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chenet d'HAITI:

the story

an Interview with
Jacques Chenet

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jean Chenet...

Jean Chenet was an accomplished artist and businessman who, together with his wife, Winifred Mason, created the jewelry marked "chenet d'HAITI." We are grateful to his family for the following information and to his brother, Jacques, for granting us this interview.

(For background information, please see Winifred Mason, Extraordinary Coppersmith  MODERN SILVER magazine, Spring/Summer, 2011.)

Introduction:
Jean Chenet was a gentle man, doted on by his mother, Mrs. Reine Figaro-Chenet who, though she was married to Mr. Evan Chenet Sr. (Haitian consul in Cuba and the Dominican Republic), toiled long hours with her daughter, Eugenie Chenet and their employees, in the Chenet's renowned patisserie in Port Au Prince. The money she made was used to educate her five sons (including Jean) who all grew up to be either engineers, artists, or teachers.

Before becoming interested in jewelry-making, Jean was a street muralist employed by the Haitian government for special events, such as expositions. Supposedly, he first met Winifred Mason in Mexico City, at a school for jewelry making.  It is also possible that he met Winifred in Haiti in the mid 1940s when she was there on a grant to study Haitian folk art. Before the two were married, while Jean was visiting New York City, he and his brother, Jacques, went to visit Winifred Mason at her shop in Greenwich Village—this suggests that they knew each other in New York and were reunited in Haiti.
 

 Winifred Mason
After their marriage, Jean and Winifred settled in New York City, in the St. Albans area of Queens. Later, they returned to Haiti where they had a jewelry shop and a factory for creating jewelry that they sold through Haitian stores such as Belle Kreyol. They were a resourceful couple who, because they had a machine to polish buttons, cleaned the uniform of U.S. military officer, Colonel Robert Debs Heinl (stationed in Haiti from 1959-1963), and also ran a type of hotel catering business.

There is a story that Winifred tried to reclaim the Chenet family ancestral property in Gonaives Haiti from the peasants who had resided there for years. The peasants warned "the skinny lady" that they were going to cut off her legs with a machete.  Winifred then withdrew any efforts to reclaim the land in Gonaives that belonged to Evan Chenet Sr., her father-in-law.

In 1963, at the age of forty-five, Jean Chenet was murdered by the Tonton Macoutes.  He had no political agenda and was not involved in rebellion against the Haitian dictatorship, but he was handsome and business savvy and this may have incited jealousy in some. It was rumored, at the time, that the Tonton Macoutes wanted to demoralize all the families in Haiti, especially the wealthy mulatto ones, so they chose to kill a certain number of people.  There are different versions of how Jean was killed, but it is said that he was shot in the head, after which an ambulance quickly took him away. No one in the family was ever given the opportunity to view the corpse.

After the killing, Winifred disguised herself as a peasant and fled to the U.S. embassy. Jean's business was then taken over by one of his employees and Winifred returned to the United States, to her mother's house in New York City.
 

The Interview:  
Marbeth Schon Jacques Chenet
Hello, Is this Jacques Chenet? This is Marbeth Schon calling.  I was hoping that maybe you had some time to talk to me today about Winifred Mason and Jean Chenet.





Yes, I am reading an article about them.

 

Yes, we already have an article online about Winfred Mason, but there really wasn’t a lot about the Chenet part and we were curious to know more. 

I really appreciate your talking to me.  We would like to know more about chenet d’HAITI jewelry and how it relates to the story of the relationship and work of Winifred Mason and Jean Chenet. I think it will be very fascinating to know more of your family's side of the story.  

I’d be glad to.

 









chenet d'HAITI spiral earrings

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copper
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That’s wonderful, thank you so much!  I heard that you knew Winifred Mason before she married Jean. Is that right? Did you introduce them to each other?

I left Haiti when I was nineteen and came to New York.  I lived in New York and when Jean came from Haiti, he told me about Winnie and we went to visit her in Greenwich Village where she had her shop and that’s how I knew they knew each other.

Oh, so they must have met in New York.

Well ,Jean directed the Art Center back in Haiti. He used to take paintings for exhibitions to the museums in Chicago and the museum in New York.

So, did they meet in New York or did Jean meet Winnie when she went to Haiti?  Winifred had received a grant to study the folk art and the people and customs of Haiti so perhaps they met there. Someone said that they were working in Mexico City or studying jewelry in Mexico City and they might have met there. Is that possible?

Not likely. I think they met in Haiti when Winnie went to Haiti to study the art.

 

My brother was in the war with us in Haiti, so they must have met in Haiti.  That’s what I would think.

 

What year did she go to Haiti? Do you have an idea when that was? Was that in the 1950’s? (The actual date was 1945.)


Most likely, yes, around that time.

 

Did you ever meet Art Smith, who worked with Winifred Mason —that would probably have been earlier so maybe you never met him? No, I never met Art Smith.  I went to Haiti at one time, after they got married—we had a long vacation.  I didn’t know exactly when they got married, but I understand they got married over there and they had their shop over there in Haiti where they manufactured jewelry.

Oh was that the chenet d’HAITI jewelry—was that what it was called?

Actually it was called the Vodou jewelry.

Vodou Jewelry?

The reason it was called that is because they designed jewelry that was taken from Vodou symbols.

I had a set of jewelry, a bracelet and earrings, that had Vodou symbols and they were marked "chenet d’HAITI" on the back.

When they started their shop in Haiti, and manufacturing, I went to that shop and I noticed that Jean was doing a painting.  He was in charge of the painting and the jewelry and when they started selling it first it was Vodou d’HAITI and when they started selling it to Bloomingdales in New York, it became chenet d’HAITI.

chenet d'HAITI
Vodou motif bracelet & earrings

white metal
Ah, that’s so interesting!  I imagine that was because not everyone would understand or, perhaps, would be a little afraid of the Vodou jewelry, so they probably thought that the new name was better.

 

Hollywood has given Vodou a bad name.

 

Vodou is a religion, like any (other) kind of religion believing in the eternal God. In prayer, the Vodou people call on saints, called Loas, for intersession with God. Each Loa has a certain symbol called a vevet. Using powdered chalk, vevets were drawn on the ground before the Vodou ceremonies began. These are the symbols (the intricate designs) that they used on their jewelry.

That’s very interesting.

I’m sure that Jean is the one who introduced Winnie to that thought at the time.

Yes, Because she was an American she probably wouldn’t have understood it like he did.

Yes, because we all knew it very well, we all learned very well in the country and watched Vodou ceremonies—it’s quite familiar when you’re growing up.

Hollywood and New Orleans gave Vodou a bad name. I guess they make it scary and it shouldn’t be that.

Vodou relates to  the same thing, the same religion as any other. You believe in one god.

 

 

 

 

chenet d'HAITI brooch..

white metal..

So you were born in Haiti, but you moved to New York when you were young.

I was nineteen when I came to New York and I

would go to Haiti from time to time to visit.

 
Was Jean born in the US, too, or was he born in Haiti?

No, he was born in Haiti—all of us were born in Haiti—five brothers.

So Jean was your brother. Yes

I'm sure you were very sad when he was killed!

Right, he was killed in April 1963. I was in that house with him. I was visiting him.

You were visiting him at the time? How did you get out of Haiti?

You know, two weeks before he was killed, I was visiting him.
And so then you left?

I left before they killed him. I left for the journey back to New York.

Did you feel frightened at that time? Did you think it was dangerous to be there?

 

 

 

No, I didn’t feel any danger whatsoever. I understand that the boy that used to work for them warned one of them—I don’t know if it was Winnie or if it was Jean—to be careful because some people might be thinking of doing something. And, on the occasion of his death, of course, somebody tried to kidnap Baby Doc from school and we know, that at that time, they wanted to kill Jean.  They killed quite a few people who they thought could have done it.

I’m sorry.

I’ve got a picture of him
what a handsome man he was!
 
Did Jean make jewelry before he met Winifred or was he mostly a painterworking in other art forms?

He was interested in only pencil art.  He was the director of the Art Centre for a while, and the object of the Centre was to encourage art in Haiti and to subsidize the artists and to encourage them to paint or (create) sculpture—to do all kinds of things.

So they lost someone wonderful when he diedthey lost a true advocate for the arts.  

Well, I guess when he died, Winifred had to somehow get out of the country. I read that she went to the embassy, Is that right?  The American embassy? And then had to disguise herself to get out of Haiti.

I don’t know if she had to disguise herself, she went to the embassyshe was protected.

I asked her what happened. She said that after she heard a shot, she saw him lying on the ground, dead. Then she went back in the house and washed every piece of clothing she had.

She just had to do something.

And she just kept washing?  I guess that's what you do when something like that happenskeep busyyou just do it.

It’s like you’re washing away something bad, but you never really do. You think you do, anyway.  

Keep busy, Yes.

 

chenet d'HAITI
necklace, bracelet & earrings

brass & copper

                                            

When she came back to New York, I guess she kept in touch with your family.

 

 

In New York, a couple of times after that, we used to go to a place in Sag Harbor and she was back to doing jewelrythat’s when she was doing the different pattern jewelry.

We saw her a couple of times,  I went to her house when we met in Sag Harbor—we saw each other in Sag Harbor.

Did you like Winifred?

Like her?  Oh, we got along fine together. I had no problem with her.

I guess she must have really loved your brother.

Oh, yes, yes they were very close, they really, really worked together very nicely.







chenet d'HAITI cuff
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brass & copper..

chenet d'HAITI
necklace

copper

 

 Did Winifred ever marry again? No.
She’s not still living, is she Winifred? No, she died a few years ago.

I’ve had a lot of trouble getting in touch with her family; there doesn’t seem to be anybody in her family that will talk to us.  She belonged to The  Girlfriends in New York. They’re a group of fraternal Black woman, but they wouldn’t help us unless we had permission from her family. We found a picture of her but they wouldn't let use that particular one.  The one in the article is from Ebony Magazine.  

Yes, I saw that picture. That’s the first time I saw that picture. She must have been very young.

 

 

She was an interesting lady.  She must have been ahead of her time.
 

There were a lot of articles written about her, too.

There’s an article in a black magazine—I think I remember—that was being published at the time you wrote an article about her. They talked about Greenwich Village where she had her shop.

It must have been hard for her, because there weren’t that many black jewelers, though Greenwich Village was a place where black people could live and work—Art Smith was there.

 

It’s a place where the artists lived and respected each other no matter what color or what race they were. Greenwich Village was an open place, I would think.

Well you know New York.  New York was much different than the (rest of the) country. 

As race was concerned there was no big fuss anymore about where you lived.

 

The year when I first came it was different—at that time.

 

 

I’m sure there were communities of different ethnicities. Was there a Haitian community in New York where a lot of Haitian people lived—where you lived ?

Yes, we had a club and we used to give dances at the Waldorf Astoria.

 

When I first came to New York I lived in Harlem. Eventually I  moved—after I got married—at first I went in the Army.

Oh. I was in the army, I was in the War.

World War II.

 

 

 

 

 

When I came back, we settled in Manhattan and we lived in Queens, Brooklyn and when I left New York to come to Florida, I lived in Queens.

 

I lived in New York almost 60 years. I was a highway engineer.

Well, maybe that’s why you have such longevity, because you were out in the fresh air all the time.

 

 

Well it’s some of that too, how you keep from taking chances and doing things you shouldn’t do like drinking too much or eating too much.

 

I was a tennis player, so I used to do a lot of exercises.  I was still playing tennis at the age of eighty-three--about eighty-three I stopped.

 

Somebody said that Jean and Winifred studied together in Mexico City.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I don’t know about that part in Mexico.

 

When they came to New York,  they would usually stop at my house. 
 

They would stay with me at my house and then they would go. It was a family tradition. One time they went to Chicago for some reason.  
 

The director of the Museum of Art in New York used to call me to set up meetings with them.

 

The director of that museum was a Frenchmen, but  I don’t remember his name—the museum in New York.

I should probably do some more research just on Jean Chenet since he was involved in the Arts—in Haitian Art—and all of that. There were some wonderful paintings that came out of Haiti.  

 

 

 

 

Yeah, whenever I go to Haiti,  I usually go back to see the paintings. There really are some nice paintings.

 

There was an American guy that went to Haiti and he encouraged—he did a lot.  He was connected with the Art Centre, too.  He really provided a lot of paintings and money to encourage those artists that’s when the art really took off.  

 
Do you go back quite often to Haiti?

 

 

I used to go every year, but the last time I went was in 1987—because I did not like what I saw in 1987 and I said I would not go back until things improved, but I didn’t know then that Haiti was the best that it ever was.  In '87—it got worse after that.

Right, the earthquake and all of that.  It’s so sad.

Yes, I would really love to go back, but the security—I know that the security got so bad.

You can’t take a chance and go.

I understand.  Do you still have family there?

Both of my brothers and sisters are in Florida. They they came to New York when I did, but I have a cousin still there.

Well I’m glad your whole family came.  That’s good.  That’s better.

 

In fact, Jean at one time was thinking of—actually he was going to get a job to represent Haiti in the United Nations. He was telling me about it and he was thinking about it, but he probably felt that Haiti was not a fit place for him to stay. He was talking about a job at the U.N. and then he stopped talking about it.

So they actually lived most of their married life in Haiti or were they back and forthWinifred and Jean? They lived most of their time in Haiti.

There was one person who told me about some property in Haiti that Winifred wanted to get from (or for) the family—that there was an incident where Winifred tried to reclaim the Chenet family ancestral property in Gonaives from the peasants who resided there and they warned the "skinny lady" that they were going to cut her legs off with a Machete, so she left.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I think the family had some property in part of Haiti and my father showed me the deed and the map  after he died—he died in 1957.  I guess only Jean was there so he got all the papers and I guess he took all that property to see what he could get. When you own property in Haiti and you don’t use it a lot of people just move on the property and start using it.

 

So it’s possible they went up there to see what they could get—what they could sell—and the people who had taken over some of it illegally probably could have been mad at them.  That’s possible.

 

I know my father—when he was alive—he would go on the property trying to do something and he would come back with a cold.  

 

It’s possible, there were a few hundred acres in that particular place and that’s the only time she would have come for the property.

You said that you came to New  Orleans when you were nineteen?

 

 

 

 

 

It was during the depression that I came from Haiti to New York.  My great, great grandfather, Jean Baptiste Chenet came from New Orleans to Haiti.

 

That was during the time they went to the West Indies and my father told me that the reason he left New Orleans to come to Haiti (was because) he didn’t want to live under Saxon rule—the British. He came from Canada, exiled by the British because he was Pro-French. In other words, the name the family adopted at the time was Chenet, which means "andiron." There are a lot of them (Chenets) from Canada to Louisiana.  When the United Sates bought Louisiana, Jean Baptiste Chenet decided to leave for Haiti.

So they were probably some of the French Canadians who moved to Louisiana from Nova ScotiaAcadian/Cajun people.

Yeah, well I guess you could say that he was part of the Cajuns

 
That’s very  interesting.

 

 

I think the original Chenet family—they were French Jews.
 

Jean Baptist Chenet married the daughter of General Mathieu who served under Toussaint and we are decedents of that union.  
That’s fascinating.  So as far as Haitians, you were most likely fairly wealthyyou had land and all of that.  You’re probably a very interesting, educated family.

 

 

 

 

 
The acres were 25 careaux.  A careaux is 3 acres for a total of about 75 acres. It took a whole day to go around it on horseback and my father told me that they raised a lot of cattle there and tobacco and they used to exchange their cattle to the Dominican Republicthey had papers there with them  They would raise them and exchange tobacco that is still raised in Louisiana and that tobacco is very powerful.  They mix it with regular tobacco to get more nicotine, I guess. And the person that took that tobacco from the Union and raised it was called Pierre Chenet and that kind of tobacco is called "Perique" tobacco because of Pierre.

 

And that tobacco is still used in some kind of form.

In Louisiana they sell it to the best bidder.

Oh, how interesting!  So, it’s very highly prized.

 

 

 

There’s a book on Louisiana  you’ll see what I’m talking about. 
 

I used to wonder why my cousin and uncle—my cousin was the son of a medical doctor—why they raised that tobacco.

I just realized that they must have grown it for the money.

Was Winifred Jean’s first or second wife?

Yes, the second wife.

Do you have any of their jewelry

I have a few (pieces). I have a couple of cuff links.

So you have cuff links. Are they made of copper or silver?

They’re made of copper, the design is in copper.







chenet d'HAITI earrings
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white metal & copper..

 I really enjoyed talking to you.

 

 

I am more than glad to talk to you, because I think more people should know about what the two of them did together and it was jewelry that was very popular for a long time.  I went to a lecture that a man was giving.  I looked at his cuff links and asked him to let me see them and he lifted one up and it said, "Chenet."






chenet d'HIATI

maker's mark

Really, how interesting!

 

 
Just to show you how popular they were because Bloomingdales used to sell it and it was a "top seller."

I really appreciate your taking the time to speak with me, today.

Thank you!

The pleasure was minemy pleasure also.

Thank you!  Bye.

 Jean Chenet..

Interview with Jacques Chenet by Marbeth Schon.
Information courtesy of the Chenet family.

Photographs courtesy of:

Julie & Norman Silverman
Silverman's Selected Antiques
http://www.trocadero.com/stores/silvermansselected

Paul and Donna Johnson
http://www.thevirtualantique.com/

Vinnie Miller
http://www.modernistworks.com

Marbeth Schon
www.mschon.com

 

Web Design by Marbeth Schon

© copyright MODERN SILVER magazine, 2012

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