Trail Blazing Trifari | August 11th, 2014

Not long ago, I received a disheartening email from one of my favorite vintage shops that their doors were closing within a few days. The good news was that they were having a big sale on all of the merchandise that was left. If there was anything vintage on sale, I wasn’t going to miss it! I am always on the lookout for beautiful vintage costume jewelry to repurpose.

I walked in and noticed a glass case holding the last few pieces of vintage costume jewelry that hadn’t been snatched up yet. The owner opened the case for me so I could get a closer look. I was immediately drawn to a pretty, white flower pin that looked like it was from around the 1950s.

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I flipped it over and it just so happened to be signed…always a sweet surprise for me! The signature on it was “Trifari.”

I knew it was a well-known name in costume jewelry, but what was the story behind their success? After making my purchase, I was determined to find out. I figured this story was going to be a good one…

The Partners

Trifari was originally founded by Gustavo Trifari and his uncle in 1910. Gustavo came from a family of fine jewelers and was the 20-year old Italian-immigrant son of a Napoli goldsmith. The company opened as Trifari and Trifari.

Gustavo parted within a few years to start his own accessories business and called it Trifari. In 1917, Leo Krussman joined the company as the sales director and later became a partner. The name was then changed to Trifari and Krussman. They mostly produced hair ornaments and accessories.

In 1925, they were joined by a third partner, Carl Fishel. The company became incorporated and changed its name once again to Trifari, Krussman, and Fishel.

Alfred Phillippe

Immediately following the end of World War I, fashion thrived with the Jazz Age, a cultural movement in America during the 1920s when jazz music and dance emerged. It was also known as the “Roaring Twenties.” Women began to bob their hair, decreasing the demand for elaborate hair ornaments.

Bobbed Hair

Evelyn Brent with bobbed hair in the mid 1920s; Source: NY Public Library for the Performing Arts/Billy Rose Theatre Collection

This opened the door for something new…costume jewelry. In 1930, French jewelry designer, Alfred Phillippe, joined Trifari as head of design. He believed costume jewelry should be a work of art. He had worked for leading companies such as Cartier and Van Cleef & Arpels. Unfortunately, the Great Depression (1929-1939) had severely limited his creativity with these companies. When he began working for Trifari, he was able to regain his freedom to design.

Phillippe used methods he had either learned or developed himself at Van Cleef & Arpels. Much of the Trifari jewelry was designed to look like fine jewelry made of precious metals and gems. His craftsmanship is considered the main reason they acquired such an outstanding reputation for high-quality jewelry which set new standards for the costume jewelry industry.

Phillippe’s use of invisible settings for stones, which he originally developed for Van Cleef & Arpels, provided a new level of craftsmanship that had never been seen before in costume jewelry. Prongs and stones were set by hand using tweezers. Enamels were also set and epoxied by hand to prevent chipping or cracking that was so common with other costume jewelry. Beads were made from the highest quality Austrian lead crystal that sparkled with incredible clarity and brilliance. Phillippe’s designs won such praise that the partners of Trifari became known as The Rhinestone Kings.

Advertising and Manufacturing the Jewelry

In a trail blazing effort, Trifari launched the first national fashion jewelry advertising campaign in 1938 using the slogan, “Jewels by Trifari.” This campaign popularized costume jewelry as a fashionable and affordable alternative to wearing precious gems and metals.

One year later, Trifari moved its factory to Providence, Rhode Island which then became the worldwide center of costume jewelry manufacturing for more than 50 years.

Like all manufacturers during World War II, Trifari was unable to use metal in its jewelry because of the need for metal in defense production. This forced them to switch to using sterling silver, tripling the prices for Trifari jewelry. Thankfully, sales were not affected, but after the war, Trifari wanted to go back to less costly, maintenance-free metal. However, their customers were now used to sterling silver.

To build up some excitement for returning to a less costly base metal, the company began advertising a new metal that they called “Trifanium” which was promoted as a revolutionary product that did not require any polishing.

New Jewelry Ideas

Another brilliant idea was Phillippe’s crown pins. They were produced between the late 1930s to the ’50s and were made with brightly colored cabochons (stones that have been shaped and polished, not faceted) or clear crystal rhinestones.

trifari crown pin

Crown pin designed by Alfred Phillippe for Trifari in the 1940s; Photo courtesy of sararacouture.com

These crowns were so popular that Trifari incorporated a crown into its mark in 1937. When the name did not fit onto a piece, a “T” with a crown over it was used as the Trifari signature. Pieces that had the full signature also had a crown over the T:

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Trifari is also known for its floral pins from the 1930s and patriotic flag and eagle pins from the 1940s. Jelly Belly animal pins were also hugely popular in the ’40s. Each animal’s “belly” consisted of a solid Lucite cabochon:

Trifari Jelly Belly Lizard

Trifari Lucite Jelly Belly Lizard

Fruit and vegetable pins were fashionable from the late 1950s through the ’60s.

The Trifari Mark

Prior to 1937, markings were used such as “TK” in a circle (indicating Fishel had not yet joined them). In 1935, Trifari used the mark kTf for the three partners’ initials. It was traditional at that time to use the senior partner’s initial in the middle. You might also have seen “TKF” with the T larger to indicate the senior partner. Other marks included “Jewels by Trifari” or “Trifari” depending on when it was made.

Once they settled on the Trifari name as their trademark, every piece they made was marked with their signature. They are the only major jewelry company known to have done this. Marking every piece was one of their marketing strategies to protect their designs from being copied.

Pearls for Mamie Eisenhower

Trifari was chosen by Mamie Eisenhower in 1953 to create her inaugural ball jewelry. Traditionally, all jewelry worn by a First Lady was made of precious metals and stones. Alfred Phillippe designed a 3-strand pearl choker with matching bracelet and earrings for her. She was so fond of his design that she asked him to do another for her second inaugural ball in 1957.

Mamie

Mamie Eisenhower wearing Trifari jewelry with her inaugural ball gown; Source: White House; Painted in 1953 by Thomas Stevens

After choosing to wear Trifari jewelry to both of her inaugural balls, copies of these pieces flooded the market. To prevent cheap knock-offs of their designs, Trifari filed a lawsuit in 1955 and won for breach of copyright. A new legal precedent was set when the court ruled that the costume jewelry in question was a work of art and should be protected by an art copyright.

Inaugural Ball Pearls

Trifari set worn by Mamie Eisenhower at her first inaugural ball; Source: Smithsonian

Winning this lawsuit was very instrumental in the jewelry trade, changing from the use of patents for protection to relying on the law of copyright instead. Copyrights last for 25 years, whereas design patents only last between 3 and 7 years. After 1955, Trifari never submitted a patent again and most of the costume jewelry companies followed suit. A copyright symbol was always stamped next to their name.

In 1966, Alfred Phillippe became the president of Trifari. Two years later, he retired. Trifari hired many other good designers to work for them over the lifetime of the company.

Trifari is Sold

Trifari sold its name to Hallmark in 1975. Crystal Brands owned it from 1988 to 1994, then the Monet Group bought it. During this time, high quality signed pieces and limited edition sets were produced for QVC shopping sales. When the Monet Group went bankrupt in 2000, Liz Claiborne bought it and still owns it today.

Today, Trifari’s vintage costume jewelry is extremely collectible. The pieces that were designed by Alfred Phillippe in the 1930s and ’40s are the most sought after by collectors.

Trifari blazed a new trail for the costume jewelry industry in many ways. They set higher standards and levels of craftsmanship. They popularized costume jewelry as a fashionable and affordable alternative to fine jewelry. And they influenced the change for design protection from patents to copyright law.

All of their efforts to be leaders in the industry paid off as they became one of the largest and most well-known designers and producers of costume jewelry.

I just knew it would be a good story!

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Repurposed vintage costume jewelry can be found at www.kimberlymoorerings.com. For my latest finds, follow me on Instagram and Pinterest!

Kimberly Moore is a vintage costume jewelry expert, blogger, speaker, and author of Beauty in a Life Repurposed. 

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