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The Story of Francisco Rebajes

 by  Patricia Riveron Lee












Francisco Rebajes was one of the first craftsman jewelers in New York's Greenwich Village. He and my father were lifelong friends. Frank often told us stories of stowing away on a ship from his native Dominican Republic to New York in 1922 when he was only 16.  He knew some English and was able to support himself working in cafeterias. When he needed clothes, he stole them from clotheslines on rooftops. When the Depression began, Rebajes was left without work or a home and reduced to panhandling or selling apples in the streets.

In 1932, he married Pauline Schwartz against her parents wishes--he was very poor with few prospects.  Frank and Pauline spent their honeymoon riding the subway.  A kind friend let them stay in his basement where Frank found an old set of plumbers' tools with which he fashioned a small collection of animals from tin cans. He exhibited these early sculptures on an ironing board at the first Washington Square outdoor show.  The director of the Whitney Museum, Juliana Force, bought all of them and with that money he rented his first store at 182 West 4th Street in Greenwich Village.

Copper "fish" ashtray given by Rebajes to his friend Enrique Riveron

At that time, m
y father, Enrique Riveron, was working as a cartoonist for a Spanish-language movie magazine.  One evening, he and a friend were strolling in the Village where they passed a tarp stretched over a space between two buildings.  Looking inside, he saw a young man and woman sitting on the floor, pounding on an anvil to make things from copper.  When he saw the two men, Rebajes rose and invited them to come in to see his work.  Dad wanted to buy something, but Frank insisted on giving him a "fish" ashtray. Thus began a friendship that lasted for almost 60 years.

Although still in the midst of the Depression, Frank and  Pauline somehow managed to rent a "real" store that was very long and narrow with a counter along one wall.  They slept in the back between newspapers on the floor.  Because they were so poor, they ate cafeteria food that people left on their plates.

Rebajes was a self-taught craftsman--a talented artist who was extraordinarily creative and original. He was also a  voracious reader, forever interested in new methods and inventions.  He worked extremely hard and soon became successful enough to rent a larger store on 4th Street, and later to rent another on 8th Street.  The Rebajes and the Riverons had become very close friends by this time and, in 1939, we all went to the World's Fair to see Frank's large metal reliefs on the walls of the theater of the U.S. Pavilion. I was just a baby, so I rode on  "Uncle Panco's" shoulders.

Enrique Riveron, Pauline and Frank Rebajes having fun

Relief exhibited on the wall of the theater of the U.S. Pavilion
 World's Fair, 1939





Frank Rebajes in his New York workshop


In 1945, my parents and I went to live in Wichita, Kansas where my mother's family had a business.  My father and Frank wrote to each other regularly.  Rebajes' letters were always imaginative, playful and very irreverent. He often included funny articles and photographs. He and Pauline came to see us several times. During one of these visits, he helped my dad set up a workshop to make jewelry, giving him some findings, metals, and tools.  He taught him the rudiments of metalsmithing and my dad made several pieces of copper jewelry.  Dad also "drew" figures and designs on sheets of aluminum and copper boxes with a heavy cast iron tool with rotating wheels.  Rebajes used this tool to make lines on some of his copper or silver jewelry.  I  now use that same tool on some of the jewelry I make.

In 1945, we visited the Rebajes in their penthouse apartment on Christopher Street. Frank had become interested in  horticulture and grew all sorts of plants and flowers on the terrace. There were plants everywhere, inside and out.  I suspect all this might have had something to do with growing up in the tropics.

At that time, Rebajes store was on 8th street near Sam Kramer's and the two were friendly rivals.

In the early 50's Rebajes opened a beautiful modern store on 5th Avenue at 37th street.  It had S-shaped glass counters suspended by steel rods from the ceiling.  He arranged the store windows to be as artistic as the work he displayed in them.  By this time his jewelry was selling so well that he was mass producing it for stores all over the country.  He had a workshop on 17th street, east of 5th Avenue, with many (he claimed 100!) craftsmen making his designs.  He spent his days in the workshop while Pauline ran the store with two or three salesladies.

Front of Rebajes store on Fifth Avenue, New York, early 1950s

Interior of Rebajes store on Fifth Avenue, New York, early 1950s

After a long period of studying books on architecture, Frank designed and built a modern house on Long Island near Malverne.  The Rebajes bought an old overgrown orchard which they cleared themselves, catching poison ivy in the process. The house had a dramatic living room with floor to ceiling glass on one long side ending at a large rock wall and fireplace.  On the other side of this wall, a waterfall dropped into a small pond in a greenhouse full of exotic tropical plants.  Frank spent long hours working outdoors in the garden around the house. He had a workshop in the basement where he experimented with new ideas for jewelry.  While making leather belts, he expanded into binding books with unusual leather covers. 

While we were living in Wichita, Frank sent mother many of his prototypes: a "birdcage" bracelet, sheet copper or wide leather belts with large copper "buckles", moving gears on cuff links for dad, enameled copper jewelry and a cigarette case, silver pins, rings, bracelets, and necklaces. In the early 50s, when I was a teenager, he sent me a "cool" leather belt on which he had experimented using various metal studs, dyes, holes, writing, and bits of copper chain.  He sent mother a silver wire and green agate pendant (which also served as a pin) on a chain, and a copper version for me.  In the middle 50's he sent her a dramatic square silver wire necklace and matching cuff bracelet with uncut quartz stones. He would become very upset and angry about the costume jewelry manufacturers who copied his work.  I remember that his copper belts were copied by Renoir and sold in some "reputable" department stores in New York.

In 1955, dad and I returned to New York where I attended the Art Students' League and my dad looked into exhibition opportunities. We saw the Rebajes' often. During the holidays, when they needed extra help, I worked in their store. Where ever I went, I carried a sketchbook that was a sort of visual record of my life and friends.  It included some drawings of the Rebajes and their store.

 Sketch of "Aunt Pauline" by  Patricia R. Lee 1958

Rebajes told elaborate, exaggerated stories with great flair. An example of this was the evening we went to eat at new Spanish restaurant in the west Village.  It was a very small "mom and pop" place.  Mama did the cooking and Papa did the serving. We stood in a long line for over thirty minutes to get in. Finally, we were seated inside, only to wait an hour or more longer.  While we were waiting,  Frank somehow obtained a bowl of "sopa de menudo" (tripe soup).  He ate it with such obvious relish that the handsome couple at the next table could not resist asking  him what he was eating.  Soon they were involved in an animated conversation. "Didn't we see you in Le Mans last summer?" they asked.  "Oh, yes, I was there racing my Pegasus," he replied.  "Oh, really?  What kind of car is that, we've never heard of it." "Oh, that is a very fine Spanish car!"  He went on and on elaborating about the car and the race, absolutely fascinating the couple.  Little did they know that Pauline always drove their car because he had never learned!

Dad and I went back to Wichita, and in 1959, I returned to New York to stay with the Rebajes for a couple weeks. They had sold their house on Long Island and moved into a garden apartment on East 37th Street near their store. The Rebajes were planning to sell the contents of the store and part of the workshop in order to move to Spain.  Frank wanted to live a simpler life--the stress of having to produce so much was wearing him down.  In the meantime,  my roommate and I sailed on a freighter to Europe and, by the time we arrived in Spain, the Rebajes were already living in a rented apartment in Malaga, not far from Frank's brother Luis and his family. I think Rebajes had two brothers and a sister, but I only met the one in Malaga.  They soon discovered Torremolinos, a picturesque little beach town about 40 miles down the coast. The Rebajes moved there a few months later, living above their new store and workshop.

Rebajes' letters kept us informed of his activities for the next 30 years.  By this time, my parents and my own family were living in Miami.  Frank never came, but  Pauline visited several times. I think he only made one short trip back to New York in all those years.  In 1964, he sent my mother a simple ring of rough pyrite mounted on a gold band. According to his letter, his customers included the Duke of Windsor and Princess Alexandra of Kent--apparently, Torremolinos had been discovered by the Jet Set. He was also making radical jewelry with river rocks, various woods, and combining such incongruous materials as old oxidized tin cans with uncut emeralds.

Note from Rebajes to Noella Riveron
regarding a gold and pyrite ring made specially for her.

In the 1970's, Rebajes began to concentrate more on sculpture than jewelry.  Some of his work was based on the Mobius strip and theories of synchronicity and movement. Along with making elegant steel sculptures, he took copious notes. He applied for patents in 8 or 9 countries for a mysterious discovery that precipitated his nomination for a French  "Academy of Science" Prize.

Catalog for exhibition in Malaga, Spain of sculptures based on the Mobius belt, 1988

Rebajes felt misunderstood and mistreated by the provincial town fathers and bureaucrats of Malaga--his work was exhibited (under the auspices of the architectural college of Malaga's Cultural Commission), in a rarely visited location far from town. In a letter to my dad, he said that he had sent a large body of work for an exhibition in the Madrid Museum of Modern Art and also to the Pan American Union in Washington, D.C., but because of  of political changes in the government,  the show did not materialize either in Madrid or the U.S..  By this time, the store had been sold and Rebajes was living in a small apartment, an arrangement that forced him to leave the work in storage in Madrid.  Where it is now, I don't know.  His papers, film, and videos of this work are currently in the archives of  the Fundacion Picasso in Malaga.

Pauline began a long decline into Alzheimer's and died in 1988. Frank was devastated.  He developed Parkinson's and could no longer work.  Moreover, he had spent so much money on his sculpture and Pauline's care, that he was forced to sell all his tools and machinery. Rebajes' letters to my dad were bitter and desperate. Two years later we received sad news. Rebajes had gone to Boston to make a presentation of his Mobius work at MIT. After his presentation, he returned to his hotel room and ended his life.  He was 85. 

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Article by Patricia Riveron Lee
photos courtesy of Patricia Lee

Web design by Marbeth Schon

 Copyright   Modern Silver magazine 2005 and Patricia Riveron Lee
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