Herman Marcus was born in Germany in 1828 and began his jewellery career working for the court jewellers Ellemeyer in Dresden. However the bright lights of New York called to him and in 1850 he left home and emigrated to America.
He found work firstly with Tiffany & Co. and later with Ball, Black & Co. before forming a partnership with Theodore Starr in 1864, called Starr & Marcus, which lasted until 1877. At this point Marcus returned to Tiffany & Co. and represented the company the following year in Paris at the International Exposition of 1878. He left for a second time in 1884 to join his son William in his business Jacques & Marcus, and when William’s partner George Jaques retired in 1892, father and son renamed the company Marcus & Co. They were soon joined by William’s brother George Marcus and the three men would spend the next few years working together and laying the foundations for Marcus & Co.’s decades of success in the 20th Century.
In 1897 they participated in the first exhibition of the Society of Arts and Crafts Boston where they displayed over forty pieces designed by George Marcus. Several years earlier his brother William had published a book, along with his then business partner Jaques, called ‘Something About Neglected Gems’ in which he talked about stones that he felt were under utilised such as chrysoberyl, zircon, tourmaline and opal. It is no surprise therefore that gems such as these feature often in Marcus jewellery and their unique attributes are duly celebrated. Herman’s time spent working in Dresden had instilled in him an appreciation for European aesthetics as well as craftsmanship and he had passed this on to his sons. Consequently techniques such as plique a jour enamelling were well known to them and it is said that a member of the team actually went to Paris to study with Lalique in order to perfect this art. Some of the most well known Marcus & Co. jewels showcase this beautifully, in particular the stunning Art Nouveau flower jewels that they made around the turn of the century. The most famous of these is the Rehan jewel whose three morning glory flowers are depicted in tissue-like plique a jour enamel which allows the light to pass through the flowers, breathing life into them as it does so.
In 1898 Raymond Yard joined the firm as a messenger boy and would remain with them for twenty four years rising through the ranks to become their general manager before leaving in 1922 to open his own eponymous firm. Herman Marcus remained working until his death in 1899, after which his two sons moved the business further ‘uptown’ to 544 Fifth Avenue and opened a silverware department alongside the jewellery showroom.
In the early years of the 20th century Marcus & Co. jewellery reflected the current fashions and catered to all tastes. Art Nouveau and Arts and Crafts styles remained popular as did Revivalist designs inspired by Ancient Egypt and the Renaissance alongside more classic diamond and gem set jewels. Motifs drawn from nature were popular such as flowers and leaves, feathers and peacocks and these were depicted both literally and stylistically. A range of pictorial pieces were created such as the beautiful seascape brooch that cleverly uses a slice of dark bluey-green opal for the sea with another piece of pale blue and pink opal above for the sunset with a tiny pave diamond ship sailing across the centre.
As tastes changed so the company kept pace and with the 1920’s they were producing more diamond and gem focused jewellery as well as a range of accessories for women such as vanity cases, lipstick holders and cigarette cases. Jewelled bracelet style wristwatches became popular and jewellery grew more stylised and geometric in nature as the Art Deco aesthetic permeated all style disciplines. A 1930 Marcus & Co. advert shows an elegant woman in a black evening dress accessorised with a pair of diamond double clips, a stack of diamond and gem set strap bracelets and a diamond necklace, all very fashionable at this time. The same advert lists the company’s locations as New York and Palm Beach alongside offices in London, Paris and Bombay which highlights the success and expansion the company had experienced. William was joined in the business by his two sons William Jr and Chapin who were well placed to assume responsibility for the firm when their father died in 1925, George Marcus having already passed away in 1917.
In 1939 Marcus & Co. were one of only five jewellers to exhibit the latest and most creative fine jewellery designs in the ‘House of Jewels’ at the New York World’s Fair alongside Tiffany & Co., Cartier, Udall & Ballou and Black, Starr & Frost. This gives an indication as to the level of prestige with which their jewellery was regarded.
Sadly, having survived the Depression of the 1930’s and despite their undoubted success, the firm was unable to withstand the onset of WWII and the implementation of new luxury goods taxes. It was sold to the department store Gimbels in 1941 and moved to an area of the 5th floor, where Chapin Marcus continued to work for the new owners, until in 1962 the firm was merged with Black, Starr and Frost. Today Marcus & Co. are regarded as one of America’s pre-eminent jewellers of the early 20th Century and their pieces are displayed in museums around the world as well as forming part of many significant private jewellery collections.