The Napier Co.’s George DeCarlo
A Man With A Thousand Stories
There is an art to telling the rich history of a company that spanned more than a century. As a collector, curator, and a historian, I am clear that jewelry is not just about the piece itself, but the story behind it. I was recently privileged to interview a living treasure for the costume jewelry industry.
George DeCarlo recites the details, names, and circumstances as if it happened yesterday. This 94-year-old former director of fabrication and plant superintendent worked at The Napier Co., Meriden, CT. for 50 years. Sharp as a tack and a character to boot, DeCarlo is a tremendous resource to preserve the oral history of a bygone era with the spark of someone who loved the journey. As George says, “I can’t believe all the wonderful things that happened to me working for The Napier Co.”
DeCarlo started his career at Napier on August 4, 1941, after hearing there was an opening at the plant. The eager 15-year-old lied about his age and took a job earning 40 cents an hour in the buffing department where he would buff and polish both jewelry and giftware—making a few bucks over the summer.
Faced with a layoff, DeCarlo went from The Napier Co. polishing department to soldering department. He states, “it was a big deal … you didn’t have a lot of people there. People didn’t work that long. It was a seasonal product in a way.” For two years, he worked in the soldering department performing both soft and hard solder work as well as repair work utilizing some of his newly developed skills. Mesh bags were one of the first objects he repaired when he started, which led him to repair all kinds of bags. But his most important early repair work involved one of the wealthiest men in America.
The Napier name means “without equal,” which embodied the skill of Napier’s employees. In 1942 or 1943, George recalls that The Napier Co. received from Mr. Rockefeller a 16oz flask for extensive repairs. Mr. Otto Schaefer, plant manager at the time, brought it down for restoration to Gus Johnson, a silversmith, under whom George worked.
Gus took one look at it and said, “you can’t fix that. It’s not even worth fixing. Just send it back. Just give him another one.” With that, they called Rockefeller and said it was beyond repair. A month passed, and Rockefeller return the flask to the company and stated he wanted it fixed. Gus Johnson refused to touch it and said, “I’m not going to work on it.”
George soon found himself in an embarrassing position. He recalls, “Mr. Schaefer called me down a month later and explained to me that he wanted me to fix it. I said, ‘you’re putting me in an awkward position. I’m going to go down there with this flask, and Gus is going to say, ‘Oh sure, I couldn’t fix it, and I was your teacher, and now you’re telling me you’re going to fix it.’ Which was very embarrassing.” He continued to recall his encounter, “I’m not in an enviable position here right now. I told him, ‘I feel the same way. Maybe I can’t do it either. I’m at your mercy, and I’d really appreciate your help. Mr. Rockefeller said he wanted it fixed.”
The first thing Gus said to do was to take it apart, and the two men began by removing the neck of the flask. George and Gus then used a thin specialized saw to cut the flask into two halves and took it down to the press room to put it back in the original die to stamp it out again. George took out all the dents. They then wired it together and soldered it. “It was amazing … it came out real good,” George recalled. George speaks of how proud he was in performing the near-impossible task, and Gus was pleased that he helped George with it. “I walked down to Mr. Schaefer, and he sat me down and says … because years ago we’d used to say, ‘You’ve got a 2-cent raise and don’t tell anybody.’ Well, he gave me 10 cents. He was so pleased that I had fixed it that I got a 10-cent raise.”
In 1943, George left The Napier Co. to serve in the U.S. Navy. He recalls receiving from Napier a pair of sunglasses, a nail clipper, and sterling 8020 bracelet as a departing gift. Until recently, he still owned his treasured bracelet.
He served most of his two-and-a-half-year tour in the Pacific theater. He traveled to several countries and locations, including Okinawa, Iwo Jim, Philippine Island, Korea, and mainland China. His biggest highlight during his service while aboard the USS Alaska was being alongside the USS Missouri when Japan surrendered, officially ending the war.
The Napier Co. was eager to retain its most skilled men who had served during the war. George returned from his deployment to work under the direction of plant manager Doug Brown, and Gus Johnson, as his immediate supervisor. He accepted an apprentice position to become a master silversmith and entered the apprentice silversmith program. However, no sooner than his return, DeCarlo asked Gus for time off. Johnson conveyed the request to Doug Brown, who immediately called George into his office and said, “You’re looking for a vacation? You just started.” George replied, “I’m getting married, Sir. Plus, I’m getting married on July 4, and I’m losing my independence on Independence Day.” George received his time off to marry his bride, Virginia.
The apprentice program involved working in the case making department, which included the making of flasks, compacts, sterling cigarette cases, and other giftware items. Eventually, he transitioned from the case making department to the wire department to make fixtures for forming wires and metal into designed shapes. These skills would prove handy in some of George’s most memorable experiences at Napier.
During this time, George worked with Emil Schuelke, the man most famous for his penguin shaker design, which remains a much sought-after piece of collectible barware. George states, “He was quite a man and designer. Mostly, he did giftware, but he did do jewelry.” But most fascinating in George’s recollection of Emil Schuelke, was how The Napier Co terminated him. George states, “He had a little argument with Doug Brown, so he was out, and they paid him for a year so that he wouldn’t go somewhere else. At that time, he was considered a good designer. That was some nice stuff.” Later it would be Doug Brown who experienced a sudden termination. Doug Brown was in the office of Mr. Napier, and there was a little “rhubarb.” Not long after the confrontational meeting, all the bulletin boards in the plant had an announcement posted that Mr. Brown was no longer with the company—the action was swift and decisive.
Abrupt terminations of this kind were not out of character for Mr. Napier. The environment at The Napier Co. fostered hard work by its employees. Those who worked hard were rewarded with promotions and long-term employment. Those who failed to meet the exacting standards of diligence and behavior expected by Mr. Napier, especially those who found time to chit chat unnecessarily, and ESPECIALLY when Mr. Napier observed such chit chat, were removed promptly from his employ. But despite the critique of those terminated, it was said by nearly every employee with whom I spoke, Napier was a tough but fair man.
Through the years, George received well-deserved promotions—from an assistant foreperson to foreperson in the soldering and giftware departments, to an assistant plant superintendent in 1980 and later plant superintendent in 1983 as well as director of fabrication. His work involved manufacturing, working with quality control, production control, tooling, personnel, and security.
The end of my conversation with George involved discussing the beautiful giftware designed by so many of the great designers, including Emil Schuelke. George said to me, “You’re going to get a kick out of this. I was looking through the book, and you see, I took a jigger and put a bottle opener on the bottom, so it was fitted and then put the ice tongs on it, and brought one into Mr. Rettenmeyer (then president and CEO), and he looked at me and asked, ‘Are you trying to bankrupt the company? You’re putting all the three items in one.’” The smart design ended up in the line and was called, “The Big Dipper.” George was pleased when they put it in the line, and ironically, it is featured in my book with the Schuelke design.
Nearly 49 years after George started his decades-long career, he left The Napier Co. in 1990 after losing his wife. However, shortly after leaving The Napier Co., he was recruited back by president and CEO, Ronald Meoni. George continued with the company for one more year, rounding out his 50-years with Napier in 1991.
As I spoke with George, he apologized for “yacking” on about his memories working for The Napier Co. Meanwhile, I thought to myself how lucky I am to have finally spoken with the oldest living employee of the once-great jewelry and giftware manufacturing company, The Napier Co.
Written by Melinda L. Lewis Author of “The Napier Co.: Defining 20th Century American Costume Jewelry.
Ms. Lewis continues to collect, purchase, and study all objects Napier to “recreate” the historic Napier archive. She welcomes offers for Napier advertising, company marketing, jewelry, barware and giftware. Most anything Napier related to preserve the history of a bygone-era. Please write: melinda @ napierbook.com
Copyright 2020. All Rights Reserved. No part may be used or replicated without written permission.
There has not been much written about the jewelry produced by The Napier Co. during the 1930s. It was thought that the company largely suspended its jewelry production during this period and focused its business on alcohol and tobacco-related items due to changed personal habits brought forth by the prohibition.
One thing is for sure; The Napier Co. made Prystal jewelry. Albeit, very little has been identified as Napier jewelry on the secondary collectors’ market.
In 1930, the company presented a line of Prystal jewelry that was part of its “Dinner Jewelry” line. Designed with the Sunday dinner frock in mind, the collection’s emphasis was on white–with black, color, or gold-tone findings to accentuate the design. The line also involved the use of faceted crystal instead of Prystal. Featured were pendant necklaces with white Prystal, filigree elements and splashes of color—mostly with added motif accents in green and red. The line also featured large festoon necklaces made of carved Prystal in a variety of shapes. (Those exact shapes remain unknown.)
The crystal necklaces were often accented with antique-gold findings. The necklaces came in single, double, and triple strand necklaces. Beads were usually graduated as a part of the design and sometimes included black or green crystal accents. Other accent elements included leaves or filigree flowers common in later station necklace designs.
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If you have a c. 1930s piece of Napier jewelry you’d like to share, please write us!
Eloxal (electrolytic oxidation of aluminum) jewelry was made mostly from the mid-1940s to the mid-1960s. Eloxal jewelry can be found marked Germany or W. Germany and is among the collectible genre of aluminum jewelry.
Jewelry made of aluminum is sleek, sturdy, highly reflective and lightweight. It was a metal of choice for some couture designers because of these properties and it fit nicely into the Space-age, geometric shapes and designs that were relevant to the pop culture of the time. Sant’ Angelo also used this metal and juxtaposed dangling fruit as an additional adornment to his sleek jewelry to compliment the rich colors of his fashions.
Designing complementing pieces for a collection were not uncommon for jewelry designers. Generally, one “museum piece” would be designed, and other pieces were designed around the piece of center focus.
Body jewelry was very popular during the 1960s and the pieces shown speak to that fashion phenomenon. Jewelry was worn like it was a piece of clothing and many fashion designers were also in the business of jewelry design. The jewelry shown most likely was commissioned by Diana Vreeland the editor-in-chief of Vogue or Sant’ Angelo could have fashioned it “on the spot” as he was noted for doing during the infamous Sedona, Arizona fashion shoot later that year for Vogue that launch his career into fashion and jewelry design.
Article re posted from The Jewelry Stylist. Sellers of fine vintage costume jewelry. From signed pieces to unsigned beauties, they provide a wonderful resource of vintage jewels for the collector, covering 110 years of fashion adornment.
Choosing the right piece of jewelry for your sweetheart can be a fun and rewarding experience, both for you choosing that special piece and for your sweetheart to receive it. There are 5 things to keep in mind when looking for that special piece.
Choose a Gift She will Feel Confident to Wear Often
Selecting a piece that piece that represents her style isn’t as difficult as you may think when it comes to vintage jewelry. Most dealers have an inventory which spans about 110 of years fashion adornment. Dealers often offer a wide variety of basic-style considerations with even more sub-genres within style groups from which to choose.
Buy a Piece in Her Favorite Color
Vintage jewelry offers the biggest selection of color and texture ever imaginable. Stones, crystals, cabochons and beads were often imported from Europe using sophisticated manufacturing and cutting techniques. Today’s jewelry is frequently adorned with plastic and hard resin stones simulating the old rhinestones and more expensive glass used in vintage jewelry. However, the durability and sparkle cannot match the old-world components. Note: many sophisticated couture designers with a connection to vintage jewelry do understand this and use only vintage components in their designs.
Purchase a Glitzy Rhinestone Stone Suite
With a gift of a glitzy rhinestone suite, your lover will always be ready for an evening out wearing her “little black dress.” Besides making her feel sexy, a well-designed glitzy rhinestone set is an instant conversation piece—a perfect segue for unexpected introductions.
Decide on a Vintage Novelty Piece if She’s Playful
If your lover isn’t the glitzy type or isn’t into bold jewelry, a playful “novelty” piece can be a fun gift. Vintage jewelry from the 1930s and 1940s offers many fun and wacky pieces from silly figural pieces to “motto” jewelry from the war. Pieces are often constructed in unusual or unexpected materials, such as wood, nuts, plastic, cork, raffia and more. Jewelry selected from this era offers great insight into America during some of its most challenging industrial times. The cleverness of manufacturers to fulfill a woman’s need for adornment and expression have never been as ingenious as this period of time.
The Gift that Keeps on Giving
To impress a lover, one can also share about organizations that study vintage jewelry and its history. Everything from the period of manufacture, to the designer and components used in manufacturing is studied by jewelry enthusiasts, jewelry historians, collectors, and dealers. Since the gift can represent a favorite decade or era, theme, or color, collectors groups can provide a continued meaning and history to the special gift. Costume Jewelry Collectors Int’l (CJCI) is one such group.
By Melinda Lewis -July 30, 2014
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Many costume jewelry books have written that Stephan R. Bartek designed for The Napier Co. Although, the author of The Napier Co.: Defining 20th Century American Costume Jewelry remains unconvinced, and makes no claims to that fact. In fact, there is no mention of Stephan R. Bartek in her recently published book. After extensive research and interviews with those who had access to company records or who worked for Napier during the early 1940s, no such persons can validate that Stephan R. Bartek designed for the Napier Co. Nor did he appear in any company historical documents, unlike other employees.
Born in 1912, Stephan R. Bartek Jr. was the son of blacksmith and wagon maker Stephen Bartek and his wife Julia Bartek. He resided all of his life in Wallingford, CT. City directories list Stephen R. Bartek Jr. as living in the same home as his parents up to at least the age of 25. Although customary at the time to publish the employer’s name of those referenced in city directories, Stephen R. Bartek Jr. never appears to be listed as an employee of The Napier Co.
In the 1930s census, he is listed as unemployed. To have commenced his work with Napier during the 1930s would have meant that he began in the design department possibly at the age of 18 with no formal art or silversmith training. Given that most designers for Napier were highly skilled and trained at the finest institutions, it seems unlikely that Stephan would have begun his career at Napier with little or no formal training. Additionally, after the crash of 1929 and the end of prohibition, work placement for a young, inexperienced designer at Napier seems unlikely. Barware production fell sharply and jewelry was not being manufactured in the same capacity until production geared up in 1937.
What does seem likely, however, is that Stephan worked for and learned metalworking skills from his father’s business that later gave him the ability to open his own business in the late-1940s. If he did work for The Napier Co., perhaps it was to sweep the floors or keep the ovens stocked with coal as a young teenager. Neither the Meriden Historical Society, nor the Wallingford Historical Society could state if Stephan R. Bartek worked for Napier during the 1930s. Until jewelry historians obtain further data, the Bartek story will remain a mystery.
Commentary: As jewelry historians, we know that our understanding of the jewelry industry is always evolving. What was considered fact at one time, may now be known as “fiction.” In this case, the source of the information pertaining to Mr. Bartek’s employment was deemed reliable and rightly so, But it is our efforts to verify those facts that sometimes bring to light what was said as fact, may not be fully accurate.
As part of the mission statement, the community will continue to question what is believed to be true and strive to better understand an important time in American cultural history. What new info do you want to reveal?
This open metalwork cuff, surmounted by oval and circ coral cabochons was part of a collection called, “Indian Sunrise.” The collection was comprised of link and cuff bracelets, earrings, and a necklace in rich coral tones with antique gold plating. This bracelet later made in silver-plated metal with faux turquoise stones.
The sterling Napier ballerina brooch set is often thought of as a great introductory piece to the new sterling silver Napier collector. However, the long-held attribution that this dancing lady was designed by Natacha Brooks, because of a 1944 U. S. design patent, is actually incorrect. The Napier prima ballerina was designed by a leading Napier designer. You can learn more about this collectible figural in the new book, The Napier Co.: Defining American Costume Jewelry.
The “Frosted Leaves” Collection
With Thanksgiving just two days away, I decided to share this remarkably stylish necklace that was presented by The Napier Co. in November, 1957. The light-weight design features a bib with seven cascading drops all tapered in length. The antiqued-gold frosted finish has remained as velvety as the day it was plated. This style came in two colors: antiqued-gold and antiqued silver. The designer was Eugene Bertolli. The collection name is “Frosted Leaves.”
The Napier Charm Bracelet
The Napier charm bracelet has been a coveted collectible to own in the realm of costume jewelry collecting. Historically, The Napier Co. had a long-standing reputation for creating and producing, high-quality charm bracelets. The bracelets were as whimsical as the designer’s creativity—lending a sense of play in a intensely competitive and serious market of American Fashion Jewelry. When tailored jewelry was more the norm, the charm bracelet gave women a perfect outlet. The charm bracelet, which was sometimes called a “conversation piece,” was the ideal expression of fun, sentiment and adventure.
The bracelet below called, “Tropicana,” dates back to 1955. It was one of Napier’s best sellers designed by Eugene Bertolli.
The Napier Book © 2012 Melinda Lewis
After 11 long and loving years, we are finally launching our new book “The Napier Co. Defining 20th Century Costume Jewelry!”
We are now taking preorders for the book, which will be shipped in the Spring of 2013. The list price is $129.00, but we are offering $30.00 off for those who pre-order the book. Also, everyone who preorders will receive a Bonus DVD with fun extras, including a lecture Melinda gave on The Napier Co., as well as videos of Melinda talking about and showing some of her favorite Napier pieces. Those who preorder will also receive 1-year access to a special member’s area on this site, where Melinda will be sharing more videos, pictures, insights, and facts about Napier that we could not fit in the book.
Give yourself or your spouse a boutique costume jewelry Christmas gift. 😉
We would also like to offer special thanks to the many people who have helped get us to this point. Your support and encouragement have meant so much to us. It is finally here!
Here is a video describing the book.