Thesis Research 2015: “‘Jewelry for Gentlemen’: Krementz & Company’s Men’s Rolled Gold Plate, 1866-1940”
BY EMILY REBMANN
“‘Jewelry for Gentlemen’: Krementz & Company’s Men’s Rolled Gold Plate, 1866-1940” investigates the dearth of scholarship on the subject of American men’s jewelry from the time of the Civil War. It is framed by a broad inquiry into the larger cultural history of men’s jewelry and anchored by a specific case study of Krementz & Company, one of the most significant manufacturers of men’s jewelry during the period. I utilized archival records, primary and secondary sources, jewelry, photographs, oral interviews, and material analyses to explore men’s jewelry through a variety of lenses, including: advertising, retail, manufacture, and its relationship with men’s dress. In this thesis, I worked to contextualize men’s jewelry within the larger social, material, and technological constructs of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in order to achieve a deeper understanding of the significance that men’s jewelry had to those who wore it and those who designed and manufactured it.
On April 1, 1866, George Krementz established a jewelry manufacturing firm in Newark, New Jersey. The firm, which was originally known as Genung & Krementz, is better remembered by the name that marked its jewelry for over a century: Krementz & Company. Until 1878, Krementz was a “jobbing” company, meaning that it was a wholesale jewelry manufacturer that sold only to others in the industry. Unsurprisingly, little material evidence from this period of Krementz & Company’s history exists. Beginning in the 1880s, surviving archival material provides evidence that the company was producing what one writer called a “general line” of solid gold jewelry—some of which was set with gems. In May of 1884, George Krementz was granted a patent for a piece of jewelry called a collar button, which marked a turning point for the firm. It was the beginning of the company’s foray into the world of men’s jewelry; the creation of the first item of jewelry that would make the Krementz name known throughout the world.
Here, it is necessary to ask what became one of central questions in this thesis: what is men’s jewelry? For the thesis, I defined men’s jewelry as any male accessory created in a jewelry factory or by a jeweler. Specifically, I outlined and explored the following types of men’s jewelry within the study: cufflinks, cuff buttons, shirt studs, vest buttons, dress sets that consisted of the aforementioned items, collar buttons, tie pins and tie clasps, and rings.
Arrow Collar, ca 1900-1915 and Krementz Collar Buttons, ca 1890-1920. From the author’s personal collection. Photograph by the author.
Collar buttons, which have been worn throughout history by men, women, and children and could perform many different functions, were originally intended to fasten stiff, detachable, collars to men’s shirts. They were a particularly disparaged piece of jewelry, as one man described collar buttons as “…the cause of more profanity than any other inanimate object.”
Krementz Collar Button Machine, ca 1900. Image Courtesy of the Krementz Family.
But what made Krementz’s collar button different enough to become the first item produced by the company to be so popular that it was sold abroad? First and foremost, the collar button was made in one piece, which was a decided improvement on earlier, multiple-piece buttons with weak seams that had a tendency to break. Second, George Krementz was inspired to create a machine to produce these one-piece buttons after witnessing the manufacture of cartridges at the Centennial Exposition, and that machine yielded a then-astonishing 30-40,000 collar buttons per week. Almost too quickly to be believed, the button made Krementz & Company famous, providing it with name recognition unheard of for a company that never had its own retail location. The collar button was the subject of a Supreme Court Case, and numerous injunctions in lower courts, as competitors tried to either overturn the patent or “imitated” its one-piece construction—and sometimes even attempted to capitalize off of the company name. While the company’s design and cost books, now housed in the Newark Museum’s archives, show that Krementz & Company did continue to produce women’s jewelry, it was the patented men’s designs that made the company successful—and turned the largest profit.
Left: Black Tie Formalwear, 1922. Image in the Public Domain. Right: White Tie Formalwear, 1922. Image in the Public Domain
During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, men’s jewelry was governed by a series of regulations, set forth in etiquette manuals, popular magazines like Gentleman’s Quarterly, Vogue, and Vanity Fair, and even in advertisements. The specific rules that governed men’s jewelry changed over time as well as in relation to what event a man was attending and the time of day. The guidelines for men’s jewelry functioned as part a “dress code” of sorts that established a “uniform” which, if executed correctly, allowed men to transcend the boundaries of class—however briefly. This unfaltering emphasis on “correctness” of style has been explored in relation to other aspects of men’s dress, but rarely in relation to jewelry. While women could use jewelry to stand out, showcasing their personal taste or wealth, men were not permitted to do the same. Instead, men’s jewelry was held to a dual standard of “correctness” and functionality. This emphasis on function triggered a long line of patented clasps, fasteners, and other components of men’s jewelry, and Krementz & Company was one of the leaders of the charge.
Left: U.S. Patent # 752,293, Detail. Image in the Public Domain. Right: Shirt Stud with “Bodkin Clutch,” ca 1916. From the author’s personal collection. Photograph by the author.
Another extremely successful patent by the company was for a fastener, which it called a “Bodkin clutch,” that was intended to become the back of shirt studs and vest buttons, two items of men’s jewelry that worked to hold clothing together. There were many types of stud and button fasteners on the market, but the Krementz patent and a competitor’s “spring back” stud appear to have been the most popular. Fasteners were important—if a man’s shirt stud or vest button failed, he faced a wardrobe malfunction that could make him a spectacle—which was exactly what his “correct” jewelry was supposed to avoid.
Krementz & Company was one of the only manufacturing jewelers to widely advertise its designs. My survey of its advertisements indicated that the company tended to focus its ads on its patented men’s pieces. Krementz & Co. encouraged the purchase of its men’s jewelry for almost every conceivable occasion, and worked to convince its potential customers, through various marketing strategies, that its men’s jewelry was “proper” in every way. In one such advertisement, Krementz proclaimed: “Wherever you find well-dressed men—you find Krementz…jewelry. The two are inseparable. A man is not well-dressed unless every detail is right and Krementz jewelry is always correct.”
Comparison of the Gold (Au) Layers on a Krementz Collar Button (Green) and a Competitor’s Collar Button (Red) using XRF. Image Courtesy of Dr. Jennifer Mass.
Throughout the 20th century, Krementz & Company manufactured its men’s designs in a variety of materials, including rolled gold plate. Since rolled gold plate consisted of an exterior layer of gold bonded to a base metal through a modified Sheffield Process, it might be considered costume jewelry today—but what about in the period? In order to answer that question, I worked with Dr. Jennifer Mass to conduct a scientific analysis of some Krementz pieces from my personal collection. Countless Krementz advertisements claim that the layer of gold plate on any Krementz jewelry was several times thicker than the gold layers of other plated jewelry. In the above image, you can see the results of X-Ray Fluorescence conducted on a Krementz collar button & a competitor’s button. The Krementz button’s gold layer, represented by the green peak in the above photo, is much higher than the red peak of the competitor’s gold plate layer. This, which is just one of example of the type of test that we conducted, supports Krementz & Company’s claim. Although the term “costume” was not used for much of the period of this study, after reviewing the information that we ascertained through X-Ray Fluorescence and Raman Spectroscopy, it is clear that rolled gold plate would not have been condemned as “fake” jewelry at the time it was created. Company advertisements emphasized its superior craftsmanship, durability, and extra thick gold layer as hallmarks of a product that would “wear a lifetime.” In fact, this was actually a guarantee—Krementz & Company believed so strongly in the quality of its products that it replaced any broken or worn item of rolled gold plate jewelry without question.
“…the famous Krementz perpetual guarantee: ‘If unsatisfactory from any cause, at any time, any dealer or we will replace it free.’” Image Courtesy of the Newark Museum, Library and Archives
As for who wore rolled gold plate, it was appropriate for men of all backgrounds and classes. In fact, Winterthur’s own Henry Francis du Pont purchased a set of Krementz rolled gold plate cufflinks, shirt studs, and vest buttons in 1905. Krementz & Co stated that its men’s jewelry, which was made in materials that ranged from platinum and diamonds to rolled gold plate and mother of pearl, was intended to be accessible to men of “…every taste and pocketbook.” Although men of all means and backgrounds wore jewelry, it had different social implications for different groups. For example: the type and quantity of jewelry worn by a black male could act as a signifier of his thoughts on his relationship with the white American middle class, and recent immigrants often had to amend their personal taste in order to solidify their new status as Americans though outward appearance—including jewelry. Etiquette manuals warned that only “exceptional men” could skirt the established rules and not face ridicule or social limitations. Although the literary sources from the period present a constant barrage of guidelines and charts that illustrate “correct” men’s dress, it is difficult to know how many men followed the rules—and to what degree. In my thesis, I utilize a number of examples to explore this potential for discrepancy between prescriptive literature and action. Here, I will limit my commentary to the fact that the sheer number of pieces of “correct” men’s jewelry sold and the continued popularity of advertisements that played off men’s social anxieties indicate that a fair number did ascribe to the so-called dress code.
Krementz & Company “Loose Link” Cufflinks, ca 1910-1930. From the author’s personal collection. Photograph by the author.
In the years between WWI-WWII, the ubiquity of men’s jewelry, which had previously been required with certain garments—especially black and white tie—declined rapidly as formalwear became less common. For that reason, I chose to explore the significance of men’s jewelry between 1866 and 1940, the period in which it was a requirement for any well-dressed gentleman. In my thesis, I worked to provide a comprehensive overview of the basic types of men’s jewelry during the period, as well as explanations of their manufacture, advertisement, sale, and relationship with men’s clothing.
It is all too easy to write men’s jewelry off as “uninteresting” or “static,” which has led to a surprising lack of publication on the topic. During the period of this study, however, it was hotly contested. The relationship of men to their jewelry was complex: they were frustrated by collar buttons, concerned about deviating from the accepted standards of correctness, and eager to find jewelry that would perform its necessary functions with the least amount of hassle. Some men ignored the rules, using jewelry to symbolize freedom, while others clung to them in an effort to blend in with a social class or group that they aspired to join. The importance of jewelry that would fit in—by not being noticeable at all—was imparted to men at every turn. Perhaps the following quote, taken from a Krementz advertisement, says it best: “What is essential when a man appears in evening clothes? Correctness! That above everything else. Particularly this is true of his jewelry. Although small, it is conspicuous. Any deviation from a strict conformity to the rules of convention is immediately apparent to those in the know.”
Krementz & Company, Chestnut Street Factory, ca 1905-1909. Image Courtesy of the Krementz Family.
The complete text of the thesis can be accessed through this link—and is available electronically and in print through your local library! Of particular note to jewelry historians is the fact that the thesis contains previously unpublished images of the Krementz factory around the turn of the 20th century, since factory images from that period are rare.