Less than 15 years after the creation of the household incandescent light bulb, the first patent for a typewriter, and the inauguration of the seventh U.S. president, Andrew Jackson, came another household name: Ciner Jewelry. Founded in 1892 by Emanuel Ciner, the company—based on Maiden Lane in Lower Manhattan—set out to compete in the world of fine jewelry made from gold and platinum with precious gems and pearls.
Emphasizing their small workshop of uniquely skilled artisans, Ciner managed the complete design process in-house, including modeling, casting, polishing, assembly, cleaning, plating, antiquing, enameling, setting stones, and the final polish. After many successful years of designing and creating, Emanuel Ciner’s son Irwin is credited with further improving the company’s rubber molding, casting, and enameling techniques, which have since revolutionized the entire jewelry market.
Necessitated by the Great Depression of the late 1920s, Ciner became the first and only American fine jeweler to switch to manufacturing high-quality costume jewelry in silver, white metals, plated gold, and rhodium. Today, Ciner remains the last maker of costume jeweler of its kind to run full operations in New York City.
This season, The Met Store is proud to introduce a range of exclusive reproductions of vintage Ciner designs from the 1960s and ‘70s in The Costume Institute collection. Here, we speak with Kris Ciulla, the Vice President of Design and Sales at Ciner, to learn more about the history of this iconic American brand.
What truly sets apart Ciner from other costume jewelry companies?
The way Mr. Ciner worked is still how we do it today; nothing much has changed. Our process has remained the same since the day we were founded. A lot of people will ask, “Why can’t you do it a little faster,” or “why can’t you change a little bit for us, or do this or do that?” There are no special machines in the back; there are just men and women who have been working with us for years, perfecting their craft and skills.
Other fashion jewelers don’t offer the same quality finish, or the stones aren’t as finely set; you can see a gap where the stone was glued in because it’s not exactly right in the bezel, or things like that. All the enameling at Ciner is handmade. The models we use were created by the finest artists, who sculpted them from bricks of metal. That in itself gives us a gigantic edge. If the model is not really beautiful, the outcome of the end piece is not going to be that beautiful. That’s what I think is amazing: We have incredibly high standards for the quality of each step in the process, and that’s what leads to that high-end result.
What is the process of manufacturing a piece?
We are quite proud of our process. All our pieces require a multi-casting, which might be six, seven, 50 separate pieces that must be soldered together. Some designs, believe it or not, have hundreds of pieces. This method of assembly adds to the dimension of each piece.
We start in the casting room. One of the girls will write up, order, and give the caster the D-card, or design card, and the number, which helps him find the correct mold for the model. Jose, one of our casters, really is a master at his craft. The oven is set at 900 degrees for the metal to be as smooth as melted chocolate so he can pour it into the mold. The liquid runs through and fills the spokes in the model, and then Jose cleans the excess. There is no waste because the excess metal goes back into the pot. You have to be able to make a crisp mold to get a really beautiful piece. It takes skill and it takes time, but it’s worth it. The better his mold, the easier it is for the next person to get it where it needs to be. If it’s sloppy, then it needs so much more cleaning.
Once he finishes and the raw castings come out, they go to the polishing room. Every piece, no matter what size, needs to be polished. Twice. For example, we make a pin, we clean it, and then we assemble the pin and clean it again after it has been soldered together. After that, it will go into the tumbler to be polished, which is basically like the ocean, with water and a basket that just keeps churning and churning and churning. It goes back and forth until it’s clean and perfect and ready, because once it’s plated, there is no going back.
We don’t plate every day. However, when we do plate, we plate in 18-karat gold and real rhodium, which actually is more expensive than gold! Then it goes to antiquing and enameling. If it needs specialty antiquing, Danielle, our creative director or myself, will come with special, tiny little paint brushes and tools until we feel we have achieved what we want it to look like.
Where do you find inspiration to create new designs?
With hundreds of models and designs from Ciner himself, it’s so fun to bring back something that doesn’t exist anymore in today’s culture, and it’s still so original. We have an enormous archive of models, and we can do things like manipulate a pin to become a cuff by mounting it. Or, we can combine little pieces of castings and create something brand new, but still 100 percent Ciner. Nothing ever comes from the outside.
We are inspired by the runway as well, so we stay current, but at the same time we stay true to Ciner and who we are. Sometimes it’s a flower year, so we will focus on finding new flowers or animals. Or we will focus on something more geometric.
A bow we have been featuring lately looks exactly like a bow that’s on the runway now. Or a certain type of bead, it looks just like what you might see on a designer runway, and we’ve had it for over a hundred years. It’s not necessarily something new for us, but it’s interesting how things playback all the time through fashion. There is always some kind of fashion reference you can find from the 1920s, the ‘30s, the ‘40s, and so on until now.
Because Ciner is more than a century old, we have endless possibilities we can actually pull from, then modernize the color and tweak it somewhat. You really can change things through color. Even just a slight tweaking, just to give a nod to whatever is walking down the runway. Metallics are in; hence, we have a metallic and black collection! Rings, bugs—bugs are so crazy right now.
We have techniques that have been developed over the years to give things different effects. Like a more antique-y look versus a very sharp high-polished look, different colors of antiquing and aging. It’s all done by hand—and it shows.
Inspired by a rich history of design and unparalleled manufacture, Ciner has artistically crafted their way through 125 years of finely made fashion jewelry. With such exceptional quality and design, The Met Store is proud to collaborate with an iconic historical artist by featuring select Ciner designs exclusively reproduced from The Costume Institute, available for purchase in store and online.