While Marilyn Monroe tried to persuade us in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes that Diamonds are a girl’s best friend, there are very few of us who can afford genuine large diamonds – this is where costume jewellery comes in and Trifari made some of the best. Trifari jewellery has been worn by the great and the famous, including Coco Chanel. Trifari jewellery is very sought after and collectors tend to go for the earlier pieces.
Gustavo Trifari was born into a family of goldsmiths from Naples, came to America in 1904 and in 1910 he started the firm of Trifari & Trifari with his uncle. They concentrated on high quality, realistic costume jewellery that soon became serious competiton to the paste ‘French jewels’, which was the common description for faux jewellery. Together with Leo Krussman and Carl Fishel the formed Trifari, Krussman & Fishel Inc. Trifari concentrated on the early designs while the other two looked after organisation and sales. Fishel was a brilliant salesman and he managed to get Trifari jewellery shown at the 1939 World Fair in New York and after extensive fundraising for President Eisenhower, Mamie Eisenhower wore Trifari Jewellery for the Inauguration Balls in 1952 and 1957.
What sets Trifari jewellery apart from other costume jewellery is the innovative design and superb craftsmanship. The jewellery was loved by the rich and famous as well as the suburban housewives. Collectors generally agree that Trifari’s finest pieces were made in the 1930s and 1940s, when French creative genius Alfred Philippe was the main designer. The jewellery was perfect for a country that was just coming out of the Depression. Philippe’s designs stood out for the quality of the settings and the use of finest gem-cut crystals from the Swarowsky company. Philippe was an innovator and in order to keep ahead of the competition he would experiment with cutting-edge materials like ruthenium and its own lustrous gold Trifanium for plating.
Trifari jewellery was the expensive end of costume jewellery and, even in the 1940s a rhinestone-set brooch would have cost about a month’s wages, although some of the smaller, less ornate pieces would have cost less. I you look at pictures or old movies from the 1940s you can see Trifari brooches on little black dresses or a glittering clip on a fur stole. In the UK Feldman and Inwald in Whitechapel in London were the first to introduce the British public to Trifari in the 1930s. After the war they moved to Burlington Gardens and it became known as the ‘in-place’ to buy your costume jewellery. If you were to examine the guest book for 1950 – 1952 you will see that the likes of Joan Collins, Diana Dors and Lucille Ball visited and probably bought a piece or two.
Trifari jewellery is not rare and there is something to suit every pocket – you can get a gold and pearl pin from the 1950s or early 1960s for a little as £50. The rare pieces, of course, fetch large sums – if you can find a 1942 Greyhound brooch by Alfred Philippe you would probably have to pay around £7,000, while a forties multi-coloured salad pin clip would cost around £2,000. Of special interest to American collectors might be the patriotic jewellery, red, white and blue pins of flags, eagles and Uncle Sam’s hat which were made at the beginning of World War II – they would cost between £400 – £2,000. Among the best known Trifari jewellery are the ‘Jelly Belly’ animals which were very popular and used to go for a lot of money. You need to be careful if you want to buy these as a lot of copies have come into the market.
If you want to start collecting Trifari jewellery you need to establish if you’re buying an original you should look at the markings – early pieces carry the ‘KTF’ stamp, then ‘Trifari’ and from 1939 ‘Trifari’ with a crown above the T. From the mid 1950s you will see the copyright symbol and if you see slanted graphics the piece is from the 1970s. You should also recognise Trifari by the workmanship, turn over the piece and you will see a setting that is delicate and well finished. You can buy Trifari jewellery from specialist shops, but it is also worth having a look at antique and collectors’ fairs – who knows, you might get a bargain.