk Bible by Jeff VanderMeer details the principles and values of the Steampunk subculture, whilst tracing its roots through the works of Jules Verne and H. G. Wells, on to its most recent expression in films and other media. In its own words it is “the definitive illustrated guide to the world of imaginary airships, corsets and goggles, mad scientists, and strange literature!
Jean Campbell’s book Steampunk Style Jewelry describes exactly what Steampunk style is all about from a number of different individual perspectives. It provides step by step instructions for 30 individual jewellery projects provided by well known figures from the world of Steampunk. In addition, sidebars throughout the book provide information about Steampunk related books, films, fashion, animations, bands, and sculpture. The book is full of beautifully shot imagery to highlight the ornate intricacy of the designs.

The images above show the covers of the Steampunk Bible by Jeff VanderMeer and Steampunk Style Jewelry by Jean Campbell.

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