Apart from that lone transaction recorded in his costbooks, Manz's acquaintance with his customer is as mysterious as Coles herself. City directories and other sources reveal that after receiving a diploma from Cooper Union in 1912, Coles worked at Persian Rug Manufacturing Co., then for several years as assistant to another Manz client: Elinor Evans Klapp (Mrs. William H. Klapp), a designer of jewelry and decorative objects who occupied one of the artist studios at 80 West 40th Street, a fashionable Beaux Arts building overlooking Bryant Park designed by Lamb & Rich.
(Bronson Family Collection)
(Gustav Manz archive, Winterthur Museum Library)
Coles' job with Mrs. Klapp ended with her employer's death in August 1915; she returned to decorating for a few months, designing a pair of Persian panels for a New York house, before joining Louis Tiffany's art jewelry department under Meta Overbeck in 1917 (see Janet Zapata, The Jewelry and Enamels of Louis Comfort Tiffany, 1993; and Clare Phillips, Bejewelled by Tiffany, 2006).
Coles remained close to her mother, Hester Moulton Coles—who had separated from Isabelle's father, Robert MacQuoid, shortly after their daughter's birth and kept her family name. In 1912, Hester—who listed her occupation as dressmaker—married a prosperous rope manufacturer, Isaac Leroy Allen (1845-1925). When he died, Hester moved in with Izabel at 15 West 11th Street. Following her mother's death, in December 1929, Coles rented a flat in an apartment building on West 55th Street. By this time Coles (who rechristened herself Izabel after entering Cooper Union) had left Tiffany's employ and established her own studio at 19 East 57th Street. In 1931, she received this glowing notice in Harper's Bazaar:
"Here's a suggestion: Design your Personality into your Jewellery. And an idea that no woman would not be intrigued with, particularly when such a charming artist and craftswoman as Miss Izabel M. Coles interprets your personality into a resplendent necklace of varicoloured sapphires, set in a medieval design..."
designed by Izabel M. Coles
Sutherland cut portraits on other gems, but was particularly drawn to moonstone for its lustre and because traditional carvers did not make much use of it so her work would stand out from the antique.
While her forte was capturing the countenances of children, she also cut portraits of adults—including Edward S. Harkness, whose likeness was carved on a large moonstone as a gift to his wife and later made its way into the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The design for the mounting was Coles's, executed by New York goldsmith Vincent Provenzano. The moonstone used in the piece, provided by Tiffany gem expert George Kunz, was said to have been "a rare one" (see Bejewelled).
Coles designed all the mountings for Sutherland's miniatures, with Vincent Provenzano and Herman Koechendoerfer fabricating. Arnold Belais—whose family firm patented a non-tarnishable white-gold substitute for platinum—created one of Coles' individual pieces.
(Image from Magazine Antiques, January 1947)
Sutherland continued to take commissions while raising a family with her artist husband, Charles Molseley Sutherland. Fearing that practitioners of the glyptic art might vanish within a generation, she funneled her story and practical know-how into a book, The Romance of Seals and Engraved Gems (1965), then dedicated the work to Negri.
Coles, by contrast, seems to have followed fashion trends in materials and style, making the leap from gothic arabesques for Mrs. Klapp and Tiffany, to her own gem-carved floral jewelry designs in the 1930s, to adornments composed of enameled safety pins for a group show of "Modern Handmade Jewelry" (1946-1947) at the Museum of Modern Art. A press release in MoMA's archive referred to "new work by Izabel M. Coles of New York City, formerly of Tiffany's... suggestive of ancient Egyptian adornments..." Exhibitors included Alexander Calder and Anni Albers, who also emphasized everyday material and "found objects" (a brooch by another craftsman, Paris-born jeweler and engraver Marc Koven, of the firm Koven Frères, pushed the envelope with pieces incorporating fused earth taken from the atomic testing grounds in Alamogordo, New Mexico).
(Screen shot, WGBH)
Details about Coles' life, particularly post-1940s, are scant. In her 60s, she married Cornelius F. Shaw, a widowed contractor with three grown children, and predeceased him in 1964. In the 50s, she donated six of her early interior design elevations to the Cooper Hewitt (read more at Dining Rooms to Diamonds). A glimpse of Coles' jewelry archive surfaced in summer of 2009, when a relative in San Diego presented a scrapbook and some of Coles' jewelry to Antiques Roadshow for appraisal, including a couple of the "safety pin" assemblages from the MoMA show.
As for Gustav Manz's miniature of Shylock, one can only speculate whether Coles purchased it for a gift—her stepbrother was a musical theater actor—or if it remained in her possession through two wars, the Great Depression, and the dawning of "atomic" jewelry. Its manufacture coincided with a revival of The Merchant of Venice at The New Amsterdam Theater in New York, two years after its London run. We imagine Cole having the reverse side engraved with Portia's advice to the Prince of Morocco (which he ignores, thus losing her hand): 'All that glisters is not gold...'
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