Jewelry industry

The lucrative jewelry industry provides Americans with fashion accessories, miniature art, and other precious objects. Jewelry is valuable in itself, but it also takes on symbolic value, as it is used to identify social position, marital status, and religious and lodge affiliations.

Early American jewelry imitated European designs, chiefly those of French and English jewelers. Later, an Italian-inspired fashion in cameos led native artisans to fashion images of U.S. presidents George Washington and Andrew Jackson on pliant shells. The wedding ring remained the most prevalent item of jewelry. For many women, such rings contained the only gold or diamonds they would own. Many also came to anticipate receiving engagement rings. The American jewelry industry successfully promoted wedding rings for men as well as women, in part by falsely tracing the custom of the man’s wedding band to the Middle Ages. Attempts to market male engagement rings failed, however, perhaps because of the more limited purchasing power of American women.Jewelry industry

In the nineteenth century, a distinctive form of Native AmericansAmerican jewelry developed on the Navajo, Hopi, and Zuñi reservations of the Southwest. These Native Americans fashioned coin silver and turquoise bracelets, bolos, rings, and necklaces. Their squash blossom necklaces became popular, employing crescent shapes that seemed to echo the Moorish-Islamic heritage of Spain. Though numerous Native American craftspeople developed genuine artistry, their products were labor intensive, their competition was keen, and their market was eventually diluted with fake “Indian” jewelry made in Asia for tourist consumption.

Gold and silver jewelry, adorned with precious stones, remained a privilege of the affluent, but by the nineteenth century democratizing forces were at work in the jewelry trade as elsewhere. New, cheaper materials such as vulcanite were developed, along with white- and gold-colored metals. Colored glass could mimic expensive jewels, and synthetic stones were later developed that were almost identical in properties to natural ones.

Americans excelled in the design and manufacture of costume jewelry, or jewelry made of inexpensive materials and sold for everyday wear. Such items were often designed to showcase the creative artistry of their designers, rather than to create authentic imitations of precious stones. Produced with varying degrees of skill, costume jewelry could be sold in pricey boutiques, in department stores, or even in thrift stores. When Kenneth Jay Lane produced faux pearl necklaces for First Lady Barbara Bush and former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, costume jewelry became widely respectable.

Until the mid-twentieth century, Providence, Rhode Island (home of the Rhode Island School of Design), was the costume jewelry capital of the United States. At its height, the industry employed over 13,500 workers, chiefly immigrants and women drawn by the flexible hours. During World War II, many factories were converted into war production facilities, and by the end of the century Providence’s jewelry district had become chiefly a tourist locale rather than an active manufacturing center.

Fascination with jewelry continued into the twenty-first century, despite a decline in craftsmanship, as several companies licensed their names to producers of inferior products. By the beginning of the century, international sales of jewelry had risen to $146 billion per year, and the United States enjoyed a market share estimated at 26 percent. Furthermore, jewelry making, especially beading, became a major American hobby: Bead shops flourished in major American cities, and seventeen periodicals were devoted to the craft. Online commerce and auction Web sites, such as eBay, provided a market for amateur craftspeople to sell their jewelry.

Further Reading

  • Marshall, Suzanne. Two Hundred Years of American Manufactured Jewelry and Accessories. Atglen, Pa.: Schiffer, 2003.
  • Newman, Harold. An Illustrated Dictionary of Jewelry. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1981.

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