Oh! Tannenbaum: Verrecchi vintage Christmas tree pins a holiday delight

This exclusive excerpt is from Warman’s Jewelry, 4th Edition, by Kathy Flood (Krause Publications, 2010). Get your copy at a special price at Shop.Collect.com. — Editor

Imagine an itinerant gypsy in 1911 roaming through Filigano, a small mountain town in south-central Italy, near Monte Cassino, the famous Benedictine monastery. In the town square, she runs into a young couple, Giuseppe and Philomena Verrecchia, and asks if she can read their fortunes. They agree, on a lark. Holding their palms, she looks up and asks if they have twins. Yes, they respond, looking surprised: baby boys named Alfeo and Gino. The gypsy smiles and says the boys will go on to become two of the greatest costume jewelry designers ever – in America.

The gypsy plot line is fantasy, but not the rest. The first Verrecchias arrived in Providence, R.I., in 1909. They returned to Italy intermittently (Giuseppe of Filigano served in the Italian army in World War I and was a prisoner of war for two years in Austria), but they finally settled here permanently. The pater familias became a master jeweler after coming back in 1924. (Philomena, née Coia, died of cancer at age 36 in 1923.) Alfredo Verrecchia, first son and the twins’ older brother, was an accomplished engraver, but as the oldest sibling, didn’t get to pursue that craft. The siblings, now including sister Gianina and brother Reno, traveled in pairs across the ocean, over a two-year time period. Young Alfeo and Gino returned together, at age 12. They lived at a convent in New York until the family could be reunited in Rhode Island. They could not speak English, but picked it up quickly.

The Christmas category proved green in every way for the Verrecchia family. For the first time ever, presented here, many of their Christmas designs appear together, including rarities and pins never put in the mold.

Gino became the renowned Gene Verri. He attended the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) and held the post of head designer at Corocraft and its various divisions in Providence, New York and London. During his tenure, from the late ’30s to late ’60s, Coro was the largest manufacturer of costume jewelry in the world.

Alfeo worked as a fine artist before becoming a jewelry designer. He graduated from RISD in 1938, and as a painter and lithographer won a fellowship to the Art Students League in New York, where he studied printmaking with master printer George Miller. Summers, he attended the prestigious Hawthorne School in Provincetown, Mass., completing studies for a series of lithographs using a Provincetown dunes motif within a surrealistic framework. It won him the Pennell Purchase Prize in 1942 for best American print by the Library of Congress. Alfeo was also employed as a muralist by the WPA in the 1930s, grateful for the $13 a week.

Alfeo became romantically involved with a model, Hilda Lewis, through a salon of artists and intellectuals hosted by a wealthy Providence physician named Michael O’Connor. Photographer Florence Brown belonged to the group, and Lewis was her favorite model. Alfeo and Hilda married in 1948.

Before that, though, in 1945, the twins founded a jewelry company. Gene Verri financed its start-up, an enterprise first called Craftsman, then Gem-Craft. Alfeo was in charge of the day-today operations while Gene was at Coro (until 1969). And when Alfredo and Reno returned from the war, they joined Alfeo in the business. Since tin alloys were at that time restricted to military use during the war, they made jewelry of sterling silver at Craftsman. After initial success in better sterling suites and novelty motifs featuring both crystals and semi-precious stone accents, the going got tough in the late 1940s during a worldwide economic downturn.

Business boomed again beginning in 1950, with a move required for more space. Gem-Craft’s “trio” sets of carded tack pins were an enormous success. Some customers remained from the old Craftsman days, but new wholesale customers also began banging on the doors. Between Gene’s know-how and manufacturing contacts, and Alfeo’s growing reputation as an innovator, Gem-Craft established itself as a small but preferred costume jewelry manufacturer.

In the 1950s and ‘60s, the majority of Providence jewelry manufacturers sold only to wholesalers or Manhattan “middlemen,” as well as other major retail centers here and abroad. The wholesalers merchandised, repackaged and resold these Providence goods. A few manufacturers, such as Coro, Trifari and Monocraft (later Monet) dared to go “direct” to retail stores. If a small manufacturer such as Gem-Craft tried such a path, they would have found themselves ostracized by the entire wholesale industry.  Some of the better wholesalers who bought from Gem-Craft included R. Mandle, Cadoro, Capri, Tancer + II, Rudolf Steiner, Alice Caviness, House of Schrager, Kramer, Coro, Tacoa, Mary Vicario, Carole, Adler, Haberman, Imperial, Herzberg and Royal of Pittsburgh. The Gem-Craft products were sold to Bloomingdale’s, Marshall Field, Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman-Marcus, Macy’s, Lord & Taylor, B. Altman, and better boutiques in New York and Europe.

Gem-Craft developed dozens of seasonal Christmas pins for the open line, as well as confined items for specific customers. One of the more successful partnerships developed between Tancer + II and Gem-Craft. Michael Tancer, former president of Coro, launched his own business, and a partner, Marge Borofsky, formerly of Coro’s Mylu division, was particularly talented in Christmas pin merchandising, suggesting and working with Alfeo on many designs for implementation.

Alfeo and Hilda had two sons. Paul Verrecchia worked summers for his father at Gem-Craft in every department – casting, polishing, plating, epoxy painting, learning the business from the ground up. He pursued an academic career in the social sciences after graduating magna cum laude from Boston College, where he remained after receiving a fellowship to study and teach. Two years later, accepted at the London School of Economics, he moved to England, but after two months, news arrived his father was terminally ill, with only a month to live. Paul returned home to be with his family and relieve his father by working at the factory.

Alfeo survived almost two more years, and over the next 20 months taught Paul jewelry design (specifically for Gem-Craft’s niche, better fashion jewelry), product development, how to cost the production items, and how to deal with Gem-Craft customers around the world. “Working with Alfeo was akin to attending a graduate seminar,” Paul says. “He and uncle Gene offered … priceless guidance and much wisdom.” Like a scene from “It’s A Wonderful Life,” Paul’s plans changed and he became a jewelry man in 1976.

Gem-Craft had continued to prosper through the 1970s. In 1975, eldest brother Alfred, head of production, was in failing health, so Alfeo and Gene beckoned Ron Verri to the family firm. Gene’s son Ron was able to help immediately. He’d been an outstanding student at Brown University and at Cornell in engineering. He entered the world of business, first at Texas Instruments, then on his own, developing an early version of an LED watch/necklace. At Gem-Craft, he researched new opportunities, added major organizational and engineering skills to creative capabilities: a great eye for color and sense of style. His work ethic, rare combination of right-brain and left-brain talents, and appreciation of the craftspeople at Gem-Craft were core reasons for the company’s success the past 30 years. When Alfeo died in 1978, Ron led the company to even more success, even in the face of all the challenges meeting Providence jewelry manufacturers. Today, Gem-Craft is one of the few thriving companies manufacturing entirely in the U.S., for brands such as Kenneth Jay Lane.

Paul Verrecchia, meanwhile, founded his own company, Lianna, named for his infant daughter. Then, in the 1980s, the timing proved right to sell stores directly. With the help of Joe Heiferman, a dynamic salesman and old friend of his father’s, Paul built a solid business developing better-quality, higher-price-point, private-label jewelry.

At the same time, Paul saw an article in The New York Times covering Christmas pins. Brooches like his father made, from the 1950s and ‘60s, once retailing for $1 and $2, were now selling for $100 each at a Manhattan boutique. Paul got Joe’s blessing to put together some of the old Christmas items and developed many new styles of his own every season. That business took on a life of its own. Collectors could suddenly find exciting new Christmas tree brooches, marked LIA, at boutiques such as The Accessory Lady and The Icing. They’re now highly sought after, and the holiday jewelry Paul continued making into the 21st century is some of the most festive and fashionable figural jewelry on the secondary market. ?

More from Antique Trader

More from Kathy Flood


Warman’s Jewelry Identification and Price Guide, 4th Edition

This long-awaited fourth edition of Warman’s Jewelry Identification & Price Guide features a fresh design and even easier-to-use organization of details about everything from baubles and bangles to beads, and more.

Get your copy at Shop.Collect.com at a special Antique Trader price

Pins, Pins and More Pins – a special digital download
Now you can download PINS, PINS AND MORE PINS. It’s in an easy-to-search pdf format that works on computers equipped with the free Acrobat Reader program. In this easy-to-search download you’ll enjoy 45 pages of breathtaking and popular collectible brooches and pins, showcased in more than 175 stunning photos featuring Christmas tree pins, Patriotic and Military pins and Sealife and Ocean Creatures.The issue is compatible with PCs, Macs and many other computers.

Christmas Tree Pin sites

Author Kathy Flood’s own ChristmasTreePins.com is a reputable source for fine costume jewerly Christmas tree pins and assorted nostalgia.

Read Kathy Flood’s Christmas tree pin article from the Fall 2003 edition of the Vintage Fashion & Costume Jewelry club publication.

Here’s a short video by Christmas Tree Pin artist Dorthea Springfield


Great books, CDs, price guides & more

Warman’s Antiques & Collectibles 2011 Price Guide

Interact with other antique collectors in Antique Trader’s online forum

Get up-to-date pricing for tens of thousands of antiques & collectibles on Collect.com – FREE for 1 year – when you join the Collecting Insider Club!

Sign up for your FREE AntiqueTrader.com email newsletters

For more columns and features for antique dealers, restorers and collectors, get your own subscription to Antique Trader magazine