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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.