A unique genre among vintage jewelry collectors is what’s known as the Takahashi bird items. I hesitate to classify these as ‘costume jewelry’ because they truly are an art form. The backstory of the Takahashi birds is just as fascinating as the brooches themselves. The following is a brief summary.
Yoneguma and Kiyoka Takahashi were first-generation Japanese-American citizens. They were married in 1938, when both were still in their late teens. Although Yoneguma had been educated in both the USA and Japan, due to the prevailing economic conditions he had to find work in the produce industry at first. Kiyoka had been an art student throughout her high school and college years. The couple were living in California at the time of the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941.
In one of our nation’s most unsavory moments in history, Yoneguma and Kiyoka, along with their three young sons, were forced into one of the government’s internment camps along with many other Americans of Japanese parentage. The family was bussed to a camp in Arizona, and only permitted to bring whatever belongings they could physically carry.
In many of these internment camps, the inmates were taught various crafts; in the Arizona camp, one of those crafts was carving birds from small pieces of wood. According to Carol Takahashi’s website,
They collected the wood from old egg carts, and bits of wire, to create little legs, clipped from their window screens. They made the knives they carved with from old hacksaw blades. […] Some citizens mounted their birds on twigs [or] desert sagebrush, found around the camp. Some would mount safety pins on the backs of the birds to create a lapel pin or broche [sic].
The Takahashi family spent three and a half years in the internment camp. Upon their release, they returned to California and settled in Garden Grove. Instead of returning to fruit-selling, Yoneguma started a small business out of their home, creating and selling the carved and painted birds that he and his wife had learned to create. Their workmanship was so outstanding that soon, major department stores throughout the country were purchasing and stocking the Takahashi-made brooches and earrings. The production pressure was immense, but Yoneguma and Kiyoka created each piece themselves, although their sons would assist by making the birds’ legs from wire – for which they received a penny per leg. (Before you look askance at this, remember that during the mid to late 1940s, a cup of coffee cost either 5 or 10 cents – depending on the restaurant – and a gallon of gas cost 19 cents.)
Production of the bird jewelry continued until Kiyoka developed Lou Gehrig’s Disease and could no longer paint the birds that she so loved. She passed away in 1994, and her husband Yoneguma a decade later, at the age of 95. They have been recognized as the masters of this unique art form. Their granddaughter, Carol Takahashi, is the author of the premier reference book about the marvelous birds that her grandparents created; more detailed information about them can also be found on her website. The Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles contains a permanent collection of Takahashi birds.
Takahashi Bird Jewelry
The photos in this section are of original, authentic Takahashi bird pieces created by Yoneguma and Kiyoka Takahashi.
A pair of Blue Jay earrings.
A pair of Redstart (male and female) brooches, along with earrings to match them.
Two Bluebird brooches.
A Canada Goose brooch.
Three Cardinal brooches (two male and one female).
Two different species of Takahashi chickadees: a Chestnut-backed Chickadee (native to the west coast only) and two Black-Capped Chickadees (which range nationwide.)
The colorful male Fairy Wren, and his charming female. Notice the subtle shadings of colors in the painting technique that Kiyoka used.
Speaking of charming, look at this adorable Golden Crowned Kinglet brooch!
This represents the Great Grey Owl.
You probably don’t recognize this little fellow unless you happen to live in southern Arizona or Texas or have spent time in South America. It is the Green Kingfisher, who is more colorful (and less noisy) than our more familiar Belted Kingfisher which is mostly grey and white.
The Rivoli’s Hummingbird occupies some of that same range.
Another tropical denizen, the Pink Cockatoo.
A Meadowlark brooch.
Subtle differences distinguish the male (top) and female Thrush brooches.
Two different pheasant species display a blaze of color and impeccable detail, especially in the Lady Amherst’s Pheasant. This bird is native to Asia but small populations have been introduced on certain large British estates. We Americans can only admire from afar!
Knockoff and Replica Takahashi Jewelry
Just like any other rare and desirable collectible, there are copies, knockoffs, and deliberate fakes of Takahashi bird jewelry. Several resources can help in separating the wheat from the chaff, so to speak.
A great start would be this reference book, co-authored by Carol Takahashi and Julia Carroll who is an authority on vintage costume jewelry. It is out of print, making secondhand booksellers the only source nowadays.
The real birds came with a Certificate of Authenticity.
The type of pinback, the way it is attached to the bird, and also the way the real birds were signed with initials in some cases, all offer clues.
A knockoff blue jay compared to a real Takahashi.
This is a knockoff bird that, while painted rather well in most (but not all; the eye is wrong and the white/orange area below the wing is weird) areas, also has a dead giveaway in how the pinback is attached with screws rather than push-pins.
A quartet of fake Takahashi birds.
Compare the four real Takahashi hummingbirds with the faux one beneath. The knockoff looks chunkier, its bill is too short, the painting is too simplistic, the branch is painted green, and the legs look just a bit too long and too straight.
A real Takahashi bird, held in the hand for scale.
There were, however, four authorized replicas of Takahashi jewelry. These were created for the Manzanar National War Relocation Center Historic Site’s gift shop by woodcarving artist Jerry Simchuk for Manzanar exclusively, and with permission. The last known retail price was $150 per bird; it’s not known whether they have any special markings on the back to clearly identify them as replica pieces, but I assume that they should have.
An eBay search typically will turn up anywhere between 75 and 100 listings for either ‘Takahashi’ or ‘Takahashi style’ bird jewelry. A search just now for Takahashi bird turned up 88 listings, 39 of which were titled either “Takahashi style” or “Takahashi?”, indicating that the seller was being honest about it NOT being an actual Takahashi bird. Of the remaining 49 listings that claimed to be actual Takahashi bird brooches, only 16 of them had the correct pinback and were painted in a way that closely matches the authentic Takahashi birds (one of those is a Pink Cockatoo that is also signed KT; the listing has a Buy It Now price of $250 Or Best Offer, and has been on eBay for almost five months as of this writing.) Of the other 30-plus eBay listings claiming to be Takahashi birds, they either have the wrong kind of pinback or have no photo of the back at all, or have the correct pinback but are painted and/or carved so poorly that nobody with any knowledge of how the Takahashi birds really looked would consider them authentic. The sad part is that quite a few of the wrong-pinback sellers are asking prices in the same ballpark as are some sellers of actual Takahashi birds. It just goes to show, once again, how ‘knowledge is power’ when navigating the shoals of the online marketplace!