Back in the early 2000s, I had the pleasure of serving as the ringleader for a fun-loving group of jewelry collectors in Central Texas known as the Austin Vintage Jewelry Club. Among our members was author Mary Jo Izard who we knew as “Jo.”
As a regular attendee of our group meetings, she often wore quirky wooden jewelry items or brought them with her for show and tell. Wooden jewelry was completely off my radar until then other than a few 1980s pieces I’d purchased at retail back when they were fashionable.
Since then, I’ve come to greatly appreciate adornment crafted using wooden components. The flexible nature of wood allows it to be carved, dyed, painted, layered, and laminated together with other materials to create amazing designs. From ancient beads made in China to Victorian jewelry made with bog oak and modern fine jewelry, wood has been used in myriad ways for jewelry production throughout history. Today collectors seek wooden adornment in all its wonderful forms.
Collectible Wooden Jewelry
When it comes to wooden jewelry collectors run across today, some of the oldest pieces dating to the Victorian era are made from the previously mentioned bog oak. This fossilized material originating in Ireland was used for decorative objects and jewelry beginning in the early 19th century but became even more prevalent for crafting adornment during the mid-1800s. While it can be confused with other black materials used for jewelry production during the period, it usually has a grainy appearance, matte finish, and is light in weight. Many of these pieces also have Irish themes such as harps or castles.
Wooden jewelry found more frequently today takes the form of the wooden figural brooch. These were made decades later using wood as an affordable and abundant component throughout the Depression years of the 1930s. But did you know it was also a practice material for plastic carvers working with Bakelite (also known as Catalin) and galalith (another synthetic plastic)?
“Carvers of plastics initially were wood carvers. This was made apparent in conversations with Rodrigo Moure, who owned Alta Novelty Company in New York City with his brother, Robert, between 1935 and 1940. Together they produced a large array of galalith and Catalin plastic buttons and jewelry, and some also incorporating wood,” according to Izard’s book Wooden Jewelry and Novelties. This firm used a variety of woods including ebony, various rosewoods, and several types sourced in Tibet. In fact, Rod Moure designed wooden jewelry and a complete display for Tibet’s exhibit at the 1939 World’s Fair held in New York.
As Izard also mentions in her book, many carved wooden brooches from this era are exact duplicates of plastic pieces. Although it isn’t clear what came first, the wood or the plastic, most jewelry historians are of the belief that some of the same companies made both styles concurrently. Another firm making this type of jewelry in the Northeast was Ace Plastic Novelty Company in Brooklyn, New York. Others on the West Coast include California Craft Company and California Treasures. Pieces marketed by these businesses are rarely marked, however, making attribution difficult. There was also rampant copying going on in the jewelry business when it came to successful designs just as we see today.
Some figural brooches dating to the ’30s and ’40s, along with bangle bracelets and earrings, combine materials like wood with Lucite or Bakelite. Other 1930s designs also mimic Bakelite pieces such as bracelets and necklaces with painted wooden elements shaped like fruits or hearts dangling from celluloid chains. During the 1940s, wooden jewelry production expanded even further as metals became scarce due to World War II rationing. Wood was used to make sweetheart jewelry including pins depicting servicemen with dangling arms and legs. Well-known companies like Miriam Haskell also used dyed wooden beads of varying shapes to decorate unmarked pieces during this timeframe.
Wood was still used sporadically for jewelry production in the decades following the war. For instance, a very successful line of jewelry made by Coro set with wooden acorns was sold at Knott’s Berry Farm in California during the 1950s and ’60s. Some mod styles were also made with wood elements in the later 1960s and early ’70s.
By the late ’70s into the 1980s, wood was again a mainstay in jewelry design. Many statement pieces like large bangle bracelets and necklaces laden with carved birds and other animals were quite stylish at the time. Gerda Lynggard’s “Monies” pieces are a prime example of a fashion jewelry designer from this period combining wood with other natural materials such as dyed horn and leather. The design teams working for Chanel, Lanvin, Kenneth Jay Lane, and other well-known fashion jewelry purveyors from the 1980s through the 2000s also conceived pieces made of varying types of wood combined with plated metal and resin elements like logos, studs, and beads.
Even high-end fine jewelers, believe it or not, have added beautifully finished wood to designs mixed with precious metals and fine gemstones. Among them are Van Cleef & Arpels, Tiffany & Co., and Seaman Schepps.
As far as books on jewelry collecting topics go, a number include wooden jewelry, but Izard’s Collecting Wooden Jewelry and Novelties is the only one solely dedicated to the topic. This compact book includes good background information and photos of many interesting pieces of jewelry from the 1930s and ’40s. The fun novelty items included are a bonus to peruse. This reference is now out of print but can be located online through used booksellers.
Another book suggestion is Warman’s Costume Jewelry Figurals by Kathy Flood which features a number of wooden pieces along with other amusing designs shaped like people and things. It is also out of print, but used copies are fairly easy to track down. And since Miriam Haskell jewelry came up this month, consider learning more about the company’s wooden designs as well as many others through Miriam Haskell Jewelry by Cathy Gordon and Sheila Pamfiloff. It’s a great still-in-print reference often recommended as worth the price for the information on unmarked Haskell jewelry alone.