Thursday, August 28, 2014

THE JEWELRY WHISPERER


This weekend we made a quick pilgrimage to Ogunquit, Maine hoping to find traces of Angela Vedder, a self-taught jeweler and gem collector who lived there during the 1920s and whose father-in-law, Elihu Vedder, was one of the early members of the art colony. 




Art Colony, Perkins Cove, Ogunquit Maine, circa 1930s 
Boston Public Library

With husband Enoch Rosecrans Vedder, Angela designed clasps for brocade purses and carved wooden chests that married well with the hand-wrought jewelry the couple exhibited at Chicago Art Institute shows and other venues. The Craftsman noted that Mrs. Vedder not only executed her designs but forged her own tools.



Handbags and other accessories by Angela Vedder 
The Craftsman, January 1916

Enoch's main profession was designing villas for expats like his parents, who owned a compound on the Isle of Capri. The younger Vedders' city residence was a Manhattan penthouse in the East 20s, where they kept a collection of historical jewelry picked up from trips abroad. After burglars fleeced the apartment during a daylight robbery in 1910, The New York Times reported: "There is only one clue to the identity of the robbers. Two of the most valuable necklaces in Mrs. Vedder's collection were not taken. At first Mrs. Vedder could not understand this. Later an idea came to her. These were the only jewels in her collection which contained opals. The burglars were superstitious, she thinks." 

The Times picked up on the inference—that opals had a reputation in certain immigrant communities for bringing bad luck, so might be difficult to fence—and concluded jingoistically that "American burglars are usually of stiffer mold." Enoch managed to recover some of the stolen articles, tracing them to local pawn shops.* 


Elihu Vedder design for mermaid window (detail), A.H. Barney residence NY, 1882 
Cooper Hewitt Museum

Following Enoch's death in 1916 (from a fever he contracted while convalescing from a "nervous collapse" at his parents' home in Italy), Angela kept the Vedder studio on Bleecker Street going, running advertisements in Vanity Fair (under her married name, "Mrs. Enoch R. Vedder") for her color-coordinated purse clasps and hand-made jewelry. After America entered WWI, her career took an unexpected turn. Hearing of the challenges facing amputees and shell-shocked American soldiers sent home from the battlefields in France, she founded and taught the first "occupational therapy" jewelry classes for injured veterans at Walter Reed Army Hospital (midcentury silversmith Margaret Craver filled a similar role during WWII).  

In 1924, having resumed her career as "Society's 'Personality Jeweler'" Vedder shared her Walter Reed experience with Mary Small, a reporter for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle: "You know, a good many of the boys—the ones that had lost arms or hands or legs—didn't much care what became of them. They thought nobody wanted them around because they were crippled. So they didn't make the slightest effort towards getting well. The doctors and nurses didn't know what to do with them. They couldn't be stirred out of their despondency. Then I came along with my jewelry—with its message of love and beauty and humanity—and almost at once things began to change... It was something to make you want to be ten people, to make a hundred more boys see things rationally. And a the same time it was fitting some of them for good jobs later on." 


Vedder, at left, teaching soldiers at Walter Reed hospital 
Jewelers' Circular, April 19, 1919

Over the next decade Vedder traveled to Havana, the UK, Scandinavia, and the European continent, returning to Ogunquit each summer with fresh treasures to share with customers who visited her 18th-century rose-trellised cottage on Oar Weed Lane, overlooking Perkins Cove. Her shop, adjacent to a popular tearoom called the Whistling Oyster, offered hand-made jewelry, carved jade and Chinese enamels, antique caskets and other objets appealing to those in search of global chic.



Passport photo of Angela Vedder in her late 40s
 National Archives 

In fall of 1931, Vedder's annual pilgrimage to visit friends in Europe ended tragically when she contracted a severe case of chicken pox. She died at the hospital in Marseille on October 13, two weeks shy of her 55th birthday. Her remains were interred at Saint-Pierre Cemetery. Survivors in America included a sister in New York, and three nephews.



From Lost York County by Steven A. Burr, The History Press, Copyright 2009

None of Vedder's own jewelry (even the mysteriously passed-over opals) has surfaced or been identified in sales or exhibits. But her conviction that craftwork can be restorative for both maker and collector certainly lives on—as we learned on our stroll through Perkins Cove. The tearoom and building that housed Vedder's gallery were lost to fire in the 1970s, shops featuring local artisans (including one named for the original Whistling Oyster) now crowd Oar Weed Lane like wildflowers sown by the town's original bohemians. 

Postscript: During her marriage to Enoch, Vedder lived in Kips Bay, at 50 East 29th, not far from Gustav Manz's jewelry studio on East 28th Street. His work may have been known to her from his participation in craft exhibits at the National Arts Club and other venues. Though he fabricated stock items for his retail customers, like other art jewelers of that time, he often used semiprecious stones in his own designs. Below, a production sketch pasted into one of Manz's costbooks for an 18kt gold and enamel brooch set with jade cut into discs and marquise shapes (sold to Tiffany & Company circa 1923) 


* For more on the theft of the Vedders' jewels see "Artistic Thieves Rob the Vedders: Rare Discrimination Shown by Men Who Devastate the Home of Antique Workers" (New York Times, July 6, 1910) and "On the Trail of Thieves with Art Training: Rare Objects Stolen from E.R. Vedder a Year Ago Appear Here in Pawnshop" (New York Times, July 25, 1911). 

Thanks to Jane Shapleigh Edgecomb, administrator at the Historical Society of Wells and Ogunquit, for information about the art colony, and to the University of Wisconsin Digital Library of the Decorative Arts and Material Culture for image from The Craftsman

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Copyright © Laura Mathews

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