Vanity and self-adornment has been part of mankind’s attempts to establish recognition and status. Warriors may have painted their faces and bodies, and added feathers, bone or other ornamentation to look fierce or establish identity in battle or in ceremonies. Archeological evidence has shown that even in prehistoric times, women as well as men wore ornamentation. At the present time, ornamentation for vanity and beautification is a major, lucrative business. For a period of time, one facet of my life, involved with the design and manufacture of jewelry. In the late thirties, I met and befriended Willy, a designer and manufacturer of custom jewelry. He had a rented a small room in a commercial building in the jewelry district in 47th Street, in Manhattan. There he worked late into the night as he struggled to survive on his skills during the depression.
Some evenings, I would visit him and watch him work. Since I had inherent artistic talent, and had acquired some knowledge of calligraphy and design, I would help Willy and in turn, he taught me more than the basic skills of engraving, repose, chasing, making models for cast jewelry, and polishing techniques. By observing and listening to Willy and other jewelers, I learned about some of the manipulations of the jewelry trade.
The onset of World War 2 in Europe benefited the American economy. Vanity and the desire for self-ornamentation spurred the expansion of the jewelry industry. Most of the design, manufacture, and sale of jewelry originated or had its headquarters in New York City. Many Jewish jewelry firms selling in certain areas of the country learned to adjust to the bigotry and resistance that they encountered by using their names. Typical examples were Cohen Rosenberg, who found immediate sales increases under the name of Coro. Kaufman and Ruderman sales zoomed after they renamed their firm, Karu; Ben Lazurus sold watches under the name of Benrus.
I was not working as a jeweler, nor did I have tools and equipment to make jewelry, but I had some spare time, paper and paints to try my hand in making original jewelry designs. While I did not intend to spend full time doing so, or making a career of jewelry design, I found that I was successful in selling my custom designs to some of the better custom jewelry manufacturers and stores. America’s entry into the war disrupted any further attempts to continue doing jewelry design or manufacture.
The following pages illustrate some of my custom jewelry designs I made during that tenuous, uncertain pre-war period. Following these illustrations are vignettes and illustration of my jewelry designs and innovative manufacturing methods during my foray into post World War 2 jewelry design and manufacturing.
After the war I renewed my contact with Willy. He was interested in some manufacturing concepts I had divulged to him, and wanted me to join him He had a profitable ring manufacturing business, and was eager to expand into other areas of jewelry manufacturing. I did not have the money to invest in jewelry manufacturing. A wealthy attorney, a mutual friend, Morris, became interested. He would set up a corporation of three equal profit sharing owners. He would be a silent partner; Willy would be the president and director. Morris put up the money for me to own a third share, if I would become the production manager and be responsible for engineering designs and tools. Without any investment, I was in the jewelry manufacturing business.
Morris and Willy formed Sondeau Realty Corp, a separate partnership. They purchased the eight buildings of an abandoned Sheffield Farm complex. It was located in Far Rockaway, next to a Long Island Rail Road siding. WK Manufacturing, our jewelry firm, rented the premises from Sondeau Realty. Willy set up production lines and trained personnel. I laid out the manufacturing premises. One building was used as a foundry for casting. Another building was for power presses and a rolling mill. Plating and polishing was in another building, while another was for shipping and receiving. One building was reserved for the office and sales. Willy and I had small offices or desks in every production area. The remaining three buildings were for rent
With post-war marriages on the increase, gold and silver hand-made wedding rings were profitable. Hand-made rings required skill and time. Gold, or silver, tubes were cut into different widths, or ribbons of flat precious metal were cut into lengths, and the ends soldered to form rings. The rings were individually ornamented by hand. This method required a jeweler to put the unadorned ring on a mandrel, and with a special shaped tool, stamp a design on a segment of the ring. The design, or part of a design, was formed on one area of the ring. The jeweler would then rotate the ring to a new position and stamp the design next to the previous stamping. This would continue until the circumference of the ring was embossed with a design. Hand-made rings had variations in the embossing, which made each ring unique. Mass-produced rings were very uniform, and not detailed or as costly as hand engraved or embossed rings.
If mass produced rings could be made that were indistinguishable from hand mad rings, they like many art forgeries, could be very profitable.
Covert and Overt Operations
I designed two different techniques to make mass produced rings comparable to hand-made rings. One method was by pulling coils of precious metal through special embossed steel rollers. Willy, a master engraver, carved ring designs on rollers. These engravings, typical of hand-made designs, had variations in each repeated design. Coils of precious metal wire or ribbon fed through these rollers, resulted in embossed designs with variations characteristic of hand-made rings.
In another method, a power press, with a die I designed, could stamp out rings identical to hand made rings. Certain ring designs were applicable to the roller method while others were best used in power press stamping. In the power press method, an actual hand-chasing tool was locked into the die in the press. Precious metal ribbon was drawn or pushed under the stamping die. The purposely-designed irregularity of pulling or pushing the metal ribbon under the stamping tool avoided the monotonous stamped designs produced by normal jewelry stamping methods. Other covert engineering details produced variations in spacing and depth of each stroke of the embossing tool. Hundreds of feet of machine stamped or embossed rings were made in less than an hour. The embossed metal coils were cut to different lengths and the ends soldered into rings. These rings were then stretched to different ring sizes.
Willy tested the acceptance of the hand-chased and embossed rings by personally delivering an order, to a jewelry store. The jeweler examined and accepted the hand-made rings. At first, a small percentage of the ‘special’ hand-made rings were included in each shipment. In time, almost all the rings were made by the secret roller or stamping method. The only handwork involved was in soldering, sizing to different ring sizes, and polishing. Only Willy and I knew about or operated the equipment. Using the roller or stamping method, in a few hours we produced more rings than a jeweler could by hand in a month.
Precious metal for production or casting, and finished or partially finished jewelry, was kept in a large safe. Each day, trays of unfinished jewelry was weighed and issued to a production jeweler. Each bench had sliding drawers at each jeweler’s station. Filings and scrap particles from the work in process would be collected in this drawer. At the end of the shift, the jeweler would return the completed and unfinished jewelry, plus the scrap and filings collected from the individual jeweler’s drawer. This would be weighed to see if it checked with the weight of the precious metal issued to the worker at the start of the shift. Daily, the total weight of the finished, unfinished, and scrap precious metal, should be the same at the end of the day’s work as at the beginning. Gold and silver scrap was kept separate and used in castings, or refined or sold.
Covert and Overt Operations
The business had great potential. Records were maintained of production, sales, and the total weight of precious raw, in process, finished, and scrap metal. The only omission in the records, were the times spent in the rolling mill and stamping method. The future looked bright, but like weather forecasting, it was impossible to accurately predict impending disasters. Not all clouds have silver linings, and magnificent sunsets do not always forecast good weather the next day. I selected low intelligent employees for unskilled repetitive work. They were used in unskilled or semi-skilled, repetitive work. Some were used in polishing and buffing operations. It was monotonous work, with exposure to dust from the tripoli and red rouges used for polishing.
Mary was a polisher, a sturdy, muscular, buxom girl. During lunch breaks, she would free her ash blond hair from the restraining safety snood, take off her apron, set it aside, and then take off her blouse and shake off the polishing dust and lint. Her upper torso was naked, except for the restraining bra. She would eat her lunch on a chair facing Willy’s office, sitting with her legs spread wide and her skirt pulled up over her knees. Her face and neck was streaked with polishing rouge, except where the goggles protected her eyes. Around her eyes under the goggles her skin was milky white, as was her exposed torso. Whenever she saw Willy look at her, she smiled seductively, and her lewd eyes signaled sexual availability. Mary had an actively zealous ambition. Willie was twenty years older than Mary, but it was not a deterrent to their involvement. She only worked a few weeks before she quit. She found a better life than that of a jewelry polisher.
Willy was married to Pauline, a lovely, educated Austrian woman. Edythe and I enjoyed her company, and we were disappointed by the breakup of her marriage. Pauline began to suspect that Willy’s long days and nights away from home had nothing to do with the business. Willy admitted to a new love. Pauline demanded a divorce. A few months later, Willy told me that he was living with Mary, and he invited Edythe and me to see the new home he had purchased in Woodmere. He explained that he put the title under his wife to be, Mary’s name, in order to protect it from being listed as an asset during his divorce proceedings. The furnishings in the home were in poor taste but expensive, as was the extensive wardrobe that the ex-polisher flaunted with arrogant pride. She had a housekeeper to clean and cook. With invincible ignorance she spoke and acted crudely during and after the dinner. Willy beamed at her and thought she was cute, and an unpolished gem. Willy, in his fifties, now had a wife half his age, whose needs and demands would be exceedingly difficult and expensive to fulfill.
Covert and Overt Operations
Those were the days when there was a 20% luxury tax imposed on jewelry sales. Some retailers would prefer to purchase jewelry from manufacturers for cash, without a record of the transaction. The retailer could sell the jewelry, collect and pocket the 20% tax. This practice was lucrative for the manufacturer as well as the retailer, since there was considerable income tax savings where there were no records of the transactions. At a partnership meeting, Willy tentatively mentioned the subject, but Morris and I disapproved of any illegal activity. Willy never mentioned the subject again. . Morris was satisfied with the high profit his business investment produced. Morris did not know of our covert rolling and stamping operations, which was a major reason for the high returns and profits. I had paid Morris back almost all of the money he had advanced for my share of the business. We had a rapidly growing, profitable jewelry business.
Willy started to look stressed, as his divorce proceedings were under way. The few times I was invited to his new home, I saw indications of madness and folly. The uneducated polisher, Mary, had an unsophisticated approach to home furnishing. A new black maid had been hired, and Mary’s long, red lacquered nails were now unaccustomed to menial labor. Gaudy curtains and drapes surrounded expensive mismatched furniture, and Mary’s wardrobe boasted new mink and silver fox coats. In the shop, Willy was sure and authoritative, but at home he looked docile and compliant. A metamorphosis of personalities had taken place.
Only Willy and I handled the recording and storage of precious new, finished, unfinished, or scrap metal. Normally, Willie was there in the beginning and end of the work shift to weigh out and check in the precious metal issued to the workers. I was usually busy supervising production. Some days, Willy would be out on sales and promotion. Profits were still good, but I felt they should have been much higher. Despite production increases, the percentage of profit did not keep pace. The days Willy was out on sales, I had the responsibility to check the weight of precious metal. Every day, all the precious metal weights of jewelry in all stages of production, was exact. One day I noticed a few gold chain links among the scrap gold set aside for casting or refining. I was puzzled. We did not make or use any chain in our line of jewelry. I returned that night, and on other nights, to examine the precious gold and silver scrap. In the silver or gold scrap, I found small pieces of chain, as well as cut up precious metal watch cases and small pieces of unknown jewelry. My curiosity and suspicions were aroused. Daily I made a private list of the quantities of all the finished jewelry we had on hand, and to examine and weigh the scrap. It was evident that someone was removing finished jewelry, and replacing it with the same weight in precious metal scrap. Some of our finished jewelry, had vanished, and had been replaced with the identical weight in scrap
Covert and Overt Operations
Willy, the skillful artisan, engraver, and jeweler who I used to admire, had become a thief. Willy’s lawyer’s fee and his divorce was costly, in addition he tried to placate Mary’s increasingly expensive needs and demands. I met with Morris in private, and with calmness and composure I revealed that Willy was siphoning some of the profits off. Morris had Willy watched, and it was discovered that he was selling finished jewelry to retailers for cash, and buying precious metal scrap pieces to replace the weight of the finished jewelry he sold.
We had a meeting and confronted Willy with evidence of his guilt. His initial denials were eventually replaced with his admission of guilt. Willy was obligated to buy us out and then WK Manufacturing would be owned solely by Willy. I had an additional demand, I removed my specially designed rolling and stamping dies. On the books, the business showed profit and potential. In order to raise money, Willy sold his partnership in Sondeau Realty to Morris. Willy got a new investor for his WK Manufacturing. He raised enough money to pay off Morris and me.
Seven months later, I met Willy at an exhibit. He appeared worried and somewhat seedy looking. I was not angry with him, only disappointed in the man who at one time had been an inspiration and one of my jewelry teachers. We had lunch together and I learned about his fate. He was in the throes of being sued for a divorce by Mary. She had become insufferably tiresome, and her vanity and vice had cost Willy a fortune. He cursed her madness and folly, and rued the day he met her He tried with no success for reconciliation with his former wife, Pauline.
Years later I learned of Willy’s downfall and demise. He had started to drink, and within a year his jewelry business failed. The equipment was auctioned off and some of it went to pay for unpaid rent, and to his other creditors. Willy did have jewelry skills and for a time worked in jewelry factories. He had become an alcoholic, and he could not keep a job. Eventually he became a Bowery bum and was found dead in a gutter.
Morris made a fortune with Sondeau Realty. He sold it for housing developments and apartment houses. I sometimes drive past the site where the jewelry business once was located, and I see the tall apartment houses and a shopping area. Morris and I were out of the jewelry business. He specialized in corporate law, and I went elsewhere, specializing in myself. .
The malign influence of a woman had destroyed the potential of great friendship and a business. The polisher had polished off the beauty and gleam of a great potential. In many ways, she changed the direction and lives of many who had any contact with her.