As an admirer of all types of vintage adornment, I have a number of pieces of copper art jewelry I wear fairly regularly. The warm hue of the metal blends beautifully with many different colors ranging from blush to dusty pinks and a variety of greens and browns.
Copper jewelry, in general, is also durable so it’s not easily scratched. This makes frequent wearing less worrisome than with more delicate vintage pieces. Some people, both men and women, even swear wearing a copper bracelet helps ease arthritis pain although that’s not a claim I can make personally. Take a look at this introduction to learn more about Mid-Century Modern copper artistry that you can enjoy wearing, too.
Modernists Working with Copper
A number of artisans developed processes allowing them to mass-produce copper jewelry in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s. The first company that comes to mind among avid collectors is usually Renoir of California.
Founded by artist Jerry Fels and his brother-in-law Kurt Freiler in 1946, Renoir of California not only made copper jewelry but also developed a coating called “Copron” that limits tarnishing and defacing from oils commonly found in fingerprints.
Some pieces were decorated with colorful enameling as well. Pieces without enamel are labeled Renoir. The enameled Matisse Ltd. line was added in 1952. The various styles made with both Renoir and Matisse marks mix and match nicely and many are still quite stylish by today’s standards. It’s also interesting to note that while most of the company’s jewelry was made of copper, some designs were fashioned of sterling silver as well. Those are marked Sauteur Sterling and harder to find than copper pieces.
Frank Rebajes also owned a workshop that produced many pieces of copper jewelry during the Mid-Century era. After immigrating to New York from the Dominican Republic as Francisco Torres when he was just 16, he taught himself the skill of metal working using plumbing tools he borrowed and tin cans. He eventually changed his surname to Rebajes, his mother’s maiden name, feeling that it sounded more interesting.
His business really began to thrive during the 1940s, and by the ’50s his designs were sold in more than 500 stores. He employed more than 100 skilled workers at the height of his career who produced jewelry based on prototypes he created by hand.
Rebajes’ large-as-life lobster brooch with trembling claws is legendary, and he cleverly put his own unique spin on everyday items as well as popular motifs of the day. Some pieces marked Rebajes were made with a silver-tone finish although his copper is much more prevalent in the vintage marketplace.
Copper jewelry was also made by other companies like Kim Craftsmen and Bell Trading Post.
Kim Craftsmen, which was originally named Kim Copper, made pieces that sometimes have a look akin to well-known copper designs produced by other companies. This includes modernist animals and sea life as they were popular styles with consumers during the Mid-Century era.
Bell Trading Post’s wares – which were mostly tourist pieces – are usually known for their Southwestern-inspired designs.
Some copper jewelry is simply marked copper or hand wrought without an indication of where it originated. These types of ambiguous wares can also be enameled. While they won’t generally be high-end pieces, all these can make affordable additions to a jewelry collection and many of them are quite fun to wear.
Caring for Vintage Copper Jewelry
As mentioned, copper art jewelry isn’t particularly worrisome in terms of care. In other words, it takes quite a bit of abuse to make it look worse for wear. Most of the time you can wipe it down with a soft cloth to remove any dirt or skin oils after you wear it and move on with your business.
With that said, there are times that you will run across pieces that are extensively scratched or have chipped enameling due to being stored improperly over a long period of time. It’s usually best to take a pass on those.
To avoid this type of damage to your own pieces, keep your copper jewelry from banging around too much. Rather than storing it with other metal items, make sure the pieces are kept in a single layer in your jewelry chest. If that’s not possible, consider placing each piece in its own plastic zipper bag to protect it.
Also keep in mind that enamel embellishment applied to copper pieces is frequently more delicate than the metal base. If you’re wearing a necklace or earrings, this usually isn’t an issue unless you accidentally drop a piece. Take care with enameled bracelets, however, since they tend to get banged around more easily.
Many pieces of copper jewelry also have darkened accents that were purposely applied when the jewelry was crafted. This chemically induced blackening provides a background that makes the copper coloring really pop. Some newbie collectors mistake this for tarnish, however, and wonder about cleaning it. That would actually be detrimental and ruin the piece since it is a part of the overall design.
If your curiosity is piqued, a great book resource for learning more about this type of jewelry, especially Renoir of California and Rebajes pieces, is Copper Art Jewelry: A Different Lustre (Schiffer Publishing) by Matthew L. Burkholz. Many of Renoir’s line names are identified in this book, which makes it a particularly fun read when you’re identifying pieces you own.