“Beauty is my business!” (Carnegie, 1942) Hattie Carnegie was a fashion entrepreneur based in New York, between 1920s and 1960s.
She was born in Vienna, Austria as Henrietta Kanengeiser, in Austrian Jewish tailor family as a second child of seven siblings. Henrietta Kanengeiser was just a teenager when her family left Austria for the United States around 1900. Upon their arrival, the family settled into New York’s Lower East Side, where they hoped to work in the garment factories. During one of the trips, Henrietta asked a man who the richest, most successful person in America was, and he told her, “Andrew Carnegie.” Some years later, when she was in her 20s, she adopted “Carnegie” as her last name, and the rest of her family, trying to blend into American culture. Henrietta eventually got in with Macy’s as a salesgirl, a position that promised a lot of mobility for a girl of her background. At Macy’s, she became a student of women’s clothing and fashion accessories; her job in the hat department earned her the nickname “Hattie.”
She went from being a destitute Macy's messenger girl who owned three blouses and one skirt to controlling, at its high point, a ten-million-dollar empire. Her five companies included custom and ready-to-wear clothing, hats, perfume, and fabulous costume jewelry. For decades, her personal taste and fashion sense influenced the styles worn by countless American women. While it’s believed Carnegie produced jewelry to complement her clothing, particularly her trademark “little Carnegie suits,” her official line of marked jewelry did not hit the market until 1939. Like Chanel and Elsa Schiaparelli, Carnegie flourished in the “cocktail jewelry” movement (1935-1960), where pieces like brooches and demi-parures of necklaces, bracelets, and earrings put the finishing touches on outfits.
Carnegie’s designs, whether it was hats, clothing, or jewelry, were adored by Hollywood stars and other American celebrities including Tallulah Bankhead, Joan Fontaine, Norma Shearer, and Joan Crawford. Carnegie seemed to have a sixth sense about the taste of American women, flying to Paris on a regular basis and then returning home to adapt the latest look to U.S. sensibilities.
In the 1930s and 1940s, her clothes were considered smart, neat, and tailored. She particularly excelled at the little black dress. In contrast, her jewelry designs were downright wild, giving a touch of flair to otherwise conservative outfits. She commissioned a wide array of talented jewelry designers to work in a variety of styles, but in general, Hattie Carnegie pieces tended to stay away from all-paste copies of gemstone fine jewelry. She employed plastics, enamels, and gilt metals. Her brooches became iconic in the 1950s.
One of her more popular jewelry collections is the Oriental line, inspired by Far Eastern and Indian motifs. This includes elaborate metal human figures detailed with tiny rhinestone and faux pearls that can stand up of their own, as well as things like a figural elephant carrying a howdah and a snuff-bottle pendant.
Other collected Carnegies' include the animals in her menagerie of stylized brooches, which took inspirations from the African art that influenced Paris fashion in the 1930s. These figures, produced well into the 1950s, were made of Lucite in bold colors like red-orange, emerald green, ivory, and turquoise blue, and were trimmed with rhinestones, colored beads, and gilt metal. Collectors covet the fish and long-horned goats, but the anteater is the most prized of all.
Some of Carnegie’s top jewelry designers included Kenneth Jay Lane, her protege Norman Norell, and Nadine Effront, a French sculptor and one-time student of George Braques. Years after Carnegie’s death in 1963, Effront designed a popular Greek-themed collection for Hattie Carnegie jewelry, using atypical materials such as terra cotta, tortoise, and hammered gold.
Lane, meanwhile, served as the creative director at Hattie Carnegie jewelry before he struck out own his own in the ’60s with a wildly popular line of giant plastic earrings adorned with rhinestones. His creations were eventually worn by Elizabeth Taylor, Audrey Hepburn, Barbara Bush, and Nan Kempner.
Carnegie jewelry, whether animal-inspired or abstract, is noted for its attention to detail and creativity. For example, a gilt-metal apple has a tiny slice cut out. The jewelry line also has a traditional, romantic side, with necklaces and bracelets made of double- and triple-strand crystal, glass, and rhinestone beads, graceful chokers with trailing chains, and large brooches with giant shimmering stones in rich colors.
Carnegie died in 1956, so the Hattie Carnegie jewelry that was designed before then, under her direction and requiring her approval, is most valued by collectors. These items, usually ranked highly in costume jewelry guides, are worth collecting, even if they are damaged or are missing rhinestones.
Hattie Carnegie's early jewelry was designed to complement her clothing line. Her jewelry is usually marked “Hattie Carnegie” or “Carnegie.” A less frequently used mark is “HC” within a diamond, inside a semi-oval. Hattie Carnegie's hair ornaments and cases are sometimes marked “Pooped Pussy Cat” or “Pooped Poodle.”
Larry Josephs took over the Hattie Carnegie firm in the late 1960s, and in the 1976, the company was acquired by Chromology American Corporation. The Hattie Carnegie brand was still being used in the late 1970s, particularly on designer lines like Yves Saint Laurent for Carnegie (1978), Anne Klein for Carnegie (1979), and Valentino for Hattie Carnegie (1979).
Today, Hattie Carnegie's jewelry is what has lasted, showcasing the full range of designs, from glamorous rhinestone bracelets to exotic oriental pins.