What defines “fine” jewelry? For many aficionados, there’s a clear line separating the golden wheat from the gilded chaff. But the handcrafted pieces made by Ciner, a 128-year-old costume jewelry house with a glittering past to rival some of the hautest high jewelers, call into question our notions of what constitutes preciousness.
Much of the Ciner’s allure can be traced to its origins in fine jewelry. Emanuel Ciner, an Austrian immigrant, founded the firm in Manhattan in 1892, crafting pieces from the traditional precious gems, gold and platinum. But World War I and the Great Depression caused purse strings to tighten and materials to become scarce. Rather than try to weather the economic downturn, which shuttered many other American jewelers, Ciner made the risky transition from fine jewelry to costume (or fashion) jewelry — virtually uncharted territory.
Emanuel Ciner’s sons, Irwin and Charles, introduced an array of innovations — rubber casting molds, which are especially durable and produce higher quality results, and white metal alloys, which affordably mimic the look of more precious materials — that would become the standard for costume jewelry. During World War II, Ciner’s advanced molding technology was utilized by the U.S. military to produce munitions and tools. This arrangement gave the firm access to the heavily rationed metals it needed for its jewels, enabling it again to endure conditions that drove others into bankruptcy.
The company hit its stride in the 1960s, when its jewelry was sold at some of the country’s toniest stores, even garnering an Andy Warhol–illustrated ad for Bonwit Teller. Its pieces were worn by the era’s brightest stars. In the famous 1957 Joe Shere photo of Sophia Loren sneering at Jayne Mansfield’s décolletage, Mansfield is resplendent in shoulder-grazing Ciner earrings.
Ciner is unique among costume jewelers in that its pieces aren’t imitations — they are coveted in their own right. Elizabeth Taylor, a voracious jewelry collector with a taste for the very finest, was a longtime client. Several suites of Ciner jewels were included in the 2011 Christie’s sale of Taylor’s collection, with one group of rhinestone-studded ear clips and a bracelet fetching $15,600 — more than 100 times the auction estimate. It’s a reminder of a time, not so long ago, when women of great style wore fine and costume jewelry with equal aplomb, often at the same time.
Today, Ciner — now run by Emanuel Ciner’s granddaughter Pat Ciner Hill and great-granddaughter Jean Hill — continues to adhere to the same exacting production specifications. It is the only jewelry house in New York, and likely the United States, that manufactures all its pieces entirely in-house. Each begins with dozens of elements that are cast in rubber molds and then individually filed and polished, plated in a particularly thick layer of 18-karat gold or rhodium, assembled on the bench and painted with enamel or set with stones. Every step is performed by hand by craftsmen, many of whom have been with the company for more than 30 years.