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September 1999

From the Vault

Freshwater Fantasies

Unique shapes of these lustrous gems give birth to a menagerie

William Ruser knew a good thing when he saw it. Textured and baroque-shaped natural American freshwater pearls were largely regarded as curiosities by an industry focused primarily on button making in the late 1930s. Ruser, however, saw tremendous potential in the pearls' fanciful shapes and bought several shoe-box-sized boxes of them from a button manufacturer.

Some were long and thin, others rounded and flat or cupped slightly like flower petals. Many looked like little wings, others were larger and rounder, suggesting snail shells, rosebuds or the bodies of birds and

Most were a lustrous silvery white, though there also were delicate pink, light yellow, peach and salmon, deep rose, pale green, light blue and lavender along with metallic shades of purple, gold, bronze and copper. Sizes ranged from tiny seed pearls to baroque shapes an inch or more in diameter.

Unusual Shapes, Unique Designs

After his tour of duty in World War II, Ruser opened a shop on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, CA. While maintaining an elegant inventory of important diamond jewelry and fine gem-set jewels, he specialized in pieces designed around his marvelous collection of unusually shaped freshwater pearls. Carefully selected pairs or clusters of pearls with diamond, ruby or sapphire accents made up the links in flexible necklaces, bracelets and watchbands. Larger baroque pearls were set in rings, the pearl circled with diamonds or set in sculpted gold of subtle floral design. He even fabricated flowers of pink pearl petals as brooches and earrings.

Ruser also incorporated baroque pearls into the bodies of birds, fish, animals and childlike figures of sculpted gold. This whimsical menagerie included foxes whose gold tails were tipped with white pearls, tropical fish with pearl bodies and diamond-set gold fins, exotic birds with pearl bellies and pearl beaks. Particular favorites were a little skunk, known as "Pepe Le Peu," made with a white pearl forehead and white pearl stripe in his tail, hummingbirds with pearl wings and bumblebees with pearl bodies. These figurative jewels became instantly popular and soon caught the attention of actress Loretta Young, who acquired a swan with a pearl body and pearl wings.

Going to the Dogs
Poodles were the dog of choice in the 1950s, and Ruser had a succession of them. Probably these inspired his highly successful "Angel Poodle" series. Actress Joan Crawford often wore two Angel Poodle brooches, one of 18k white gold with sapphire eyes, the other in 18k yellow gold with ruby eyes, both with seed pearl halos and pearl wings, their paws resting on pearl clouds.
Another popular series was based on the nursery rhyme "Monday's Child." Charming little cherubs, in poses to match each day of the week, stand on pearl clouds, their heads circled by seed pearl halos and wing-shaped pearls rising from their shoulders.

In 1969, Ruser retired and sold his establishment to Van Cleef & Arpels, which still occupies the same spot. From time to time, Ruser's beguiling little jewels appear at auction or in antique shops, where they're quickly snapped up by discerning collectors. Not only do they evoke the optimism of the 1950s and 1960s, their imaginative use of natural freshwater pearls makes each one unique and irreplaceable.

A jaunty little "Angel Poodle" sits up and begs on a puffy cloud of freshwater pearls while smaller ones wait their turn. Each 14k gold poodle has sparkling sapphire eyes, a freshwater seed pearl halo and freshwater pearl wings. Brooch and earrings are signed by Ruser, c. 1955. Courtesy of a private collection.

– by Elise B. Misiorowski

Copyright © 1999 by Bond Communications.


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