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Irving Wolf and Trifari, A View from the Top
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During the 2005 VFCJ Convention in Providence, Rhode Island, I had the pleasure and privilege of meeting and interviewing Mr. Irving Wolf, who worked at Trifari from 1940 until 1981, and his charming wife, Ruth. This article is the result of that interview. Susan Corwin

Irving Wolf and Trifari, A View from the Top

When 25-year-old Irving Wolf joined Trifari in 1940, he probably had no idea that he would be its CEO by the time he retired in 1981. Prior to joining Trifari, he held a number of non-engaging jobs that he describes as "folding towels at Macy's and slicing baloney". His first job with Trifari came at the suggestion of his father.

Mr. Wolf's father was trained as an industrial engineer, but was working as a court appointed receiver in the late 1930's when he received a call concerning financial problems at Trifari. A bank was willing to help the ailing company, but only if Mr. Wolf, Sr. was hired as its general manager. This was about 1937 or 1938. In 1940, Mr. Wolf, Sr. suggested that his son, Irving, might like to work for Trifari, and secured his first job there, in the shipping department.

He eventually advanced to the sales and advertising department, was sent to England to develop manufacturing plants there, became the CEO in the early 1970's, and retired in 1981.

The 3 partners that came together to form Trifari, Krussman, and Fishel (TKF, later known simply as Trifari) were Gustavo (Gus) Trifari, the Italian Catholic with a flair for design; Carl Fishel, the Jewish salesman extraordinaire, and Leo Krussman, the non-committed (religion-wise) businessman. The Wolfs described Gus as an old world gentleman with a delightful personality, somewhat retiring. He was the original designer for the company before Alfred Philippe joined the firm in 1930. Mr. Krussman was described as a convivial gentleman, who knew all aspects of the business. Together, this melting pot of men created, perhaps, the premier costume jewelry company of all time. All 3 men had either sons and/or sons-in-law, who also joined the company.

Costume jewelry collectors and scholars have long been entranced by the fabulous designs that Alfred Philippe created for Trifari. Fans of his designs may have imagined that the man matched his creations in elegance and style, in the mode of Yves Montand, for example. But this was not the case. According to Irving Wolf and his wife, Ruth, Mr. Philippe was a short, chubby man with a black mustache and a thick French accent, closer in appearance to Alfred Hitchcock than the aforementioned Yves Montand.

While not that much is known about the personal life of Mr. Philippe, a glimpse into his personality is afforded by anecdotes related to Ruth Wolf by Mrs. Philippe. Describing their wedding night, Mrs. Philippe said that her husband carefully placed his pants beneath the mattress so they would be pressed and ready to wear the next morning. She also said that after pointing out to her new husband a crucifix hanging in the bedroom, he promptly turned it over toward the wall, so as not to offend this symbol of the Catholic Church.

Mr. Philippe had come to Trifari from the world of fine jewelry, and brought this heightened sensibility to his costume jewelry designs. Even though, in most cases, his name appears on the patents, the design department was definitely a collaborative effort, and credit should be given to the other talented designers that worked with Mr. Philippe. Jean Paris worked under Mr. Philippe, and Andre Boeuf, who worked under Mr. Philippe starting in 1955, took over when Mr. Philippe retired in 1968.

The designer Diane Love worked with Trifari for about 3 to 4 years in the 1970's. She had earned a PhD in Art History at Columbia University, and was entranced by the art and artifacts that she saw in her travels. These were the inspiration for her designs that were manufactured by Trifari. Her designs were made in small quantities of 50 to 300 pieces. The pieces did not bear Diane Love's name. They did originally come with paper hangtags with her name. When asked about the collaboration between Trifari and Diane Love, Mr. Wolf characterized it as difficult.

Watches were a part of the Diane Love collection, and Trifari produced many different watch designs over the years. In the 1950's they produced a number of wristwatches and watch pins.

At one point in his career, Trifari management suggested that Mr. Philippe and his design staff re-locate from New York City to Providence, in order to be closer to the manufacturing plant. This proved to be a bad idea because Providence did not provide the artistic and social stimulation that he and his staff had been used to in NYC: the museums, theater, and fashion world that provided them with ideas for their jewelry designs. In the words of Mr. Wolf, "Mr. Philippe stagnated creatively during his time in Providence". So, after a short and unproductive stay in Providence, the design staff was sent packing back to NYC.

Mr. Wolf was not directly involved in the design department at Trifari. To prove that point he explained: "If they showed me a design and I liked it, they rejected it. If they showed me a design and I didn't like it, they put it into production!"

The costume jewelry business was, and still is, very competitive. Some companies were not averse to stealing designs from the competition, and this made the successful companies, like Trifari, wary. Mr. Wolf recalled a working lunch at the company's 57th St. design office in NYC where he, Mr. Fishel, and others were gathered around a table looking at some new designs. Mr. Fishel happened to look up and see a window washer peering in at them. He immediately covered up the designs just in case the "window washer" was, in reality, an industrial spy!

While the companies may have been fierce competitors in the marketplace, there was room for détente between the individuals involved. According to Mr. Wolf, Mr. Fishel of Trifari and Mr. Rosenberger of Coro were friendly enough to play cards together.

After the outbreak of WWII, tin, which was an important component of the casting metal used by jewelry makers, was diverted to the war effort. Many jewelry companies, including Trifari, switched to sterling silver during the war years.

In addition to the changes in its jewelry manufacturing during the war, Trifari also went into the manufacturing of cartridge shells for the army, and torpedo parts for the navy. They also cast parts for Pratt-Whitney airplane engines. Trifari's war time efforts continued on during the Korean War when, as Mr. Wolf puts it, they "went in head over foot" providing components for the navy's proximity timing fuses with a work force of approximately 700 people. Trifari was the sole manufacturer of 3 difficult parts, which were sent to watch companies for final assembly. It was during the Korean War that Trifari reached its peak in terms of number of employees: 1200 people worked for Trifari at that time. At the end of the war, the Bulova Watch Company, a large manufacturer of timing fuses, bought from Trifari the automatic equipment that its engineers had designed.

Trifari grew in size and importance over the years. In 1940 they occupied 12,000 sq. ft. of space, but by 1966 that had increased to 110,000 sq. ft.

One of the most significant pieces of information gleaned from Mr. Wolf will, hopefully, correct the widely held belief that Trifanium is the name for a special plating invented by Trifari. According to Mr. Wolf, and corroborated by Trifari plant manager, Alex Metcalfe (who took over from Gus Trifari), Trifanium is the name for a special alloyed casting metal used by Trifari to create the cast pieces for their jewelry. The Trifanium castings were then filed, polished, and plated.

Trifari developed its own plating solutions for both gold and rhodium colors. The gold plating solution contained real gold and was applied much thicker than industry standards. While some gold jewelry had a finish 1 millionth of an inch thick, Trifari's was 8 millionths of an inch thick. Rhodium, a rare metal found in conjunction with platinum ore, is difficult to work with but it provides a beautiful, non-tarnishing finish. In fact, it is sometimes used in the industry as a plating over sterling silver because of its non-tarnishing property.

Trifari felt that their plating solutions were superior to others on the market, and made them available to other jewelry companies. Rather than keep these solutions to itself, Trifari was more interested in raising product standards for the industry as a whole. Some of the companies that Mr. Wolf recalls selling these plating solutions to: Speidel, S. Rappaport Co., Brier Mfg., and Napier.

These plating solutions were quite expensive, which led to some nefarious activity by one customer's employee. Each bottle of plating solution had a unique stock number attached to it, and complete records were kept of every bottle sold. It came to the attention of Mr. Wolf that one customer's orders had doubled over the course of a year, so he called to investigate. He was informed that production had not increased, and so there was no logical explanation for the increase in plating solution purchases. Mr. Wolf devised a "sting" operation where someone was sent out to buy bottles of plating solution on the open market. The bottles purchased turned out to be ones that had been sold to the suspect account. An employee had been siphoning off the extra bottles and selling them on his own.

Mr. Wolf is particularly proud of Trifari's community mindedness. Trifari was the first company to make a sizable monetary contribution to the Brown Medical School. As the person in charge of community relations for the company, Mr. Wolf received acknowledgment for the various charitable donations, but he was quick to point out that it was Trifari as a whole that made these charitable donations a high priority.

Mr. Wolf has fond memories of his career with Trifari. He describes the company as a family, which encouraged and supported him over the years. And Mrs. Wolf remembers company get-togethers as being quite convivial. The Wolfs attended the annual 24Karat Club dinner in NYC at the Waldorf Astoria. In keeping with the times, she explains that there was a separate dinner for the wives. Over the years, they attended weddings of co-workers' families and, in general, remember the people as embracing, and the company as loyal to its employees. Trifari was early to provide a pension plan for its workers.

In addition to his duties as head of Trifari, Mr. Wolf also served as the President of the Manufacturing Jewelers & Silversmiths of America, a large organization with some 2200 members.

During Mr. Wolf's tenure with Trifari, they were the exclusive agent for the sale of Majorica Pearls. A competitor tried to piggyback on the success of the Majorica line by selling a similarly named product, which copied the packaging of the real Majorica pearls. Trifari took the copycats to court for copyright infringement to stop them.

Mr. Wolf shed light on the patent versus copyright issue. Many early jewelry designs were patented, in hopes of preventing copycats from stealing them. Management at Trifari eventually realized that the patent process was both costly and ineffective, in part because it took so long. By the time the patent was issued, the damage had been done. The design thieves had completed their copying and selling, and had moved on to something else. Therefore, sometime in the 50's to 60's Trifari switched to copyrighting its designs instead. This was easily accomplished by filing papers with the copyright office, and shipping a sample of each new design (marked with the Trifari name and the copyright symbol) via interstate commerce to a trusted individual. After adopting this method of protecting its designs, Trifari was able to take the copycats to court and it won every case.

When asked about sources for materials used in the creation of Trifari jewelry, Mr. Wolf stated that some rhinestones were supplied by Swarovski, but that some stones were designed by Alfred Philippe and manufactured especially for Trifari. Chain was purchased from Armbrust Chain in Providence, and clasps were often made by Trifari to complement a specific design.

Faux pearls were used in many Trifari designs. Originally, Trifari made their own pearls, but eventually decided to look for a manufacturer who could supply them with faux pearls at a lower cost. Mr. Wolf reports that it took approximately 2 years working with a Japanese firm to achieve the results that they were looking for. When the appearance and durability of the Japanese pearls was acceptable, Trifari ceased manufacturing their own pearls.

Mr. Wolf confirmed the origin of what we now call "jelly bellys". As he recalls, in the day, they were simply referred to as the "lucite group". Someone at Trifari, perhaps Alfred Philippe, thought of using the imperfect discards from the manufacture of lucite airplane windshields to make lucite cabochons for jewelry. These are now among the most highly collectible Trifari creations.

Over the years, there were certain designs that became "best sellers". Among those that Mr. Wolf recalls are the crown pins, and the honeycomb style bracelet. This versatile bracelet, originating in the late 40's, was created in a number of variations, some plain, others accented with rhinestones.

A high point for Trifari came in 1953, and again in 1957, when Mrs. Dwight D. Eisenhower elected to wear Trifari jewels at the Presidential Inaugural Balls. Mr. Wolf related that two Trifari employees (the head of the pearl department and a pearl stringer) were sent to Washington to custom fit Mrs. Eisenhower's necklace. All of the Eisenhower pearls are on display at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C.

Experienced collectors and dealers of vintage costume jewelry always look at the backs of pieces for clues to age, quality, and condition. Mr. Wolf explained that probably in the early 50's Trifari switched from a smooth finish on the backs to a textured finish. The reason: profitability. It became too expensive to produce the smoothly polished surface on the backs. Through the years, other manufacturing changes were dictated by cost, materials availability, and the fashion world. Alfred Philippe traveled to Paris at least once a year to attend the fashion shows and insure that Trifari designs were "au courant".

In addition to its main office and manufacturing plant in Providence, Trifari at one time had both a sales/advertising and separate design offices in New York City, and branch offices in Atlanta, Chicago, Los Angeles and London.

It is thought that Trifari was the first costume jewelry company to advertise nationally, in such magazines as Vogue, Harper's Bazaar, Glamour, Mademoiselle and Life.

The sales team at Trifari devised a method for getting through the normal slow down in business after the holidays. They promoted a special line to their best customers, usually one high profile retailer per city, such as Saks, Bergdorf-Goodman, Marshall Field, and Nieman Marcus. They accepted pre-orders on this line from September through November, which were shipped within one month, and which helped the company weather the post-holiday slump.

Some significant dates in the history of Trifari:

In 1966, Mr. Wolf helped to design, equip, and build a new, modern factory.
In 1975, Trifari was purchased by Hallmark. Mr. Louis Krussman (son of Mr. Leo Krussman) and Mr. Fishel both retired shortly after the Hallmark buy-out.
Mr. Wolf served as a consultant to the company following his retirement.
In 1988, it was purchased by Crystal Brands.
In 1994, it was purchased by Chase Capitol Partners, a division of the Monet group
In 2000, the Monet group (including Trifari) was purchased by Liz Claiborne.

One of the devastating consequences of the Hallmark buyout was the dismantling of the huge archive of samples that had been assiduously collected and stored in a safe over the years. Mr. Wolf watched helplessly as thousands of design samples were thoughtlessly given away to friends of the head Hallmark "appointee" to the company. Costume jewelry scholars can only shudder at the enormity of the loss that this represents.

Trifari is responsible for some of the designs most coveted by serious vintage costume jewelry collectors. In particular, the pieces created during the period when Alfred Philippe led the design department. Mr. Wolf was privileged to be a part of this creative, and socially responsible, company, and we are privileged to learn about his experiences with the company through this interview.

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