From Mamie Eisenhower to Madonna

Trifari is the most successful, and probably the best known, of all costume jewellery manufacturers.

Its founder, Gustave Trifari (1883-1952), was born in Naples where he trained as a goldsmith. He emigrated to the US in 1904 where he began making costume jewellery with his uncle, under the name Trifari & Trifari.

In 1912 he launched Trifari to sell high-quality pieces. Leo Krussman joined as sales manager in 1917 and the firm became Trifari & Krussman a year later. In 1923 Karl Fischel joined as salesman and two years later Trifari, Krussman & Fischel was formed. The company was commonly known as Trifari.

Trifari’s success was based on the quality and range of its output. Whether a pair of earrings was destined for a dime store or top department store, the same attention to detail was invested in its design and manufacture.

In 1930 Alfred Philippe joined as head designer. The Frenchman had designed precious jewellery for the likes of Cartier and Van Cleef & Arpels and brought the techniques he had used for these pieces to the creation of costume jewellery. He was particularly adept at a technique known as invisible setting, where the gems were fixed from the back of the setting, leaving no visible mount. His use of high-quality Swarovski crystals led to his bosses being known as the “Diamanté Kings”.

In the following decade Trifari became the second largest costume jewellery manufacturer after Corocraft, its jewellery worn by stars on Broadway and in Hollywood.

In 1942 war shortages forced the company to use silver rather than base metals as a setting for its stones. Five years later Trifari attempted to return to base metals but customers demanded silver. In response the company developed Trifarium – a special alloy that did not tarnish.

Alfred Philippe’s most successful designs include the 1930s crown pins and 1940s Lucite jelly bellies, patriotic pins and fruit salad tutti frutti pins. In the 1950s he was inspired by Moghul jewellery, and a set from this range was worn by Madonna when she appeared in the film Evita. Other 1950s styles include gilded metal jewellery decorated with diamante and pearls.

Possibly the company’s crowning moment came in 1953 when Mamie Eisenhower wore a Trifari parure of pearl choker, necklace and earrings at her husband Dwight Eisenhower’s Presidential inauguration ball – first ladies traditionally wore precious gems. She wore another parure for his 1957 ball.

Alfred Philippe retired in 1968; designers who followed him included André Boeuf and Diane Love.

The company was sold to the Hallmark corporation in 1975 and Liz Claiborne in 2000.
Marks include “Jewels by Trifari”, T.K.F. and Trifari. A crown mark was added after c.1937 and a copyright mark was used after 1954 when Trifari won a legal battle with Coro over copyright infringement. The legal ruling stated that costume jewellery should be treated as works of art and subject to copyright.