Eugene and Joan Joseff crafted costume jewelry for hundreds of Hollywood classics — and you can own a piece (or three) as well.
Kristin Joseff was searching for something when she stumbled across a piece of Hollywood costume history. “I had opened a drawer, and inside there was this yellow Bakelite comb,” she remembers. “I turned it over and realized right away what it was.”
Joseff was holding one of the combs worn by Ona Munson as Belle Watling in 1939’s Gone With the Wind. She had been looking for this particular ornament for some time, but until this moment had not realized that the piece seen onscreen in Munson’s hair actually consisted of two combs, rather than a single design. “There was also a broken bit that looks like it could be the other one,” she adds.
Such discoveries happen all the time in the Burbank, Calif., headquarters of Joseff of Hollywood, the legendary firm that has crafted costume jewels, hair ornaments, crowns, helmets and other metalwork and accessories for films since the late 1920s. So nondescript there isn’t even a sign out front, Joseff of Hollywood has resided in this Burbank warehouse for eight decades, and while it’s undeniably organized, the sheer volume of pieces — placed in drawers, cubbies, even specially labeled cigar boxes — accounts for the occasional eureka moment like the unearthing of Belle Watling’s hair combs.
If you love classic films, and costume design in particular, Joseff of Hollywood should be on your radar to the same degree as Adrian’s work for Greta Garbo and Jean Harlow at MGM, Edith Head’s designs for Barbara Stanwyck and Grace Kelly, or Orry-Kelly’s tenure at Warner Bros. Indeed, it’s difficult to name a film from Hollywood’s golden era that doesn’t include costume jewels or other metalwork accessories by Joseff of Hollywood — not only Gone With the Wind, but Camille, Casablanca, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Katharine Hepburn’s Mary of Scotland, Marie Antoinette starring Norma Shearer, Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra, and hundreds of other high-wattage films.
What’s most impressive about Joseff of Hollywood is just how thoroughly the firm dominated the industry, working across competing studios and costume designers without worries of conflict of interest or demand of exclusivity. Perhaps that’s a testament to both the talent and the affable nature of the man who founded the company: Eugene Joseff was born in 1905 in Chicago, and was a commercial artist working for an advertising agency in that city, but an interest in jewelry design led to a self-educated hobby in that medium’s art and craft, which included an apprenticeship at a foundry in his spare time. Eugene had come to Hollywood largely with a vacation in mind, but he liked southern California and quickly decided to move there.
Soon after his arrival, Eugene struck up a friendship that would change both the course of his own life and the film industry: He met Walter Plunkett, already an established costume designer at RKO. As they got to know each other, Walter would listen to Eugene’s complaints about the lack of period authenticity in the costume jewels seen in certain films, and one day Plunkett challenged his friend: Perhaps he could do a better job himself? That was all the encouragement Eugene needed. In 1930, Joseff of Hollywood was born.
Two decisions Eugene made early would be key to both the immediate and long-term success of his business. Determined to make authenticity a priority in his work for period films, Eugene began amassing an exceptional library of resources, books that explored jewelry design and craft through the centuries. “We still have these books, which delve into the history of 18th-century French or Russian jewels, for example,” Kristin Joseff says. “That’s one of the things that made Eugene so valuable to productions, that he possessed this research, and he opened up his library to costume designers when they needed it. You can still look through these books and find little notes, from Eugene or his in-house designers, about the various pieces they were working on at the time.”
The other innovation? Rather than sell his pieces to individual productions, Eugene Joseff rented them, thus allowing him to earn the money to create the pieces needed, while also retaining them for his own archives. “Back then filming didn’t take as long as it does now — it was weeks instead of months — so it was much more cost-effective for a production to rent pieces, and it allowed Eugene to grow his archives, as opposed to selling everything he made,” Kristin explains.
That strategy also meant some pieces occasionally might be repurposed or reused, a practice that eagle-eyed fans have spotted over the years. The necklace that becomes a plot point in 1938’s Marie Antoinette — based on history’s infamous “affair of the necklace” — is also briefly seen on Virginia Weidler in 1940’s The Philadelphia Story, while a flower-and-vine brooch with four feather drops was first seen on Alice Faye in 1940’s Lillian Russell before making its way to Ava Gardner in 1949’s The Great Sinner and Greer Garson in That Forsyte Woman, also in 1949. A necklace designed for 1938’s Camille, meanwhile, was deemed too heavy to wear by Greta Garbo and was later worn by Vivien Leigh in 1941’s That Hamilton Woman — hearing of Garbo’s refusal to wear it, Leigh reportedly commented that the necklace's beauty was worth any discomfort. That piece and other significant designs, including two necklaces Leigh wore in Gone With the Wind, were sold at a 2017 auction, but Kristin says plenty of iconic pieces remain in the archives. “Anything that’s deemed truly iconic is kept in an offsite vault,” she notes.
Another brooch often discussed in Facebook classic-film groups is the abstract crystal piece, a swirl design embellished with drops hanging at different lengths, seen on both Ingrid Bergman in 1942’s Casablanca and Joan Crawford in 1945’s Mildred Pierce. The icon status of those films draws considerable attention to that brooch among fashion-in-film fans, though it may be lost forever, unfortunately. “Back then, if materials were needed for a new piece, an old piece might be broken up — people weren’t thinking about how these pieces might become part of history,” Kristin says, noting that the Marie Antoinette necklace may have met a similar fate. And while a rental system using ledgers was created decades ago, sometimes accidents have prevented accurate tracking. “We have the inventory number for the Casablanca brooch, but [the ledger] with notes for Mildred Pierce sustained water damage, and they’re not legible,” she adds.
That might not be the end of the story for this particular piece, however. During the interview, the brooch’s inclusion in Now, Voyager, seen on Ilka Chase during a party scene, also comes up in conversation. A follow-up photo was dispatched to Kristin, and her excitement is palpable in the email she sent the following evening. “[This is] definitely the same piece!” she writes. Thus the modern-day cataloging and research of the Joseff of Hollywood archives continues. “We’re working on a more comprehensive [digital] catalog, but you have to understand that this is a business that’s been analog for years and years,” she adds.
Eugene Joseff employed other innovations as the 1930s transitioned into the 1940s. Recognizing the onscreen value of his jewelry, and that actresses also were wearing his designs in publicity shots that appeared in magazines like Photoplay and Movie Mirror, Eugene created a retail collection of reproductions, encouraged by the jewelry manager of Bullock’s, the department store located on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles. “Francis Craig, the manager of the jewelry section, who is always looking for new ideas and strives to give her customers what they want, felt that her friends would be interested in some of the things they see worn by the stars in the pictures,” Eugene said in a 1940 radio interview. “She finally persuaded me to make reproductions of some of these pieces and let her try them. Well, I can only say she was right. People have liked them.”
Many of those retail pieces — including reproductions of Belle Watling’s bell-shaped earrings and, later, snake-like pieces inspired by the company's work for 1963’s Cleopatra — are still available on the Joseff of Hollywood website; but grab them while you can, Kristin says. “Pieces like Belle’s earrings are from our deadstock, which consists of the remaining pieces and materials from the reproduction line from the 1950s,” she notes. “Currently we only work with our vintage materials, and we only have a certain amount of deadstock, so when it’s gone, that’s it. Authenticity and maintaining the Joseff legacy is our priority.” In addition to Belle’s earrings and a variety of serpentine, Cleopatra-inspired pieces, the site also features costume jewels like a pair of earrings depicting frogs sitting on lily pads, originally designed by Eugene for Rosemary Lane, as well as a series of zodiac brooches, with Joan Crawford wearing one in 1950’s Harriet Craig (born on March 23rd, Crawford requested the Aries version of the brooch for her personal wardrobe).
Another design available on the site was inspired by someone who became more important to Eugene than any movie star. On the precipice of the U.S. entering World War II, he had recognized the need for casting metal parts for machinery and aircraft, and expanded his foundry to include Joseff Precision Metal Products, with orders from McDonnell Douglas and other aircraft manufacturers. The ramped-up work between the film and aircraft industries also inspired the need to hire an office assistant; he contacted Sawyer Business College in Los Angeles, and among the candidates was a woman named Joan Castle. Smart and talented, Joan soon rose to the position of office manager, and in 1942, she became Mrs. Eugene Joseff. Later Eugene would design a “Sungod” necklace in gold, with dangling crystals for the eyes so they could sparkle in movement, as a gift for his wife.
Joan and Eugene had one son, Jeff, in 1947, but just 11 months after Jeff was born, Eugene died in a plane crash in September 1948. Perhaps most impressive, considering the dearth of women in leadership roles in 1948, Joan assumed the position of president of both companies, and both continued to thrive. Joan oversaw Joseff of Hollywood as the firm continued its work in movies, with productions that included My Fair Lady, Inside Daisy Clover and Camelot, as well as more contemporary productions like Peggy Sue Got Married in 1986, The Age of Innocence in 1993, and the remake of Fun with Dick and Jane in 2005. Joan, who never officially retired from the company, passed away in 2010 at the age of 97.
Today Joseff of Hollywood remains a family affair. Kristin is married to Jeff, Jr., the son of Jeff Joseff and his wife Tina, who heads up day-to-day operations and, when she has the time, continues to work on the company’s official catalog and records. “Tina found all of the rental-sheet books going back to the 1930s, and we’ve been going through them very slowly,” Kristin says. “It’s a really big project that’s going to be 10 years in the making.”
High-profile productions, meanwhile, continue to reach out to Joseff of Hollywood for designs. The company’s costume jewels have been featured in recent seasons of HBO’s Westworld, while pieces will also be seen in the upcoming Ryan Murphy series Hollywood, debuting May 1 on Netflix. “We are very excited for that show, because they came in and did a huge rental with us,” Kristin says of the show, which is set in post-World War II Hollywood. “The finale involves a scene at an awards show, and we can’t wait to see that. It also feels like such a terrific callback to our history.”
Recently the Joseffs also made the decision to step back from the aircraft division to focus more on the jewelry: Jeff, Jr., works on the design side, while Kristin oversees digital and sales, and Tina concentrates on the ID work of the archives. Kristin also works with requests from museums: Before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down most public spaces around the U.S., she had been planning on sending the Belle Watling comb, together with cufflinks and other items worn and used by Clark Gable in Gone With the Wind, to the Marietta, Georgia, museum devoted to the 1939 film for an upcoming exhibition. (Note: It’s unconfirmed whether the museum is currently closed; the story will be updated when that information becomes available.)
Kristin also continues to field emails from enthusiastic fans and collectors, who regularly inquire about the availability of specific pieces seen in favorite films. “We have one guy who sends photos all the time, saying, ‘I know you have to have this,’” she says. “It’s actually really fun to see how passionate people still are about the work both Eugene and Joan did over the years. We’re really proud of the role Joseff of Hollywood has played in film history. That will never leave us.”