Once upon a time Providence, RI, was arguably the Costume Jewelry Industry Capital of America.
During several glittering decades, Providence workshops and factories turned out pins and brooches, earrings and necklaces, clips and rings and all over the country women bought them in 5-and-10-cent stores and high-end department stores.
One of the most successful, among those manufacturers, was the Jonette Jewelry Company. For nearly 70 years, Jonette Jewelry, under the leadership of its founder, Abraham Lisker and his son, Gordon Lisker, produced thousands of designs. Abraham thought up the name “Jonette” by combining the first names of his parents, John and Etta.
That was back in the 1940s. Although Abraham had attended Brown University and had obtained a pre-med degree in 1933, he decided that instead of medicine, he’d pursue a career in business.
A. Lisker started as a costume jewelry salesman, and before long he struck out on his own.
Renting space in a factory in 1935, he began the Providence Jewelry Company. Abraham’s brother Nathan joined the firm and they became Lisker & Lisker. Soon the little company was selling to such prestigious stores as Macy’s, Hudson’s, Jordan Marsh and Bloomingdale’s.
World War II interrupted Abraham’s plans. After a stint in the US Army, Arbraham returned home to Providence and formed yet another company. This time it was the Jonette Jewelry Company.
Each piece of Abraham’s newly designed jewelry was marked with a copyright symbol and the initials J.J. The company made pins, necklaces and earrings.
The most popular items though were the pins. Among the first big sellers were some made with inlaid mother-of-pearl. A fork and spoon set with mother-of-pearl handles were best-sellers, followed by pearly ballerinas and sea creatures including some charming turtles.
Birds were popular too, and perky bluebirds, jeweled owls and hummingbirds joined the J.J. parade. Christmas trees proved to be a popular seasonal item and J.J. produced many variations in both silver tone and gold tone as well as green enameled trees, most with jeweled decorations.
Abraham and his designers found inspiration all around them. Flowers and leaves provided source material for entire lines of J.J. themes. (It was an open secret in Providence back in those days that a good many of the big name New York designers of “real” jewelry often “moonlighted” for costume jewelry firms to pick up some extra money.)
Abraham’s son Gordon was an athletic fellow, but an accident cut short his sports aspirations after college, and he was drawn to his father’s growing company. Before long, brother David, with degrees in business from Wesleyan University and the University of Chicago was welcomed into the firm.
In 1972, Abraham retired, and Gordon assumed the helm. The popularity of the J.J. line grew and sales were strong. But there was a price to pay for such popularity.
The designs were being copied. Within little more than a month after a major show, Gordon was astonished to find that the entire line had been copied in Taiwan – complete with the distinctive J.J. trademark. (Today’s collector may recognize these “knock-off” pieces by the indistinct and blurred J.J. mark. Real J.J. items are marked in crisp, clear letters.)
Gordon and the designers created a whole new line, and again the designs were copied, this time in Korea.
So Jonette Jewelry Company began to copyright each individual design, and to prosecute offenders. It was at about this time that the copyright logo on the back of each piece was altered from the capital JJ with Roman style letters to a more modern italicized version.
In 1986, at the same time the logo was changed, G. Lisker introduced the name “Artifacts” which appeared on the display card on which the jewelry was mounted. Today’s collector can distinguish “vintage J.J.,” which was manufactured between the mid-1940s and the mid-1980s, by the older style lettering in the trademark.
Contemporary J.J., with italicized letters, dates from 1986 to 2006 when Jonette Jewelry closed its doors.
There have been so many different design categories that collectors of J.J. are able to specialize if they want to. One popular theme was called “Santa Fe.” This pewter had a southwester look and included coyotes, cactus and armadillos.
A painted enamel line was popular in the 1980s, and the 1960s featured designs favored by the “flower children” of the time.
A mystical group of figurals included fairies, wizards, unicorns and winged horses.
J.J. made wonderful animals, from jungle cats to farm animals. Angels and Christmas trees inspired dozens of designs.
According to costume jewelry expert and author Kathy Flood, “Vintage J.J. pins are bargain gems. Some are beautiful creations full of surprises. Modern designs are witty and the product of active imagination.”
J.J. figurals, both vintage and contemporary, are readily available at shows and shops. That’s not surprising, since they are in continuous production for the better part of a century. (Something that is surprising though; you’ll find many dealers do not know the difference between the vintage and contemporary designs.)
Yard sales and thrift stores often yield a variety of J.J.s too. You might expect to pay between $5 and $25 for a nice J.J. at a shop or show, and less at a tag sale or thrift store. The larger, more glitzy pieces may sell in the $50 to $100 range.