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Creators of the Unusual ... As Usual
Cheri Van Hoover
The history of costume jewelry is filled with mysteries. Companies came and went, records were not maintained, and collectors have often been left frustrated by gaps in their knowledge about favorite designers and manufacturers. One of these mystery companies has been that of Walter Lampl. In its day, this wholesale manufacturer of fine and costume jewelry was a powerhouse in the industry. From his offices and showroom on New York’s Fifth Avenue, Walter Lampl created finely crafted jewelry as unique as he was and a system for distributing it as big-hearted as himself.
Lampl jewelry has something for every collector. Looking for delicate Art Deco pieces with brilliant white rhinestones set in sterling silver? You’ll like Lampl. Does Orientalia float your boat? Lampl, again. How about huge Retro pieces set with enormous gemstones? Or charming figurals in gold fill or silver? Want a bejeweled Swiss watch to wear as a brooch or on your wrist? Are you a fan of exquisite enameling? Care for intricate charms with astonishing complexity and moving parts? If you can answer yes to even one of these questions, you are a potential Walter Lampl collector in search of a home.
All of these Lampl characteristics appealed to me, so I started seeking out this fascinating jewelry wherever I could find it and featured it on my commercial website. Imagine my surprise and pleasure when Lampl relatives contacted me and my absolute delight when they agreed to share precious archival materials with me so I could write this article about the innovative company that produced such treasures.
Walter Lampl, Sr. was born to an impoverished family in New York City in 1895. From boyhood, Walter was ambitious. He wanted more and better. As a child he sold newspapers on the streets, and then in his teenage years discovered that it was more lucrative to buy lengths of chain, cut it to length, add findings to the ends, and sell watch chains. In 1921, at the age of 26, Walter became the sole owner and manager of a wholesale jewelry company named for himself. The offices and showroom were located on New York’s 47th Street.
Lampl’s jewelry was designed by women employees who produced drawings which were then approved by Walter. Two of these designers were Nat Block and June Redding. From the beginning, Lampl meant quality. The company’s jewelry often included semi-precious gemstones set in sterling or gold fill. Frequently used materials included jade, garnet, moonstone, coral, turquoise, pearl, ivory, amethyst, blue topaz, chrysoprase, aquamarine, zircon, citrine, and others. This same idea was adopted many years later by the Swoboda Company and enjoyed great popularity again, more than 30 years after Walter Lampl made his name with the same concept.
The Walter Lampl booth at the annual jewelry trade show at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in 1957.
Walter Lampl was a business built on relationships. Joe Lampl, Walter’s brother, worked as a salesman for the firm. Employees came to stay. During the Depression years, when work was hard to find, Walter Lampl hired the grooms of his female employees if the men did not have other jobs when they married. Traveling the country on routes that took in all the major cities, Walter Lampl and his team of salesmen visited the buyers of major department stores across the nation, developing friendships and trading partnerships. Later, when his daughter Miriam married Jerome Ornsteen, Walter hired his new son-in-law as a salesman and gave him Walter’s own sales route. Walter’s kindness is legend among family members who recount how Walter would take pity on newsboys shivering on street corners during frigid New York winters and buy all their papers so they could go home to get out of the cold.
Walter promoted personal and business relationships in other ways, as well, always with an eye to forging bonds that would benefit all parties. He was a member of the Jewelry Publicity Board and the 24 Karat Club. Lampl also joined the Metropolis Country Club and the Masonic Order and became an active sponsor of the New York Guild for the Jewish Blind. His booth was a big attraction at the annual jewelry trade show at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, where he announced his presence with 12 inch high letters spelling out his name, each letter completely inlaid with a dramatic mosaic of intricately carved jade, lapis, amethyst, carnelian, and coral.
Campaigning for Jade
In 1927 Walter Lampl wrote an article for the Keystone jewelry trade magazine in which he proposed changing the November birthstone from topaz to jade. In this article he talked about the rich history of Chinese jade and extolled the virtues of this very versatile material. He particularly emphasized the advantages to the jeweler of being able to offer a variety of pieces all made from the same type and color of jade, such as “rings, bracelets and ear-drops, carved pendants, necklaces and brooches.” He pointed out that men would be likely to wear this stone as well, set in rings and cuff links. Lampl went on to state, “Sales of jade toilet articles, ornamental clocks, pin trays, fan frames, hand bags, topped and inset with this beautiful ‘Green Gem of the East,’ will follow when once the jade ensemble idea has been established in the mind of the customer.” The Keystone editors added a short article at the end of Lampl’s piece, meant to be used as a news release for local newspapers in every jeweler’s home community. Obviously, this idea never caught on, and the birthstone for November remains the topaz. But Lampl’s ability to think big, not to mention his love of jade and other gemstones, is obvious in this article.
The warmth, creativity, and humor of Walter’s character were reflected in the jewelry he produced, as well as in his motto, “Creators of the Unusual, As Usual.” Prime examples of these qualities are the whimsical jeweled fish pin and the enameled circus tent shown illustrated in this article. Equal care was lavished on the craftsmanship of all his jewelry pieces, from those made of gold and platinum set with diamonds to those made of gold fill or sterling and rhinestones. This respect for all the customers, no matter what their buying power, remains one of the most outstanding features of this company’s production.
Walter Lampl in his early 20s, about the time he started the business
Walter Lampl made vanity items, as well as jewelry. An undated newspaper clipping which appears to date to the late 1920s to early 1930s reported on the “Versatelle” combined cigarette-compact, which sold for $5.00 and up. This fashion accessory was said to be “square, light, expertly divided in two sections by a swinging mirror.” It contained the “season’s best shades of rouge and lip blarney, with leak-proof powder compartment.” As usual, Lampl included “unusual little touches [such] as the jeweled arrow that releases the powder.” This practical beauty carried “a generous supply” of cigarettes. It came “in black, white, pastels, with ornamental accents from rhinestones to jade and carnelian” and was available for purchase at Saks-Fifth Avenue, Dunhill, and other shops.
The attention to detail and fine craftsmanship of Lampl’s jewelry lent itself perfectly to charms. In these lovely miniatures, Walter Lampl achieved some of his most remarkable technical feats. Another undated newspaper clipping reports that Walter Lampl was granted the “sole authorization by the New York World’s Fair Corporation to manufacture the trylon and perisphere [charm] with the view of Democracy or ‘The City of Tomorrow’ seen through [a] tiny crystal in [the] sphere.” A second fantastic charm developed for the 1939 World’s Fair was called “Tomorrow’s Heirloom, the Theme Charm.” This piece is reported to have been a “tiny movie camera 1/2 inch high” with a glass lens through which one looked to see “25 views of ‘Mr. Whalen’s extravaganza-on-the-Flushing-Meadows’.”(sic) The patent for this moving picture charm was granted in 1939.
At the trade show circa late 1930s/early 1940s. Note the letters spelling out his name on the wall above him.
Walter’s fondness for charms extended to his personal life, as well. His beloved wife, Sylvia (whom he called “Toots”), wore bracelets heavily laden with the best Lampl charms. Walter also made special charms for Sylvia, often engraved with private messages. Many of the romantic charms later sold to the general public were first inspired by these love tokens for his wife, one lovely example being a wind-up music box charm which plays “I Love You Truly.”
It was in 1938 or 1939, about the time Lampl was granted the exclusive rights to produce the very lucrative World’s Fair souvenir charms, that he moved his showroom uptown to prestigious 5th Avenue. From this prime location he expanded his distribution network. The years of hard work, dedication to quality products, and respectful relationships with consumers, employees, and colleagues had paid off for Walter Lampl.
The Patriot Pin
Disaster struck on December 7, 1941 when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. While the nation was still reeling with horror and beginning to mobilize for war, the Lampl design team sprang into action. Only 22 days after the attack, on December 29, Walter Lampl filed a patent with the U.S. Patent Office for “The Patriot Pin.” This was a large enameled brooch depicting the earth, with a cultured pearl in the center of the Pacific Ocean representing Hawaii. An airplane was placed on a stem above the earth, headed for Hawaii. Behind the plane, streaming out from the earth, were enameled red, white, and blue banners, each with one word in raised gold letters, “REMEMBER PEARL HARBOR.” These pins retailed for $1.00 each, and Lampl donated 10% of the retail price to the Pearl Harbor Relief Fund at the Honolulu Community Chest. He promoted these pins widely. A picture of a woman wearing the pin appeared in 500 newspapers nationwide. Sixty-five radio stations broadcast information about this item, which was also advertised in the March 1942 Mademoiselle magazine and featured editorially in Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue, Glamour, Esquire, and Bride’s Magazine. Sales of the pin began early and continued briskly. In January of 1942 alone, Lampl contributed $1,630.80 to the Relief Fund, indicating sales of 16,380 pins in that first month. The pin was still being advertised a year later, when Saks Fifth Avenue at Rockefeller Center ran a newspaper ad reminding customers that the pin could be found on their Street Floor. Walter’s younger son, Burt, and daughter, Miriam, donated their Patriot Pin to the Naval Academy Museum at Annapolis in memory of their father in 1991, on the 50th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack. It remains there on permanent display.
The war was personal to the Lampl family in other ways, as well. Walter’s oldest son, Walter, Jr., was a lieutenant, fighting the war in Europe. Fortunately, Walter, Sr. had helped members of Sylvia’s extended family, the relatives of her sister Helen’s husband, come to the United States from Germany during the 1930s, sparing them from the Holocaust.
During the war years silver, other jewelry materials, and labor were scarce in the United States. Many of the major costume jewelry manufacturers moved their production to Mexico where skilled silversmiths abounded and materials were still cheap. Coro formed a relationship with Hector Aguilar. Silson jewelry was made by the William Spratling workshops. Walter Lampl went south during these years, as well. It is not known which Mexican artisans assisted in the production of his jewelry during this time, but it may have been someone in Mexico City, rather than Taxco. The evidence for this is the lovely tea service he brought home for Sylvia, with pieces made by Kimberley and Lilyan. Kimberley is known to have been an older silver house in Mexico City.
Lampl introduced two new jewelry lines in 1944: Toddle-Tot and Walburt. Toddle-Tot was a collection of baby jewelry. These necklaces, bracelets, rings, barrettes, lockets, and charms came in 14 karat gold, 10 karat gold, sterling silver, and gold fill. Walter’s first grandchild, Babs, was featured in the Toddle-Tot advertisements, wearing a locket necklace with her eyelet-trimmed dress. The Walburt line was named for Walter’s two sons, Walter, Jr. and Burton. The motto of the Walburt division was “Style Interpreted in Jewels.”
August 6, 1945 was VJ Day, finally marking the end of the war. Germany had fallen three months earlier, and Lt. Walter Lampl, Jr. was part of the occupying force in Germany, stationed at the Nuremberg trials. The Lampl family rejoiced with the rest of the country. But only a few months later, on Christmas Eve afternoon at the annual party Walter hosted for his staff at the Hotel Shelton, the unthinkable happened. In front of all his devoted employees, Walter Lampl suffered a fatal heart attack, dying before a doctor could reach him. He was 50 years old.
Grieving employees remained loyal to the company Walter had created and continued to work for the family during the difficult transition period that followed. They pooled their talents and money to create a bronze plaque in Walter’s memory. This plaque was presented to the family a year after his death and hung in the business offices for the next 14 years. It shows an image in high relief of a benevolent, pipe-smoking Walter and reads, “IN MEMORY OF WALTER LAMPL 1895-1945,” with “DEDICATED BY HIS DEVOTED EMPLOYEES, DECEMBER, 1946” across the bottom.
Sylvia bravely assumed management of the business she inherited. Miriam, their 24 year-old daughter, was busy raising a young family. The younger son, Burt, was only 14 years old and still in school. After about four months, Walter, Jr. returned home from the Army and took over the day-to-day management of the company now owned by his mother.
Walter, Jr. was forced to hit the ground running. The very busy, prosperous business had taken a major blow when Walter, Sr. died. Having been an army officer, Walter, Jr. had different ideas about efficiency and distribution strategies. The postwar era also brought changes in taste and business design. The old relationship-based model that had been so important to Walter, Sr. was no longer popular among corporate managers. Modernity seemed to demand a sterner, more stripped-down style. In response to these pressures, Walter, Jr. reshaped the company’s business model to be more streamlined, decreasing the traveling sales force and relying more on catalog sales to jewelers across the nation. He discontinued the WalBurt line in 1946.
Walter, Jr. continued to offer some non-jewelry gift items, such as the 28 year desk calendar. This forward-thinking product was a classic in the Lampl style, built for utility, durability, and beauty. Walter, Sr. had been selling these rotating jeweler’s bronze calendars for several years, but Walter, Jr. updated the design. His father’s model featured leafy, organic designs etched into the bronze. The son’s version was decorated with astronomical symbols
An interesting ad from about this era indicates a new and unusual partnership with Elizabeth Arden cosmetics. Elizabeth Arden launched a Fall ad campaign for “Crimson Lilac Next Spring’s Color Now.” Walter Lampl, Inc. introduced “popularly priced” gold-tone pins and earrings with enameled Crimson Lilac flowers to match the new lipstick color.
An ad which ran in the Spring 1953 Keystone trade magazine gives an interesting overview of the variety of products offered by Walter Lampl, Inc. Necklaces included sterling silver hearts set with rhinestones, retro-styled onyx with a single-cut diamond set in gold plating, hand painted Florentine miniatures, and rhinestones. Opalite set in gold fill was available in necklaces, bracelets, pins, and earrings. Gold fill dated graduation bracelets featured cultured pearls. Goldstone brooches in gold fill continued the tradition of semi-precious gemstones in costume settings. Possibly the most remarkable item in this ad was the “I’ll Be Loving You Always” 14K gold disk pendant. A musical staff with the first seven notes of this popular tune was set with full-cut 8 pt. stones - Diamond, Emerald, Amethyst, Ruby, Emerald, Sapphire, and Turquoise. The first letter of each stone spelled the word, DEAREST.
The younger brother, Burt, completed his schooling and military service and came to work for the business in 1954. It was about this time that Walter, Jr. felt the need to downsize the business further. He closed the prestigious 5th Avenue showroom and moved the company’s offices to 48 West 48th Street. Staff was cut at this time, as well.
Lampl charms continued to be big sellers, and the company now focused much of its energy on these miniature beauties. A 1956 catalog for the Walter Lampl charms and charm bracelets features more than 750 different charms and reports that they were the “nation’s leading manufacturers of charms and charm bracelets.” This catalog claimed that, “We are not the best because we are the biggest…We are the biggest because we are the best…” When one looks at the charms offered in this catalog, it is clear that this was not an empty boast. The complexity and workmanship of these charms was extraordinary. Every possible taste and theme was addressed. They came in sterling and 14K gold, decorated with pearls, rubies, sapphires, and other stones. They were enameled and engraved. You could look inside some to see foreign lands or read hidden messages. Others held perfume, tiny business cards, or folded $1 bills to be used as “mad money.” The high chair converted to a rocking chair. Carnival rides simulated the real thing. There were religious charms of every faith and working slot machine charms. Whatever your hobby or passion, Lampl had a charm for you.
The early 1950s was marked by the rise of television as an important social force. Walter Lampl, Inc. met the challenge of this new media by becoming prominently featured on one of the most popular early television programs, “This is Your Life,” which ran from 1952 to 1961. Aficionados of early TV (and those of us old enough to remember the programs first hand!) will recall that “This is Your Life” featured an honored guest, usually a celebrity, who would be lured to the studio under false pretenses then surprised by a review of their most important life experiences, with various people from their past each telling a story about them from behind a curtain. At the end of every episode the honored guest would be given a number of prizes, including a 14K charm bracelet filled with charms symbolizing their important life events. These charm bracelets were manufactured by Lampl for the Marchal Company.
Despite these many successes, Sylvia Lampl eventually decided that the business no longer met her needs or those of her family. There were purchase offers from other companies, but she couldn’t bear the thought of her beloved husband’s legacy moving outside the family circle, so Walter Lampl, Inc. closed its doors in 1959.
Collectors will want to note that there are several different marks used on Walter Lampl jewelry. Records are scant, so dating of these marks can’t be pinned down with any certainty. The earliest pieces appear to have been marked in block letters with WALTER LAMPL or simply LAMPL. Occasionally a block letter WL is seen. Most of these also appear to be earlier pieces. Script lettering “by Lampl” was being used during Walter, Sr.’s lifetime and beyond. The mark most often seen by the mid-1940s and after, however, is the script WL on a shield.
Walter Lampl was truly a giant of a man. As a human being his warmth, humor, generosity, and loving nature will never be forgotten by those who knew him. As an entrepreneur, his story has all the elements of the American dream. Through intelligence, hard work, and skilled application of his enormous energies he rose from the most humble beginnings and created a safe haven for his family and employees through some of the most difficult years this nation has ever seen. The material evidence of his love of quality, his whimsical tastes, and his respect for his customers will continue for many, many years to come in the collections of those who love beautiful jewelry.
© Copyright 2004 Vintage Fashion & Costume Jewelry - Used with permission