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In the 1953 film ‘Gentlemen Prefer Blondes’ when Marilyn Monroe sung ‘Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend’ she referenced the biggest names in jewellery in America at that time, one of which was Black, Starr & Frost.
Widely recognised as the oldest jewellery firm in America, Black Starr & Frost trace their roots back to 1810 and the opening in New York of ‘Marquand & Paulding’ by Isaac Marquand at 164 Broadway. Already an established silversmith and clock maker, Marquand sold a variety of goods including silverware and jewellery from a small private office. As was often the case at this time, the business grew slowly and changed both name and location many times over the next few decades. By 1833 the firm had street level premises and they installed large plate glass windows through which to display their merchandise to pedestrians walking by, thereby enabling the new fashionable pastime of ‘window shopping’. They took the American eagle as their logo and clients came to refer to them as being “at the sign of the golden eagle”.
In 1851 the company became Ball, Black & Co. and were one of relatively few American jewellers to exhibit at The Great Exhibition in London’s Crystal Palace where records show their display included a four piece tea service crafted from pure gold. By 1860 a mark of their success stood proudly on the corner of Broadway and Prince Street, a beautiful purpose built building in gleaming white marble. One particularly notable client at this time was America’s First Lady, Mary Todd Lincoln. Known for her love of spending she made frequent trips to New York where she would frequent various retail establishments, including Ball, Black & Co. Unfortunately, it would seem that she wasn’t always very prompt at settling her account and when her husband died in 1865, she was left owing the firm $64,000, a vast sum of money for the time.
In 1874 the company reorganized and Cortlandt W. Starr was promoted to partner alongside Aaron Frost thereby forming Black, Starr & Frost; this began a period of relative stability for the firm alongside ever increasing fame and fortune. Two years later they moved location to Fifth Avenue from where they continued to sell fine jewellery, both American and European, silverware, ceremonial items, medals and trophies to an ever increasing clientele. That same year they exhibited alongside Tiffany & Co. (their primary competitor) at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia which was the first time America had played host to an International World’s Fair.
The 20th Century saw the company go from strength to strength and its reputation as one of the leading jewellers in New York was firmly established. Their jewellery reflected the current popular styles from the dainty Belle Époque chokers and rings of the early part of the century moving towards the bolder clips, sautoirs and bracelets of the 1920s and 30s Art Deco period. There was a pronounced focus on fine quality gemstones of generous size, which particularly appealed to the American taste. One of the most famous stones was the Portuguese Diamond, a near flawless octagonal step cut stone weighing 127.01cts which the company bought in Paris. They sold it in 1928 to the actress and ex Ziegfeld Follies star Peggy Hopkins Joyce who was already an established client and she wore it frequently, set to the centre of a simple diamond line necklace. Black Starr & Frost not only attracted stars of the stage and silver screen but were widely patronised by Royal families and dignitaries as well as the American social elite such as the Vanderbilts, Guggenheims and Carnegies.
In 1939 the firm, now called Black, Starr & Frost-Gorham after merging with the Gorham Corporation ten years previously, was one of only five jewellers invited to exhibit in the ‘House of Jewels’ at the New York World’s Fair. Their display of fine gem set jewellery and objet, including two unique ‘mystery clocks’, was admired by many millions of people over the course of the event.
As the century progressed, the firm continued to expand and from the one additional location in Palm Beach they grew to having a total of thirty three by 1991. This expansion was largely initiated by a group of investors who had purchased the company in 1962, returning the name to Black, Starr & Frost and working hard to capitalise on the firm’s history and reputation by opening branches all across America. The company changed hands several times after this and sadly its fortunes failed relatively rapidly, meaning that by 2006 there was only one store left, in Costa Mesa California. This was purchased by The Molina Group who continue to strive towards re-instating the name of Black, Starr & Frost to the prominent position that its history and legacy deserves.