Here are some photos of the various kinds of jewelry that went on sale at department stores in New York City’s Herald Square in the 1880s. Image and text courtesy of Metropolitan Museum of Art/New York City Department of Cultural Affairs
See more jewelry that went on sale at department stores in New York City’s Herald Square, a historic historic district in the heart of Manhattan, in the 1880s. There was a heavy focus on expensive jewelry for women at department stores throughout America. There were no “curious” jewelry prices among fashion enthusiasts in the 1890s, and women could purchase the cheapest of styles including chunky and waxy, intricate and ornate. (The word “boutique,” however, was not yet in use.)
Women also made up a larger number of jewelry sales at department stores than they do today. In the 1880s, there were more than 1.5 million women-owned businesses in New York City. The percentage of women-owned stores increased from about 6.7 million in the mid-1880s to about 11 million in the late 1890s (that’s 5.5 million by the end of the 20th century, and more than 10 million if you discount the small businesses).
In the late 19th century, New York City’s jewelry market was dominated by the rich. But then, in the mid-1900s, luxury retailers began to appear on the market. “People came in and looked at all the jewelry,” explains David Nolen, director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume and Glass Division. “They came in from New Jersey, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and California. They saw there was a lot of interest in high-end jewelry.”
Among the first luxury jewelry stores were the Tiffany & Co. , one of the country’s first jewelry retailers. Their flagship store on Fifth Avenue in 1906 included gold brocaded brooches and necklaces, all of which, Nolen says, are “really well-known examples of Tiffany work.”
The jewelry business is a relatively small part of the New York City diamond industry, but it created some of the city’s most recognizable jewelry. The first store to open in New York in the 1850s was called the “Diamonds” or “Rings” in a showroom on Fifth Avenue. These diamond displays were popular with the wealthy, and sales grew with a new category of jewelry called “diamond sets” sold in large quantities.
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