If, as they say, timing is everything, this is the moment to stir Miriam Haskell, the storied-but-slumbering costume jewelry house now poised for a comeback, 83 years after its founding. Such a notion might seem contrary to the current economic situation, but Haskell has history on its side: The label was built on the brink of the Great Depression and flourished because of it.
For the uninitiated, Miriam Haskell was a premier American fashion jewelry house for the better part of the 20th century; today it is a prized resource for vintage collectors, who snap up its baubles for upwards of $3,000. Which is to say that it has the kind of reputation and heritage prime for revival—though such wasn’t the case about 20 years ago, when the firm changed hands. “When we bought the company, it was virtually out of business,” says Gabrielle Fialkoff, chief operations officer of Miriam Haskell. Her father, Frank Fialkoff, purchased the label under the parent company Haskell Jewels in 1990, just in time for minimalism to send a hush over costume jewelry. “It wasn’t a jewelry moment, so we just got quiet, feeling that the time would be right in the future,” says Fialkoff. Buoyed by the hot trend in bold statement pieces that started with Lanvin in 2003—and continues today with Balenciaga, Louis Vuitton, and the Tom Binnses and Philip Crangis of the world—Miriam Haskell relaunched in fall 2007, and Henri Bendel was happy to re-engage the brand. As Bendel’s fashion director, Ann Watson, puts it, “Coco Chanel is the foremother of costume jewelry in Europe, and Miriam Haskell is the foremother of costume jewelry for Americans.”
Indeed, Haskell’s story is compelling: humble beginnings, startling success and a tragic conclusion, all centered on a bold, eccentric character. Haskell was born in 1899 in Indiana. She moved to New York and opened a bijoux shop in the McAlpin Hotel in 1926, when costume jewelry was a relatively new genre, one ushered in by the wildly popular Coco Chanel, who had launched her vrais bijoux en toc, or “real fake jewelry,” collection in 1924.
Haskell capitalized on the American obsession with French fashion, modeling her own collection—most of it handmade from imported glass beads and crystal—after European costume jewelry. The idea wasn’t to imitate the real but to create fanciful fakes inspired by nature and exotic cultures, a novel concept at the time. “Her jewelry was the only [line] in America that could compete with the French—Chanel and Schiaparelli,” says Deanna Farneti Cera, author of The Jewels of Miriam Haskell. She notes that Haskell probably designed the first few pieces herself, yet the collection’s enduring aesthetic, marked by a metal filigree covered with clusters of beads and, most famously, glass pearls, is largely owed to Frank Hess, the label’s designer from 1926 to 1960. “The Forties and Fifties are the most collectible period,” says vintage jewelry maven Carole Tanenbaum. “Few [of those] pieces remain for sale.”