Update: The simulated diamond necklace made by Joseff of Hollywood and worn by more than half a dozen celebrities on screen sold for $2,025.
What you see: A simulated diamond necklace by Joseff of Hollywood, dating to the mid-1930s. Julien’s Auctions estimates it at $5,000 to $7,000.
Who was Joseff of Hollywood? Eugene Joseff was once a commercial artist for an advertising firm who enjoyed making jewelry as a hobby. He went to Los Angeles on vacation in 1928, just as the Great Depression started to take hold and advertisting work started to drop off. He never found his way back to Chicago. Joseff befriended costume designer Walter Plunkett and railed to him about the historical inaccuracy of the jewelry he paired with his screen clothes. Plunkett challenged him to do better. That challenge gave rise to Joseff of Hollywood, which supplied period-correct, camera-friendly costume jewelry to Golden Age Hollywood. Joseff conjured Shirley Temple’s tiara and scepter for The Little Princess, matched the spark of Vivien Leigh’s Scarlett O’Hara with appropriate jewels for Gone With the Wind, and turned Elizabeth Taylor into an Egyptian queen in the notorious big-budget flop Cleopatra. Joseff died in a plane crash in 1949, when he was in his early forties. His widow, Joan Castle Joseff, took over Joseff of Hollywood until she died in 2010 at the age of 97.
How much of its archives has Joseff of Hollywood consigned for sale? “A good deal of it, but Joseff of Hollywood is still in business, still renting to studios, and still at work,” says Martin Nolan, executive director of Julien’s Auctions. “We were allowed to come in and go through the archive. It was like a treasure hunt, opening drawer after drawer. We’ve been working on the auction since January.”
Eugene Joseff died more than 50 years ago, and his wife, Joan, who ran the business after his death, passed away seven years ago. Why is this trove of vintage costume jewelry being sold now? “In the auction world, there’s something we call ‘the window’–the optimum time to let something go, when there are collectors and fans who know who these people are,” he says. “It’s a good time to let go. These pieces are going to go to homes that appreciate them and museums that will exhibit them, and continue the legacy of the stars who wore them.”
I picked lot 484 because–and I’m going to appropriate a verb here–it’s traveled. Seven different actresses wore the fake diamond necklace in seven different movies between 1934 and 1952, and it appeared on the cover of Life twice to promote two different productions in the mid-1940s. And that’s just counting the rentals that actually carried through–shoots get cancelled, scenes get cut, costume directors decide at the last minute that they need something different. Is this the most ‘traveled’ piece in the auction? “I’d say up to 20 percent of the collection selling now was worn by more than one star in more than one movie,” he says. “With this particular one, we can document that it was worn seven times by various stars. It’s one of the most popular pieces. It was used many times.”
The necklace first appears around the neck of Fay Wray in the 1934 film The Affairs of Cellini. Joseff was a stickler for historical accuracy in jewelry, so presumably, his workshop made it to look like it belonged in the Italian Renaissance. After that, Jeanette MacDonald wore it in The Firefly (1937); Anita Louise wore it in Marie Antoinette (1938); Hedy Lamarr wore it in Her Highness and The Bellboy (1945); June Haver wore it in I Wonder Who’s Kissing Her Now (1947); Ava Gardner wore it in her hair in The Great Sinner (1949); and Lana Turner wore it in The Bad and the Beautiful (1952). In addition, Ann Sheridan and Lucille Bremer wore it in publicity photos for two other movies, and one of Bremer’s images appeared on the cover of Life. What makes this jewelry design so ludicrously adaptable? “The most important thing is, it’s sort of bland, almost. It’s not jumping out at you,” he says. “You don’t look at it and say, ‘Oh, Fay Wray wore that in The Affairs of Cellini.’ It blended in.”
What did Eugene Joseff and his workshop do to the necklace to make it so adaptable? “I don’t know [what he did to this specific necklace], but all his pieces are able to have parts removed, or be shortened or lengthened,” Nolan says. “He was a man at work in his studio with a team of jewelers who were able to make adjustments easily.”
What else did Joseff do to adapt his pieces to the needs of Hollywood film production? In addition to inventing a formula for a matte gold that was easier for film crews to light, Nolan says Joseff created “a special resin to go in back of a stone to absorb its light, so the camera could get its true color.”
Have you handled the necklace? Yes. “It’s exquisite, it’s beautiful. It looks like a priceless piece of jewelry,” he says. “It’s a costume piece, but it’s important given that it was worn by so many stars.”
Is it fragile? “The pieces are very robust,” he says. “It speaks to the genius of the jeweler who made the piece. They look exquisite, but they’re quite sturdy.”
When I spoke to people at Sotheby’s about giving an estimate to Vivien Leigh’s personal charm bracelet, they told me they went by the intrinsic value of its gold and gems alone. How did you arrive at an estimate for this necklace, which does not contain real gold or gems? “What people are buying here is a tangible item that tells a story. It’s a great conversation piece,” he says. “All the stars who wore it–that’s where the value is.”
Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Julien’s Auctions.