I call this brooch smiling calf, and it is one of the more unusual brooches by the Elzac company in that it is made only of ceramic. More often, Elzac brooches were made of heavily carved wood and sculpted ceramic, and embellished with almost every imaginable material including felt, beads, cellophane, rick rack, and even toothpicks! The company produced dozens of designs, including fabulous females bedecked with ornate hats and fruit baskets channeling Carmen Miranda, as well as animals with Lucite horns, tails, and ears. Many of their pins were featured in the Sears catalog in 1944-45 and were called “Lapel pin-ups in gay painted ceramics.” A “Texas steer” was one of the “Pin-ups”. The Sears catalog version had a ceramic face, leather ears, and Lucite horns. It measured 3 inches high and retailed for an astounding 85 cents! Another version, made from wood and embellished with fur, had horns that spanned 6 inches across!
Eliot Handler was an artist, and his wife Ruth was the marketing genius. Together with a partner, Zac Zemby, they founded a company to produce costume jewelry using Handler’s favorite new material, Lucite. Although they later made the more typical plated and sterling pieces with colored glass stones, Elzac’s preferred materials were wood, ceramic, and of course, Lucite. Despite the material problems associated with WW II, Elzac flourished because they were not using restricted metals for their early pieces. With over 400 employees, including wood carvers and ceramic sculptors, Elzac became a multi-million dollar business. The company established a complete manufacturing plant which occupied four floors and the basements of two adjoining buildings. Clay mixing machines and electric and gas kilns were located in the basements; on the next floors, row after row of employees hand embellished and painted the novelty figures and flowers. Handler had the good sense to patent many of his designs and today these serve as important historic documentation for collectors. Not all designs were patented, however, and one of the most popular of Elzac designs, “Bunnykins” came straight from Eliot’s drawing board.
Thanks to Mrs. Handler, many of the company’s records, legal agreements, photographs, and design sketches were donated to the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University, USA, before Mrs. Handler’s death in 2002, where they remain today. I was able to obtain copies of many of Mr. Handler’s non patented designs. What an exciting find for a collector!
So why a cute calf or Texas steer? One theory that has been proposed by costume jewelry historians is this. During WWII, traveling to popular destinations in Europe was necessarily curtailed, leaving little in the way of vacation destinations. Perhaps the steer is a nod to U.S. domestic locations where travelers could still enjoy warmer weather and somewhat exotic landscapes, especially for city dwellers. Unfortunately we may never know for sure.
While Eliot Handler was still part of Elzac, he wanted to expand the line to include toys. The owners resisted, so the Handlers asked to be bought out of the company. In 1944 they were bought out and founded Mattel Toys and, as they say, the rest is history!
Barbie, Hot Wheels, Chatty Cathy…toys that gripped the imagination of children in the 1950’s. While Chatty Cathy lives on mostly in the memories of those 1950’s children, some things never change. Today, statistics show that, every three seconds, someone, somewhere buys a Barbie doll!
This Blog Post has been written by my friend American writer Jacqueline Rehmann author of ‘Classic American Costume Jewelry’ who lives in Virginia, USA. Thank you Jacqueline.