If you’re an immigrant to the United States at the turn of the 20th century and you want a name change that conveys success, what do you choose? For Henrietta Kanengeiser, it had to be Carnegie.
That was just the beginning for this formidable young woman now known as Hattie Carnegie. Through talent and hard work, she grew one small shop into a fashion design powerhouse that included jewelry to accompany her clothing. Today her work is revered among vintage jewelry and fashion enthusiasts alike.
A Bit More History
A native of Vienna, Austria, Henrietta Kanengeiser migrated to the United States in 1901. She settled with her family in a poverty-ridden area of New York looking for opportunity. Not long after, she changed her last name to Carnegie seeking a moniker that stood for success. As a teenager she worked for a number of millinery businesses in New York before moving to Macy’s where she garnered a position as a salesgirl. She then moved to the millinery department and learned even more about the hat trade.
Along with know-how, she took the nickname “Hattie” with her when she left Macy’s to start “Carnegie – Ladies’ Hatter.” She worked alongside a friend named Rose Roth who made garments marketed in the shop while she concentrated on hats. The dress shop was quite a success and they hired a full staff to serve their growing clientele. In 1919, Carnegie became the sole owner and renamed her enterprise Hattie Carnegie, Inc.
Carnegie had a knack for transforming styles being shown on Paris runways into garments that fit the lifestyle of the American woman. She was particularly well known, in fact, for “the little Carnegie suit.” She also had a very capable staff including famed fashion designer Norman Norrell who was employed in the firm’s custom-order department from 1928 through 1941.
Carnegie added ready-to-wear lines to her offerings during the 1930s. By the ’40s, her empire grew to include a number of boutiques across the country and over 1,000 employees. Many department stores and other retailers also carried Carnegie’s lines. Furthering her success, Hollywood also embraced her design ethos with movie stars like Joan Crawford and Norma Shearer, among others, as her clients. She was also a celebrity in her own right after appearing in ads for her own collections.
In fact, a LIFE magazine article about Carnegie published in 1945 features a striking photo of her seated at an elegantly appointed desk. The intro reads, “with a ‘look,’ a little suit and a knowledge of all the angles, she has risen from poverty to be absolute boss of a $6,500,000 dress business.” By the time of her death in 1956, the business was valued at $8 million, which is the equivalent of $77.5 million today.
The business bearing Carnegie’s name lived on even after she died. A man named Larry Josephs took over in the late 1960s. The firm was then acquired by Chromology American Corporation in 1976. The brand was subsequently discontinued but her legacy thrives through collectors who relish owning Carnegie’s work.
Hattie Carnegie’s Jewelry
Carnegie added jewelry to go with her clothing designs in 1939. Some of the earliest pieces were made by Fallon & Kappel, a famed manufacturer who also supplied Eisenberg with jewelry. In collecting terms, these initial pieces are the most important and quite often the most valuable Carnegie designs.
Rather than trying to copy fine jewelry, Carnegie’s early pieces are often creative and quirky such as a cupid figure riding a balloon swing or handsome unicorn brooches made in several variations. These pieces made through the 1940s are marked HC within a diamond.
Moving into the 1950s, other companies started making branded jewelry for Carnegie. Some of these styles have a more mass-produced look and feel but they can still be desirable and quite captivating. A number of accomplished jewelry designers worked with Carnegie as time passed including Kenneth Jay Lane who served as her creative director in the early 1960s.
During the mid-century period, Carnegie jewelry frequently offered wearers bright splashes of color. Pieces like the popular “lion in the grass brooch” along with other African-influenced figurals and Egyptian revival designs feature plastic elements incorporated with rhinestones and/or enameling. Keep in mind, however, that a number of manufacturers made jewelry similar to these pieces. Some are even downright copies. Many unmarked designs of this nature are wrongly attributed to Carnegie, and the quality doesn’t compare when they’re examined side by side.
Another line avidly sought by collectors incorporates large baroque pearls into designs made complete with colorful enameling and rhinestone accents. Some of these Asian-influenced pieces have a mythological feel about them but fanciful roosters and elaborate lions are also a part of the collection. If pieces made in these styles, including the mid-century jewelry mentioned above, are not marked either Carnegie or Hattie Carnegie (usually in script lettering) don’t assume they are “unsigned Carnegie.”
In general, the jewelry made prior to 1956 either designed by Carnegie or under her direction and approval have more charisma than later pieces. These later styles are often well-made and wearable but can be more run of the mill in style. This includes multi-strand “granny bead” necklaces, wrap bracelets, and cluster earrings that were very popular during the late 1950s and early ’60s.
Some of the last pieces to include the Carnegie name were sold in the late 1970s as Valentino for Hattie Carnegie, Yves St. Laurent for Carnegie, and Anne Klein for Carnegie.
More About Carnegie’s Work
If you’re curious about Carnegie’s work in the fashion industry, the Vintage Fashion Guild provides a good resource on their website at vintagefashionguild.org. A book was also published by Georgiana McCall in 2004 titled Hattie Carnegie Jewelry: Her Life and Legacy. It offers a great overview of her work with more emphasis on accessories.
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