Update: The Zimmermann necklace sold for $53,125, which is likely a record for her jewelry at auction.
What you see: An enameled yellow gold and gem-set collar necklace with turquoise, carved garnet cabochons, and blue enamel by Marie Zimmermann, circa 1937. Rago Auctions estimates it at $35,000 to $55,000.
Who was Marie Zimmermann? She was an American metalworker and jewelry designer who was active in the early 20th century, taking word-of-mouth commissions from well-to-do clients. She closed her studio and retired in 1940 after all of her close family members passed away in a five-year span. Zimmermann died in 1972 at the age of 93.
The expert: Katherine Van Dell, director of jewelry for Rago Auctions.
How often does Marie Zimmermann jewelry appear at auction? Pretty infrequently. She was a fairly prolific metal artist. She did make jewelry, but not in great quantities. The pieces that come to auction are few and far between. They’re quite rare.
Were the necklace and the Zimmermann ring shown in lot 2050 conceived as a set, or are they two separate pieces? They’re two separate pieces. It’s serendipitous that they came together for the same sale. The recipients knew each other, but their families do not know each other. The two go together, but they were not conceived as a set. It certainly would be lovely if someone wants to buy them both. I don’t want to play that down. But they were definitely not conceived together.
How did the necklace come to be? Was it a commission? In the 2012 book The Jewelry and Metalwork of Marie Zimmermann, there’s a bracelet of the same design pictured and an ‘Egyptian-style necklace’ [is mentioned in the text]. The man who commissioned the pieces paid for them in installments. We don’t know if he never finished paying for them. It could have been that she made two of the same necklace. It could have been that he never paid it off and she kept it. But there’s at least one necklace and bracelet suite.
Did Zimmermann design the jewelry and hand it off to others to make, or did she physically create her pieces? She had a hand in the making of the pieces, but she had workers and craftspeople who she employed to fabricate her designs. Even though not everything was done by her hand, they were all hand-done pieces.
What visual signatures does the necklace have that mark it as a Marie Zimmermann piece? It screams Marie Zimmermann because of its Egyptian Revival influence. It’s very evident in the necklace, and less so in the ring. The enamels and the rich metalwork are probably the visual giveaways. The necklace is unsigned, but the ring is signed with her cipher.
I see references in background material to Zimmermann having closed her studio in 1940 after “her entire family died,” but I can’t find any more information than that. What happened? She didn’t have any children. She had a sister that died, I believe. She was largely dependent on her parents to fund her lifestyle. She surrounded herself with friends. She was a lesbian before people were openly lesbian, and she had a life partner.
Were Melita (Bessie) Stewart and Ida Egli–the household staffers to whom Zimmermann willed the necklace and the ring–among her friends? For sure, yeah. They became friends and companions. Clearly she was close enough to both that she left her estate to them. [Zimmerman willed her home in Punta Gorda, Florida to the two women.]
And Stewart’s and Egli’s descendants consigning the necklace and the ring to Rago now–that’s a coincidence? It’s a total coincidence. My hair stood on end when I figured it out. For the ring, I started talking to the [family] last summer. It came in in February. The necklace came in just before the deadline in April. The necklace is from a great-aunt, I believe. The consigner had done her homework. But I took the ring in first, from a family in Indiana. That consigner said [of Melita Stewart] ‘I’d only ever known her as Grandma Bessie.’ Given how infrequently they come up at auction, to get two Zimmermann pieces at the same time from the descendants of individuals who had the same life, it’s really phenomenal and really cool.
What’s the auction record for a work by Zimmermann? It’s a jeweled box that Rago sold in 2005 for $125,000. [Unfortunately the lot results for the box are not online. – Ed.] It’s now in the Met. The necklace might beat it, I’m hoping. I think it stands to do quite well and might sell to an institution. Most of her things currently live in institutions or private collections. It speaks to the rarity of her pieces.
Rago Auctions is on Twitter and Instagram. It also did a dedicated piece on the Marie Zimmermann ring and necklace.
Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Rago Auctions.
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