The Philadelphia jewellers J.E. Caldwell & Co. was founded by James Emmot Caldwell (1813 – 1881). He was born in Poughkeepsie, New York and apprenticed at just 14 to the silversmith Peter Perret Hayes. Upon completion of his apprenticeship in 1835 he moved to New York City and worked for Samuel Benedict for a couple of years learning watchmaking skills before moving south to Philadelphia where he worked as a jeweller and watchmaker.
In 1839 he opened his own retail premises at 163 Chestnut Street but soon took on a partner, James M. Bennett and they traded as ‘Bennett & Caldwell’ until 1848 when Bennett died and John C. Farr replaced him as partner in the firm. It was at this point that the name was changed to J. E. Caldwell & Co, which is how it has remained. James Caldwell was known to be a shrewd business man but also friendly and honourable, a combination which ensured his success and rapid growth. The firm moved several times as it continually expanded, finally settling at 902 Chestnut Street in 1868. They were selling a wide range of jewellery, silver and objet d’art, much of it in European style which appealed to their affluent clientele. Careful to keep abreast of fashion and stylistic developments their stock offered pieces that reflected and complemented these. They exhibited at the Centennial International Exhibition of 1876 in Philadelphia which was the first official World’s Fair to be held in the United States. It was open for six moths from May to November and attracted nearly 10 million visitors exposing the firm to a far wider audience than ever before.
James Caldwell passed away in 1881 leaving his son James Albert Caldwell (1844 – 1914) to run the firm. Towards the end of the century they began producing beautiful Art Nouveau style jewels and this design influence soon spread to their silverware, accessories and even watches. Movements were imported from the renowned watchmakers Vacheron Constantin which they then housed in beautiful chased gold cases decorated with typical motifs such as flowers, female figures and an abundance of whip lash lines. This gave way in the early 20th century to the Belle Époque style and wonderful sautoirs of diamonds and pearls set in finely worked platinum with garland style motifs. This was a style that Caldwell excelled at and pieces from this era regularly fetch high prices when they appear at auction.
However it was the following stylistic period for which the firm is best remembered today. The Art Deco aesthetic was the total reverse of what had come before and celebrated geometric shapes, straight lines and angles, plenty of diamonds and striking colour contrasts. The nature of jewellery was changing too as it reflected the new style of women’s clothing and appearance with long necklaces and pendants becoming fashionable as well as elongated drop earrings and wide bracelets for stacking up newly bared arms. Contemporary adverts of the 1920s and 30s show examples of stylish and elegant pieces some of which reflect the popular Egyptian and Oriental influences whilst others illustrate highly significant pieces that highlight the importance of the firm at this time.
In 1952 Austïon Homer became president of the company and the following year began an ambitious store expansion programme. A second branch was opened in the Hotel DuPont in Wilmington, Delaware with others following including Princeton, King of Prussia and New Jersey. After several changes of ownership and a sad decline in fortune, the flagship store closed in 2003 followed by the remaining branches in 2009.
Caldwell jewellery from the first half of the 20th Century is still recognised as some of the finest American jewellery of the period and the name is, as the advert said, an unmistakeable sign of quality.