The Eyes Have It: Faces remain a favorite style of figural costume jewelry

Kathy Flood Photo by Suzy GormanAsk the average person on the street why people love jewelry and answers might range from wise investment to frivolous fashion indulgence.

But there’s a whole psychology surrounding jewelry too, and why we love what we love and when. For instance, look at three different time periods when large-scale jewelry was the rage: the 1940s, the 1980s, and for the past five years of the 21st Century. Was there a common link in those trends? Sort of.

Eisenberg Original glamor-girl clip, purchased for $75, sold for $1,500. Courtesy the Face Place; photo Tom Holzhauer
Eisenberg Original glamor-girl clip, purchased for $75, sold for $1,500.
Courtesy the Face Place; photo Tom Holzhauer

Studies continue to uncover what effect scarcity and privation have on human beings. They take a huge toll. So when life suddenly revolves around rationing and sacrifice, it makes psychological sense that anything big and abundant is going to prove desirable. Maybe a fantastic new dress was out of the question during the worst war years, but an enormous brooch, big as a lapel, was affordable and could make stale fashions seem fresh.

Beyond size, whimsy was another key ingredient for obvious reasons: Light-hearted and novel distractions were cheering, whether in movies or on fashion modes.

In the 1980s, on the other hand, jewelry’s large scale was the child of ostentation often married to wealth. Bigness during the Reagan years made a statement about who we hoped we were: important.

Today those two decades intersect. As the divide widens in America between the haves and have-nots, oversized pieces feed the needs of different socio-economic groups hankering for what adornment bestows. A well-heeled woman might opt for a large fancy-color diamond as an enviable and envy-arousing investment, or massive Iradj Moini jewel-encrusted collar that boldly asks: What Recession?

On the other side of greener pastures, someone unemployed and scared out of her wits about the future still needs the occasional balm of lovely novelty, so a big bib dripping in stones on sale for $10 at Burlington Coat Factory can make a girl at least feel for a week like a million bucks.

Alien Geisha, an example of crazy, $250. Courtesy the Face Place; photo Tom Holzhauer
Alien Geisha, an example of crazy, $250.

Photo courtesy the Face Place; photo Tom Holzhauer

This is all a round-about way of traveling to the demise of one jewelry trend, which I don’t understand at all. In the Facebook era, why would the long-time figural favorite – face jewelry – virtually be made no more? It doesn’t make sense, unless jewelry houses put the kibosh on kissers because women weren’t buying them, but since just about every jewelry collection includes multiple countenances, what gives? Psychologically speaking, I have no answers for that one.

Happily, the current unfortunate retail trend doesn’t prevent us from relishing the many vintage and later visages on the secondary market. It’s also worth mentioning that faces remain a favored realm among artists and artisans, if not jewelry companies.

The variety of human expressions cast as jewelry is vast. So are values, styles and quality. Technically, a face pin might be a museum-quality cameo carving worth thousands of dollars, a stunning, delicately painted portrait pin, Art Nouveau ladies cast in sterling silver or major plastic physiognomy by Elzac’s Elliot Handler, a design genius who died on July 21, 2011 at age 95.

My own facial favorites in costume jewelry are the larger-scale sculptural heads by the shining lights of the War Era: Eisenberg, Mazer, Trifari, Boucher, Coro, Reinad/Chanel Novelty, Hattie Carnegie and the unnamed creators behind more magnificent miens.

It’s a fortunate niche to love, since some are worth a fortune. If a big head catches your eye and looks well made and older (watch for gilded sterling, gilt base metal, jeweled eyes, dimension, weight, worn enamels and the often helpful age clue of a vintage fur clip: sharp double-tine prongs), don’t pass it up unless the cost gives you pause. Even then … you might hesitate before plunking down $75 if big bills loom, but one I found in an antiques mall for that price sold for $1,500 after I enjoyed it for a few years.

Elzac victim of fashion
Elaborate Elzac ‘Victim of Fashion,’ $150-250. Courtesy the Face Place; photo Tom Holzhauer

Kenneth Jay Lane was probably the last major designer to create faces seriously and plentifully through the 1980s, including historically popular motifs such as Blackamoors, Harlequins and clowns. While face pins often are more fun to collect than always easy to resell for robust prices, KJL pieces hold their own.

The so-called Victims of Fashion, (shown at right) dizzily dressed dames of the ’40s out of the house of Elzac, had a return heyday in the 1990s and still have appeal, albeit without quite the same stratospheric sale prices across the board. But they may experience another comeback renaissance in light of Elzac co-founder Elliot Handler’s death. Many head pins are mistakenly attributed to Elzac. The easiest ones to recognize are the huge Victims of Fashion ceramic heads decorated with Lucite, leather, yarn, fur, beads and more.

Snag anything that’s unusual or remarkable. A face brooch that looks like an Alien Geisha is one example. The flip side is a face that’s straight-out beautiful. Other faces to watch for:

  • Coro’s Duette faces, pairs of couple clips such as the Apache dancers, American Indians, etc.
  • Eisenberg’s almost eerie-looking lineup of femmes fatales, often with jeweled or hollow eyes, signed Eisenberg Original.
  • DeRosa’s and Mazer’s mask-like countenances.
  • Boucher’s mechanical masterpieces.
  • Trifari couples such as the French pair, or characters from Sinbad to Egyptian pharaohs.
  • Genies and Blackamoor beauties by DuJay, Butler-Wilson, Har, Ciner, Carnegie and others
  • Reja’s Africana group plus royals and clowns.

This is just the tip of the nose. Other great faces have been made by Sandor, Joseff, Rice-Weiner (especially those affiliated with Alexander Korda films), Silson, Ora and countless others.

Finally, Disney should be mentioned, since the house of mouse has a constellation of stars with the most famous faces of all, and they’re still producing them. Among the latest are limited-edition jumbo-size portraits of heroines and villainesses alike, Cruella to Sally. They’re about as far from fine, creamy cameos and sculptural karat gold as you can get, but sometimes, let’s face it, collecting’s all about fun.

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Warman's Jewelry Field Guide - 2nd Edition
Warman’s Jewelry Field Guide – 2nd Edition

Kathy Flood
is a journalist who writes about jewelry for Antique Trader. She’s the author of three Warman’s jewelry titles, including a niche figurals book brimming with a bounty of beautiful faces. Some of her favorite mugs are available at the Face Place on Ruby Plaza. Kathy’s photo is courtesy Suzy Gorman.


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