Vintage view: Neiger Brothers costume jewels

Vintage view: Neiger Brothers costume jewels

Before I start chattering on about some gorgeous pretty things appreciated in the vintage market, let’s get a bruising punch-line right out of the way this week.

Amongst the victims of the Nazi death camps were many accomplished visual creatives. Probably most famous of them was Josep ?Capek, the Czech artist, writer and poet, who coined the world ‘robot’ and perished at Bergen Belsen in 1945.

Jessurun de Mesquita, also a victim of Auschwitz, and a hitherto largely forgotten Portuguese/Dutch graphic artist, is now gaining a following for the ‘serene simplicity’ of this striking woodcuts and etchings.

There were of course many, many others — amateur, professional, student and practicing artists and designers whose names have collapsed into dust and worthy mentions at Holocaust memorials and exhibitions.

Anyone who takes an interest in the finer end of vintage costume jewellery will discover another family name — that of Neiger, or more properly the Neiger brothers, who were also murdered with an entire generation of their Jewish brethren at Auschwitz in Poland.

Art Deco Neiger brooch featuring floral Peking glass panels layered under unusual decorative metal fish. The brooch is finished with a secure hook clasp. €111,
Art Deco Neiger brooch featuring floral Peking glass panels layered under unusual decorative metal fish. The brooch is finished with a secure hook clasp. €111,

The 12th century market town of Gablonz (Jablonec) now part of the Czech Republic, in Northern Bohemia, was at the centre of a glass bead making industry established in the 16th century.

Prosperous and multi-cultural with a strong German culture, the town was linked to the world by 1897 with a railway and the Great Mountain Road.

Hundreds of small factories produced pieces for chandelier making during the time of the Austro-Hungarian Empire serving clients all over Europe and the Americas.

In the 18th century many firms began to turn their attention to what was termed ‘synthetic’ jewel making, pieces in glass and base metals that flashed in candlelight like diamonds and precious stones, ideal for the growing middle class at play.

The elder Norbert Neiger, following dedicated training at the Gablonz School for Applied Arts in bijouterie (trinket-making), set up just such an enterprise in the basement of the family home.

His brother Max joined him and proving to be the more creatively brilliant, Norbert happily withdrew from the workshop to run the company.

The Neigers were so successful by the mid 1920s, they had to employ extra home-workers to assemble their signature beads, brooches, scent bottles and dress clips.

Magnificent Egyptian revival necklace from a regular selection at rare pieces start in the €200-€400 range.
Magnificent Egyptian revival necklace from a regular selection at rare pieces start in the €200-€400 range.

Local metal stampers tuned out the parts for their pieces, streamlining production.

Bohemian vintage jewellery has a huge following. Not only is there lots of it, but it’s affordable and in good condition and can still be worn and enjoyed.

The work of Max Neiger stands out for its imagination and wholly unexpected moments, and was imitated by other Czech firms.

To get some idea of how these exotic pieces would have been best seen — imagine a flapper, with her snake-skin close couture in the underwater light of a night-club, long beads swaying through her décolletage — or a young housewife applying one gorgeous flashy clip to the neckline of a lovely day dress.

These women (and doubtless plenty of men), were fascinated with the mysterious jewels and iconography from the tomb of King Tut that appeared all over the print news editions from 1922.

Designers across the world soon made the ancient the avante garde, and the Neiger brothers’ attempts at light hearted cultural cartooning were a smash hit, especially in America.

Glass was coloured to represent jade, jet, coral and other fine and semi-precious stones, rhodium plating was at a distance, perfect as rubbed gold.

The Chinese and Egyptian themed brooches of Neiger, dense with script, characters, gilding and bundles of glass reeds in tiny dioramas, are extremely popular today and survive in good numbers due to the weight and quality of the metal mounts.

My personal favourite are the plainer carved glass beads in opaque orange and green glass which feature all-round faces and ornamental Ikat cuts, rubbed with black tint. Very Bloomsbury Set.

Strings of beads are often re-strung following damage from wild partying, so ensure they are at or close to their original length before you buy.

Lighter elements like tubes of glass threaded on silk ribbon and hanging in panels or fans are prone to chipping, reducing the value of the piece. Identification can be difficult, as many Neiger pieces are not marked.

The best way to further your knowledge is to study known Neiger Bros’ jewels offered by reputable dealers. Look ‘Neiger Bohemian jewellery’ up in Google images, as they are so varied they really do defy description.

Pininteret has over 1,000 pictures from collectors and dealers to pore over. Prices range from less than €100 for some simple beads attributed to Max Neiger, to over €1,000 for a fabulous Egyptian revival brooch or necklace with mint enamel work.

Following the Munich Pact, and the hand-over of area of Gablonz to the Third Reich for the Sudeten Germans in 1938, the synagogue in the Gablonz was burned to the ground.

Despite fleeing with their family in the hope of escaping notice, the fate of the Neigers was sealed.

Their highly accessible and respected creations stand as a testament to the loss of all talented young lives across the world.

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