by Marbeth Schon
|This article about Winifred
Mason is incomplete. It's all we know at this time so we
are hoping that someone will come forward with more information.
I am very thankful to Gwen
Houston for sharing her research on Winifred Mason and to
Jeannine Falino for scanning the article from Ebony Magazine.
The following quote is from Ebony
Magazine, December, 1946, from an article titled "Copper
Biggest part of the $1,300,000,000 that the American public
spends each year for jewelry will be handed across the
counters of thousands of fine shops this month. It’s
Christmas time and favorite gifts for centuries have been
trinkets, ranging from extravagant diamonds and rubies to
bargain-basement 98-cent items.
Between the five-and-ten and Cartier brackets, the great
American sucker finds himself in a tight vise, caught by his
“smattering of ignorance” about which bauble is worth a
C-note and which should sell for a dime in the world of
jewelry. To most buyers, jewelry is a “blind article.” Each
year more phony diamonds are sold than is the
ever-rube-enticing Brooklyn Bridge.
For the sane and sensible shopper this Yuletide, however,
there’s a foolproof buy in big, handsome, simple-lined
jewelry that is rapidly becoming the rage in fashion. It is
smart and thrifty custom-made jewelry in copper, a
wonderfully pliant, warm-toned metal for gift earrings,
necklaces and bracelets.
Some of the most stunning handmade copper pieces found in
leading stores like Bonwit Teller and Lord and Taylor are
being turned out in a small, somewhat bare Greenwich Village
shop by a youthful, petite Negro girl. She is Brooklyn-born
Winifred Mason, who sells her unique copper creations all
over the nation from San Francisco to Miami.
Although she made her first medallion only six years ago,
she has already zoomed to the top of the highly competitive
custom-made jewelry business. Despite growing financial
success, she insists on maintaining artistic integrity and
still finds her greatest joy in making her jewelry fit a
woman’s personality and appearance. She frowns on mass
production methods and never copies designs.
I first heard the name Winifred Mason when researching
biographical information about Greenwich Village jeweler, Art
Smith. The following quote is from my first book,
Modernist Jewelry, 1930 - 1960, The Wearable Art Movement:
His (Art Smith's) first experiences
with jewelry did not happen at the Cooper Union, but when he
took a part time job teaching crafts at the Children's Aid
Society in Harlem. In the same building, a young woman named
Winifred Mason was teaching art classes. Mason, who
was making copper jewelry in her studio at home and selling
it to friends, was interested in finding a partner and
opening a shop. Smith found this a great opportunity
and worked with Winifred for four years in a shop at 133
West 3rd Street in Greenwich Village.
pin marked: "MASON"
2-1/2" x 2"
The first mention of Winifred Mason is from the August 1936
The Crisis (the official magazine for the NAACP) that shows
her graduation picture from New York University where she
received a Masters of Arts Degree in education.
The Crisis, August, 1936
Though she graduated from New York University
with a degree in education, Mason was uncertain about a lifetime
of teaching. She worked for awhile as a teacher for the WPA and
later as a crafts instructor at the Harlem Boys Club, but a
different career awaited her.
Mason's first piece of jewelry was made in
1940--a pendant in bronze, copper, and silver. The pendant
created quite a bit of interest among her friends and orders for
similar pieces soon began to arrive.
Mason is described as being petite--five
feet, two inches and "possessed of a relentless energy that kept
her working ten to fourteen hours a day."1
She credited her mother for fostering her interest in working
with her hands: when she was a child, growing up in Brooklyn,
her mother, who was well-skilled in needle arts, taught her to
sew, knit, and embroider.
|Mason never copied
designs--each one was unique. She said that she would
"duplicate" with variations if a customer wanted an odd piece of
Because she didn't find standard jewelry
tools necessary to her craft, Mason created her own tools. "A
lot of jewelry that comes out of my shop is made with a simple
ball peen hammer and other improvised tools," she said. "And it
is because we depend so much on improvised tools and methods
that our products have not been restricted to standard effects
and designs.....as long as the desired effect is achieved and
the end product is the one you want then methods are
Like Art Smith, she believed that jewelry
was individual--that it should conform to the body of the
wearer--to give it greater lasting value.
photograph, though very faded, shows that Winifred
Mason's designs, like Art Smith's, conformed
to the body of the wearer (herself, in this
caption for this photograph reads, "...Many of her
designs are drawn from Abstraction and West Indies
patterns . Copper and brass bracelet (right) sells
Ebony Magazine, December, 1946
|In 1943, Mason received her
first order from an exclusive department store on Fifth Avenue.
Many followed and, as the orders flooded in, she was forced to
look for help. She hired various artists including Joseph
Fiegelis, a veteran who had been a jewelry worker before the
war; Helen Cornele Cuvjet, a painter and metalsmith with an M.A.
in art who had studied both at Temple University and Columbia
University; and, of course, Art Smith. (See
||The caption for this
photograph reads, "Workshop is large room at the rear of
the Winifred Mason Shop. Refining processes such as
cleaning, polishing and lacquering are done here.
Cutting, buffing and hammering are done in basement
workroom. Here, coil of copper wire is examined by Miss
Mason and assistant Philip Quinney before beginning work
Photograph courtesy of
Ebony Magazine, December, 1946
As her business grew, Mason was concerned that the necessities
of producing in quantity would divert her from "her original
purpose, which was to turn out specially-designed custom-built
She wanted to concentrate on individualized pieces--if they
received an order for a dozen pins or so, they would make each
one slightly different.
|By the late 1940s, she had an
expanding clientele that included many famous entertainers and
actors and there had been ten exhibitions of her jewelry
including one-woman shows in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and
almost impossible to see because of the condition of
this photograph, Bille Holiday is shown
wearing a large copper collar, cuff, and earrings by
The caption for
this photograph reads, "Famed songstress Billie Holiday wears
large copper collar and cuff bracelets and earrings made in
Mason shop while she was singing in a 52nd Street night club.
Rococo pattern is superimposed on dark copper in this design.
Collar and earrings are $50.00, bracelet $15.00. Trade
name of Winifred Mason is Wynson, Inc.
courtesy of Ebony Magazine, December, 1946
|In 1945 she was honored with
a Rosenwald Foundation Award to "gather folk material and basic
art patterns used by the West Indians and to express these
feelings in jewelry."3
Afro-American, May 26th, 1945
Sometime after Winifred Mason returned from
Haiti, she opened a new store that she called the Haitian
article from the New York Times, June 8,
1948 announced Mason's Haitian Bazaar:
FEATURES HAITIAN HANDIWORK.....Home
and fashion accessories hand-made in Haiti
have been imported for the Haitian Bazaar, a
new store opening today at 133 West Third
Street. The shop, to be open weekdays from
noon to 8 P, M., is under the supervision of
Winifred Mason, jewelry expert."
Below is a snippet from
the Negro Digest, Volume 7, 1948, edited by
John Harold Johnson..
Copper Pin, Marked: MASON
3 1/2" by 1-1/2"
|In July of 1945, Mason
traveled to Haiti where she spent five months studying the
island's art and folk culture. She was received by the president
at that time, Elie Lescot, and touted in the Haitian press as "une
distinguée congénère." "When
I got to Haiti," she said, "I started a few investigations into
the origins of basic patterns used by the Haitian people in arts
such as weaving and jewelry. Whenever I found a design I
sought to discover its meaning and roots. Everywhere there were
primitive designs in the native dress, on the voodoo drums and
decorating native musical instruments."4
with three pendants each about 1-3/4" x 1-3/8" marked: "chenet, d' HAITI."
After much research, Gwen Houston and I have come to believe
that the jewelry marked "chenet d'HAITI" was created by Winifred
Mason Chenet (the Chenet was most likely added after her
marriage). From the AAVAD (aavad.com) website there
is a listing for Winifred Mason, aka Winifred Mason Chenet.
On the same website, the name of Winifred Chenet is listed as
being part of a group exhibition titled Black Women Artists
of Brooklyn and Environs that took place January 13-20,
1980. The site says that she is also listed in a book by
Mary Mace Spradling titled In Black and White: Afro-Americans
in Print, Kalamazoo: Kalamazoo Public Library, 1976.
She is referenced as Winifred Mason in the
Women Designers in the USA 1900-2000.
chenet d'HAITI "Voodoo"
bracelet & earrings
On the Girl Friends, Inc. website, there are photographs from the Brooklyn
Chapter of Girl Friends including several of Winifred Mason Chenet.
The site mentions that Winifred Mason Chenet was vice-president of the
Brooklyn Chapter in 1939. It also mentions that, in 1990, she and
other charter members were honored for their half century of being Girl
In the 2001 (January, 18-19) oral history interview with Merry Renk,
conducted by Arline M Fisch, Merry said, "At the 750 Studio-We had Winifred
Mason, a Haitian woman who had a shop in New York. We had a show of
her work, her jewelry."
Mason Chenet may have shown at a group exhibition at the
Fairtree Gallery Jewelry Invitational in New York City in 1972 and the name
Winifred Chenet shows up in some of the Eugene Fodor's guides to the
Caribbean. The guides mention the celebrated copper jewelry of Voodoo
inspired Winifred Chenet (1963,1968).
There is also a mention of a shopping guide to Mexico,
Guatemala, and the Caribbean, also Bermuda by David Benjamin Greenberg &
Marian Gerber Greenberg from 1955 which mentions hammered brass and copper
jewelry designed by Mrs. Chenet--"Le Belle Creole Haiti's first and largest
one-price department store. Another feature is the handsome copper and
brass jewelry made by Winifred Mason (Mme. Jean Chenet)."
|The marks for the jewelry
that we believe was made in New York by Winfred Mason and the
marks on the chenet d'HAITI jewelry have some common
characteristics, but we will let you, the reader, decide.
|We look forward to hearing
from you if you have any information regarding Winifred Mason
to the top
1Copper for Christmas,
Ebony Magazine, Dec. 1946, pp. 19-23.
by Marbeth Schon with Gwen Houston
Web design by Marbeth Schon
Photographs courtesy of Gwen
Houston, Marbeth Schon, "The Crisis," Ebony Magazine
and Girl Friends, Inc.
Your comments are invited.