Researching vintage jewelry can sometimes resemble a film noir plot complete with twists, turns, and red herrings which result in a mystery within a mystery! And wouldn’t you just know….
It was a dark and stormy night…. Well, no, actually it was a sunny and breezy afternoon the other day when Alicia of BoyleRPF emailed me with a ‘hot tip’ that she’d just seen my mystery jewelry maker’s (MJM for short) large bow for sale as a brooch(!) on eBay, in sterling (!!) and signed (!!!). So you know I hied myself over there as fast as my keyboard could carry me. Lo and behold, there it was:
The brooch does not have the usual “drop”, but that was not even a problem because as luck would have it, I’d recently found an example of the MJM’s necklace that did not have the drop either! I had contacted the shop who sold it, asking if there was any evidence that the drop had been removed but she’d said no, it appeared to have been made that way; because of that, I was planning to include it in my next update to the series. So the lack of a drop on the signed Forstner brooch didn’t faze me in the least.
I then did a search on eBay, Etsy, Ruby Lane and Worthpoint for ‘Forstner bow’ … just to make certain that the eBay example wasn’t a one-shot phony. Turns out these are the real thing, made by Forstner in vermeil (gold plated sterling) and signed. Here’s one of them for sale on Etsy also marked in exactly the same way.
And several others that sold in the past on eBay, all brooches marked Forstner Sterling:
Naturally I was thrilled/ecstatic/(insert favorite happyhappyjoyjoy descriptive here) at having seemingly found out who the MJM was. “Could it really be this easy?!?” I asked myself, because clearly this was not a nice-try-but-no-cigar copy such as the one seen at the end of Part Three; the Forstner bow is 100% identical to the MJM bow in every way.
Myself replied “Hey, why not do a search for ‘Forstner jewelry’ and see how many of the MJM’s other designs come up?” And so I did. The results? Nothing. Zip. Nada. One big fat goose-egg zero. Not one Forstner item matched anything else that my MJM did. Not only that, but none of the Forstner and MJM chains even came close to resembling each other. Just that one single solitary bow. But what was the connection between the MJM and the Forstner company? And who was Forstner anyway?
The Forstner Chain Company was founded in New Jersey in 1920 and produced sterling, gold filled, vermeil, and karat gold necklaces, bracelets, brooches and accessories such as watch fobs and keychains. Their designs were simple and elegant, and quite well made. They did not use gemstones or enamel ornamentation, focusing instead on classic designs in the two precious metals. In 1950 they changed their name to the Forstner Jewelry Manufacturing Corp. It seems as though most – possibly all? – of their jewelry was marked in some way, either with F.C.C. , Forstner Sterling, or any of the other dozen or so trade names owned by the company. There was also a blue-and-silver paper hangtag saying ‘Forstner Creations’ but it’s unknown whether this was instead of or in addition to the mark on the jewelry itself. One source says that the block-font “Forstner” jewelry mark usage began in 1947; if so, then that means the bow brooch in question must date from no earlier than that. However, how did they come to make this brooch at all?? The MJM pieces were absolutely made in the 1930s. Putting on my detective hat, here are a few theories:
Theory #1: All of the 1930s mystery jewelry was made by Forstner or a division thereof. Chronologically it’s possible, because Forstner did exist at that time. But why would Forstner even bother having an entirely separate line of jewelry that was so different from their popular and successful style? And if they did, why not ‘sign’ them? They certainly signed everything else they produced. And why reproduce just this ONE design but not any of the others? Other than the overlapping timeline, this scenario doesn’t seem likely.
Theory #2: The MJM copied Forstner’s bow brooch design. If the 1947 mark/date claim is correct, this would be impossible unless the MJM happened to have a time machine in the back of the shop. Even if the Forstner bow was made in the 1930s and the MJM blatantly copied it at that time, this would certainly have engendered a lawsuit – something Forstner was not shy about doing, because I easily found two instances of them suing another jewelry company for unauthorized use of a patented Forstner chain element or closure mechanism. Besides, the MJM bow has that accompanying drop which was clearly designed for that particular bow even if they didn’t choose to add it to every single necklace, as we’ve seen above. So this theory doesn’t hold much water either.
Theory #3: Forstner copied the MJM’s circa-1930s bow design. This theory is very plausible, especially if the Forstner bow does date from 1947 or later. But if that’s what happened, how did Forstner acquire the rights to this design? They made enough bow designs of their own without having to steal one from somebody else. Because Forstner went out of business in the 1980s it’s not possible to get the answer to that question. However, perhaps they didn’t need to buy or steal it: the rights to the bow design may have expired. So I decided to find out how long a jewelry copyright lasts.
Most references to copyright describe it in relation to published (books, articles, etc) or artistic (paintings, sculpture, etc) works, rather than in regard to jewelry design which was usually a patent rather than a copyright. But a jewelry patent is often for something utilitarian such as a clasp mechanism, hinge pin, setting, and so forth. When it comes to how a piece of jewelry actually looks, the relevant phrase seems to be “design patent”. This is what I discovered about design patents:
The term of a utility or a plant patent is 17 years from the date of issue, subject to the payment of maintenance fees. The term of a design patent is 14 years from the date of issue and is not subject to the payment of maintenance fees.
Under these terms, Forstner could legally have reproduced the MJM’s exact bow in the 1940s or later, assuming that the MJM had patented the design in the early or mid 1930s (which is likely) but never renewed the patent after 14 years, probably because the company no longer existed or perhaps the designer of the bow had died and his heirs let the patent lapse. That would put the timeframe nicely in the late 1940s/early 1950s for Forstner, and they could in turn either copyright or patent that same design. They probably renewed the design patent two or three times before they themselves went out of business in the 1980s.
There is at least one example of Forstner picking up on a design patent that had expired: in the 1950s they produced a watch clip very similar to an expired 1929 patent by Krementz who had in turn based their design on a 1920s British patent for the “BonKlip”. I’m sure there were quite a few others!
Theory #4: This bow was originally made by a findings company that sold only to the MJM during the 1930s and then only to Forstner afterward. This is always a possibility to be considered, especially if the findings company either went out of business, or discontinued the design entirely, before Forstner themselves did.
So in the end we’re right back where we started: No clue as to who the 1930s Mystery Jewelry Maker was. If the Forstner Jewelry Company was still around, it would be easy to find out because that information would surely be in their legal archives. But now, 35+ years down the road? No way. There doesn’t even seem to be any detailed information online about Forstner other than what I’ve stated here. It would be nice to find a Forstner advertisement showing this bow (Google failed me here too) so that at least this piece could be precisely dated… but no. Sellers cite this brooch as being from the 1930s (because it’s a bow), or the 1940s (because of the mark style) or the 1950s (just because, I guess!). *sigh*
Sherlock Holmes, where are you when we need you???
Addendum January 2016: See 1930s Mystery Maker Brooches: The Large Bow for a followup to this post, including photos of the original Art Deco era version by the MJM.
If you have any information about the Mystery Maker’s jewelry (or information regarding the origin of the Forstner bow brooch) I’d be delighted to hear from you! Please use the Contact Form on the About the Chatsworth Lady page.