Vintage Seekers explores the history behind a man who helped to raise the bar for costume jewellery design.
By Louisa Newton on Tuesday 18th September, 2012
Originally founded to produce combs and hair accessories, the name 'Trifari' became synonymous with costume jewellery of such exacting standards that one of their pearl chokers was worn by Mamie Eisenhower during the presidential inauguration in 1952. Ingenious use of hand placed lead crystal stones, reliable plating and bold designs mean that their pieces have survived the decades and remain highly sought-after by collectors.
Gustavo Trifari, an Italian immigrant who arrived at Ellis Island from Naples in 1904 at the age of 20, founded Trifari and Trifari with his father and uncle in 1912. His passion for jewellery making had begun at a young age working with his Grandfather in his goldsmiths in Italy, and continued to grow during his time with Weinberg and Sudzen after his arrival in New York. Inspired to replicate the intricate pieces he had helped create in his family’s workshops in more affordable, fast produced materials, he began to focus his energy on costume jewellery.
Much of Trifari’s prevailing popularity can be attributed to the various designers he partnered with; including Leo Kraussman in 1918, Carl Fishel in 1925, and eventually Alfred Philippe in 1930. Philippe had previously worked with Van Cleef and Arpels, so was also able to bring an added element of fine craftsmanship.
Particularly popular were the Trifari Crown pins. Many different designs appeared between the late 1930s and 1950s, including in 1953 a series of Coronation Gems to commemorate Elizabeth II’s accession to the throne. Trifari crown pins are attributed to the design talents of Philippe, and are made up of intricate filigree work adorned with brightly coloured gems and rhinestones. They often feature ‘cabochons’- stones that are shaped and polished into a round or oval shape with a flat back- that Trifari used extensively. Crown pins are also a particularly strong example of the technical expertise that Philippe brought to the company, such as the ‘Mystery Setting’- a technique enabling stones to be set with no visible attachment.
Another range that remains in demand is the Jelly Belly pin that first made an appearance in the 1940s, which depict animals and birds- with the poodle designs possibly being the most valuable today. Their main characteristic is a large Lucite ‘pearl’ that usually makes up their belly. And from the 1950s are the miniature fruit and vegetable pins, usually matte gold or silver with faux pearl or gem details.
During the war years the unprecious metals that Trifari favoured were heavily rationed, and so slightly paradoxically their costume jewellery was made using sterling silver. Throwing themselves into the war effort, they employed their equipment and expertise to manufacture cartridge shells and parts for torpedoes and Pratt-Whitney aeroplane engines for the army.
Fearing their audience would not approve of a return to their more cost-effective base metal after the war, they launched it with the enigmatic name of ‘Trifarium’- a revolutionary material with the precise appearance of silver, minus the price-tag.
A useful aspect of Trifari jewellery for enthusiasts is the fact that after 1937, all pieces are marked. Trifari was decided on as a trademark; to help market their company and also protect their designs from being copied. A relatively rare practice for costume jewellery, this must have helped add to the distinctive and collectible nature of the line. Pieces made before this generally bear the simple mark kTf, referring to the three partners at that time.
Trifari began to experience a decline in the 1970s, a period where many costume jewelry companies closed due to a change in tastes and fashions. Liz Clairbourne bought the brand, only to discontinue it in 2000. It was generally felt that the more contemporary designs did not live up to the company’s aesthetic. Trifari’s unique skill for manipulating metals and faux gems into exquisite jewellery using his family’s trade techniques seems limited to those vintage pieces.