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Winifred Mason


Extraordinary Coppersmith

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 Christmas":
 


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.

 






 

Copper pin marked: "MASON"
2-1/2" x 2"
 

 


The first mention of Winifred Mason is from the August 1936 issue of 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." 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 jewelry matched.

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 unimportant."2

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.















 

This photograph, though very faded, shows that Winifred Mason's  designs, like Art Smith's, conformed to the body of the wearer (herself, in this instance).

The caption for this photograph reads, "...Many of her designs are drawn from Abstraction and West Indies patterns . Copper and brass bracelet (right) sells for $15.00.

Photograph, courtesy of 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 http://www.modernsilver.com/villagetovogue/villagetovogue.htm )
 
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 on it.

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 creations." 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 Port-au-Prince, Haiti. 
 

 

 

 

Though almost impossible to see because of the condition of this photograph, Bille  Holiday is shown wearing a large copper collar, cuff, and earrings by Winifred Mason.

                                            

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.

Photograph 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
 

The Afro-American, May 26th, 1945

 

Sometime after Winifred Mason returned from Haiti, she opened a new store that she called the Haitian Bazaar.

An article from the New York Times, June 8, 1948 announced Mason's Haitian Bazaar:

"NEW STORE 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
__________________________________
chenet d'HAITI

 

 

chenet d'HAITI
copper necklace
15" long 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 exhibition catalog, Women Designers in the USA 1900-2000.

 
chenet d'HAITI "Voodoo"
bracelet & earrings
c. 1965

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 Friends. 
http://thegfinc.org/Brooklyn_Founder_Photos_2.html

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 Chenet. 

Thank you!

back to the top

_____________________

footnotes:
1
Copper for Christmas, Ebony Magazine, Dec. 1946, pp. 19-23.
2Ibid.
3Ibid.
4Ibid.

_____________________________________


Article by Marbeth Schon with Gwen Houston
Web design by Marbeth Schon
www.mschon.com

Photographs courtesy of Gwen Houston, Marbeth Schon, "The Crisis," Ebony Magazine
 and Girl Friends, Inc.

 

Your comments are invited. 
 
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