Rapaport Magazine

Family Affair

The Newark, New Jersey, firm of Krementz & Co. manufactured Art Nouveau jewelry at accessible prices, creating finely crafted pieces coveted by collectors today.

By Phyllis Schiller

Krementz Art Nouveau Dogwood Brooch with enamel and pearl flowers set in a 14-karat gold crescent moon, circa 1900. Photo by Arthur Anderson; photo courtesy Bijoux Extraordinaire, Ltd., The Jewelry Experts.
Krementz & Co., one of the most successful and respected of the Newark, New Jersey, jewelry manufacturers, was the result of a partnership between two cousins, George Krementz and Julius Lebkuecher, both of whose families emigrated from Germany to the U.S. Although both had trained as jeweler’s apprentices, it was George who created the products and his cousin who dealt with sales and business management.
   From its inception in 1869, the firm quickly grew as George developed several innovative, patented designs for men’s jewelry, including collar and vest buttons. His patented one-piece cuff button, made from a single sheet of gold, was such a success that by 1900, most of the collar buttons produced in the world were manufactured by Krementz & Co. “That’s where their hallmark comes from. It’s the profile of a collar button,” explains Judith Anderson, Bijoux Extraordinaire Ltd., The Jewelry Experts, Manchester, New Hampshire.
   Although men’s jewelry was the foundation of their business, when men stopped wearing collar buttons, the firm started focusing on women’s jewelry, bringing to their broad-based American middle-class audience the styles that were fashionable in Europe.
   During the more than a century the company was producing jewelry, the firm remained a family affair, with successive generations involved in the company until the 1990s, when the jewelry divisions were sold. During that time, the company manufactured all of the popular styles of the day. It was thanks to one of George Krementz’s sons, Richard Krementz, Sr., that the company was introduced to Art Nouveau, notes Anderson. On a bicycle tour of Europe during a summer vacation from Yale University, Richard witnessed the widespread appeal of this new trend. “He wrote home about the style that was the ‘big thing’ in Europe and soon the Krementz firm began to incorporate this new-fangled Art Nouveau design into its own creations,” putting their American spin on it.

Accessible Art Nouveau
   “One of the things you see is that the designs are more democratized than French designs,” explains Jeff Russak, Lawrence Jeffrey Estate Jewelers, Litchfield, Connecticut. “They were easier for more people to grasp. Art Nouveau was popular but it was also revolutionary. I think Krementz was very good at walking the tightrope of presenting something that made people feel special when they wore it but that wasn’t so special that it was more sophisticated than its audience.”

Fine Craftsmanship
   The Art Nouveau jewelry Krementz produced was beautifully made, says Lisa Stockhammer-Mial, president of online retailer The Three Graces. “I see a certain very refined proportion and shape to their work; there is a restraint and a subtlety. The jewelry is exquisite, more quiet and subdued, particularly for that period. The designs are very well thought out in terms of how each part related to the whole.”
   While Krementz did include the imagery of the woman that was a strong theme in Art Nouveau jewelry, the company excelled at presenting naturalistic flora — irises, lotus blossoms, sweet peas, pansies, lilies of the valley, lily pads, — using “layers of enamel to capture the true colors of the flowers,” points out Anderson.
   There is a universality about these florals, Russak explains, that allows them to continue to be popular today. The bigger the piece or the more unusual the flower and the more distinctive the colors, the better.
   According to Stockhammer-Mial, the firm’s translucent, iridescent enamels in beautiful greens, peacock blues, gorgeous yellows are one of the recognizable characteristics of the Krementz Art Nouveau jewelry.

Artistic Accents
   “Krementz bangle bracelets are timeless,” says Annette Brandt, A. Brandt & Son Antique Jewelry, Narberth, Pennsylvania. “They don’t scream ‘Art Nouveau’ necessarily; they’re very straightforward in their design, sometimes adorned with a repoussé flower pattern and gemstone accents. The company always looked for the highest quality in gemstones and took a lot of care in making a really good product. The appeal isn’t about the individual stones but the overall design and the quality of a Krementz piece.”
   The Art Nouveau period was not as big on diamond-laden pieces, points out Stockhammer-Mial. “It was more about moonstones, amethysts, peridot and semiprecious stones, turquoise and things like that.”
   The artistry of the jewelry’s design — the gold work, the enamelwork — was allowed to shine through. Pearls and small diamonds, rubies and emeralds were accent colors, says Russak. “There were a lot of pearls. What you don’t have is the sort of pavé work that you see in the jewelry of some European companies.”

Availability and Prices
   Russak says he generally will buy “anything we find in the florals that is in good condition. It’s definitely something that is au courant and relates to modern women.”
   Brandt looks for older Krementz pieces from around the turn of the century. “Probably what I see the most of in Krementz jewelry are bangle bracelets,” she says. “They’re easy to wear in multiples. I’ve also bought Krementz enamel flowers with little diamonds in them.”
   Stockhammer-Mial points out that Krementz did production jewelry as well as “things that were not as common. If I go to a big show, am I going to find a piece of Krementz? More than likely; but to find something like a Krementz dragon brooch, it could take months or a year. The Art Nouveau pieces are not very plentiful any more.”
   Prices have climbed some, Stockhammer-Mial notes. “A nice Art Nouveau Krementz bangle, while not inexpensive, can still be found at a reasonable price.” Russak says smaller floral pieces can sell for $300 to $500, while really large, more complicated works might go for $3,000 to $4,000. The floral pieces especially have held their value, he says. “They’re cheerful; they go with all different types of fashions easily. Art Nouveau women motifs have gone down in price. The things that are more ordinary have gone down while the big pieces have gone up.”
   “In recent years, prices for Art Nouveau jewels created for the middle market have retrenched slightly,” Anderson says. “But since jewelry fashions tend to be cyclical, interest will grow and likely return to the earlier enthusiasm.”
   People have a real love of Krementz jewelry and there are certainly collectors of their work, notes Stockhammer-Mial. Agrees Brandt, “People know the name Krementz when they hear it, especially those who have been buying antique and estate jewelry for a long time. They know the firm as a quality Newark maker and feel comfortable buying the jewelry.”
   “Krementz was really a very important company in the history of jewelry in the U.S.,” sums up Anderson. “It made so many inroads into jewelry manufacturing and style that it was copied by other people. And though the jewelry firm is gone now, it was one of the companies that lasted the longest.”

Article from the Rapaport Magazine - September 2014. To subscribe click here.

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