Bill Smith of Richelieu Halter, Rare 1969 piece from my archive.
I spend many hours researching fashion accessories of the past. Sometimes they lead me on a journey. A few Richelieu pieces that have challenged me, led me to think more about why Richelieu jewelry attracted me in the first place? That always lands me right back to one of my all time favorites, Bill Smith.
Vintage Bill Smith necklace. Met museum online archive image.
Bill Smith and Richelieu:
Bill Smith was born in Indiana in 1936. In the 1950s he was originally in NYC to study dance, but eventually decided on jewelry instead in 1958, setting up his own shop. He began working for Richelieu in 1968, as the vp and then head designer. During this time he became the first African American to win the Coty award for costume jewelry design. Many of his pieces were only signed on a tag that was attached. Some pieces are signed on the metal- Bill Smith of Richelieu…His designs are often African inspired. You can see this in the archive photos for Look Magazine, April 1971, which included a spread entitled “Fashion Now: Black Pow!” Afterwards Bill Smith worked under his own name designing for Cartier, Omega, Hattie Carnegie and Anne Klein.
Bill Smith-Look Magazine., circa 1971 which included a spread entitled “Fashion Now: Black Pow!” The model was Naomi Sims wearing an 18k hat made for her. From a copy of the original magazine.
Richelieu was a jewelry company founded in New York by Joseph H. Meyer & Bros, which began in 1911 and ended in 2003. The jewelry is just beginning to gain popularity among collectors and wearers of fashion jewelry. An interesting link about the Richelieu patents and signatures is:jewelrypatentproject.com. You can see some sample signatures and dates for Richelieu at Illusion Jewels under Joseph Meyer.
Image from, Black Enterprise Jul 1981. Bill Smith. From a copy of the original magazine.
However, let’s concentrate on Bill Smith and the mini archive here of his rare work for you to study. First let’s start with not only his jewelry buy his rare body jewelry. At Richelieu he does something sort of ground breaking- constructing dresses, skirts, vests, halters and beyond from costume materials and metals. While we see the metal mod connections of the time in those by the likes of Paco Rabanne the bead part and jewelry link is quite fascinating. Here I’ve put together both old magazine images and article photos with some of the pieces they reference in an attempt to provide a visual archive of his work.
Bill Smith Jewelry Ad 1960s. From a copy of the original ad.
Richelieu necklace I restored and turned out to be Bill Smith per the newspaper image above. Sarara Couture image.
Rare Bill Smith Rhinestone Bra. Circa 1969.
Back view of tassels on Bra, From my archive.
Bill Smith jewelry tag.
As I have seen whole sets with rings and necklaces, it is my belief that some skirt halter combinations had other accessories that could be stacked as in this example.
Unsigned Richelieu necklace to accompany skirt.
Bill Smith body jewelry. 1969. Private Archive permission obtained.
1969 Bill Smith Cape
1969 Bill Smith Body Jewelry Cape. Back view.
1960s body jewelry halter and skirt. Private archive, permission obtained.
1960s-possibly early 70s tassel outfit. Private archive, permission obtained.
I have seen another shown as a cape, but after seeing the bra and skirt together with original tag before…. I believe it to have been sold as shown. Of course his pieces can be worn in various ways.
Circa 1968-69 Bill Smith Chain Halter. Private archive. Image permission obtained.
Ebony Oct. 1968 image. Bill Smith article/jewelry. From a copy of the original magazine.
Now to the question of the red necklace I am researching as well by the brand…Was this necklace worn by Richard Burton playing King Arthur in Broadway’s Camelot? I bought it from a source who is friends with an old film and theater costumer. Now if you have looked over the blog, you will see I do love a good piece of fashion or jewelry with an old Hollywood, film, or a theatrical history as well. This piece was supposed to have been worn by Burton in the production, so I am off to look through many pictures and see what I can verify. There are three possibilities, if it was worn on stage by him: Camelot 1980-1981, Hamlet 1964, or Camelot 1960. Many times a verbal history can be off. However, at the very least it is an enormous King worthy Richelieu runway style necklace. The length seems more proportionate to a man. Seeing it on my brother made me think….. The piece is large and styled like a necklace in royal red, that would fit a King in such a production. The design and color are possible clues. It is signed Richelieu in two places. I have however seen a version of this necklace shorter in red and another in green… They did also make pieces for productions…. In fact, Bill Smith did all the jewelry for the broadway production of Coco. I believe, per the style and signature, dates to around the 1960s-70s. The cursive script according to the patent site below ceased use in 83. Quite frankly, I think the 60s-0s in general was when they made some great pieces. This royal red necklace does appear to date from the late 60s early 70s when Bill Smith was vp, but could be the work of another artist with them at the time or just Richelieu. For now it resides in my personal archive.
|Sarara Vintage photographs of large Richelieu piece,rights reserved.
|Signature plaques, Richelieu copyright symbol and printed to the right on plaque.
|Vintage Richelieu Necklace, signed. Sarara Couture, Shary Connella photo.
In the end, I think that the collector’s market for Richelieu is growing, especially the large 60s-late 70s pieces, especially those very rare ones linked to Bill. Pieces by Bill Smith for Richelieu designs range from 500-4,000 depending on the design. Bill Smith pieces are beautiful and collectible. A current market example for Bill Smith can be seen below. Sold at an auction house for over 4,000 for the pair.
|Bills Smith Body Art Jewelry/ 1969-70.
SHOP OUR VINTAGE BILL SMITH BODY JEWELRY