It is unusual that a mid-20th century Canadian designer could attain global recognition, but Gustave Sherman (1910-1983) was able to do just that. Sherman’s legacy continues to this day, with his top-quality costume jewellery remaining highly sought after by collectors around the world.
Sherman’s Jewish parents, fleeing persecution, emigrated from Eastern Europe to Canada. They taught their children the power of hard work—though the young Sherman took some time figuring out what he wanted to do with his life. At 18, he travelled to the United States with a mind to joining the Texas Cavalry. After enlisting, Sherman realized the Cavalry was not for him. Lacking the $250 required to buy out his contract, he took to playing poker and was able to win enough money to fund his exit and a trip back to Canada. After his return, Sherman teamed up with a friend to buy gold and jewellery from rural sellers needing extra income during the Great Depression. Sherman and his friend would sell the jewellery in Montreal for a profit. When the Second World War broke out, Sherman joined the Royal Canadian Airforce as a navigator. After his discharge, he began selling life insurance before joining a friend to sell wholesale costume jewellery made by an American company. Within a year, he would open his own jewellery business.
Building a Company
Sherman understood how much women loved their jewellery. He also understood that in the post-war era, while buying high-end jewellery might not be a priority, new levels of prosperity meant that people had enough disposable income to spend on mini-luxuries. He decided to make high-end costume jewellery that would appeal to a wide audience, and in 1947, Sherman began his company in Montreal. Though he lacked formal training in jewellery making, Sherman was interested in design. He hired Hungarian jeweller Jimmy Koretza to help him bring his dreams into wearable reality.
Quality was everything for Sherman, who oversaw every facet of his business, from design to production and marketing. The company’s tagline was “Jewels of Elegance,” and Sherman meant it. Pieces are notable for their large quantity of hand-set stones, elevated craftsmanship and superior materials like Swarovski crystals. Sherman jewellery was finished with multiple layers of plating, giving them a high shine and rich luster—while also accounting for their tremendous durability, which is why many pieces look pristine decades later. Designs were innovative, incorporating new cuts and colours. From small, discrete pieces to extravagant displays, Sherman had a knack for knowing what his customer wanted to wear. Pieces were meant to last for a lifetime and beyond, and Sherman maintained a free repair service for any of his pieces.
Sherman did not produce a more “accessible” diffusion line of jewellery, concentrating on the highest end of the costume jewellery category. The pieces were sold in luxury department stores such as Eaton’s, The Hudson’s Bay Company, and Birks, as well as by smaller independent jewellers across Canada. Sherman’s insistence on using the finest materials and techniques meant that even at the beginning of the company’s history, the best pieces could retail for around $50. By the 1950s, Sherman had conquered the Canadian costume jewellery market, and his pieces began to be worn around the world.
An Eye for Colour
The Sherman archives contain countless colourway combinations, not only because of Sherman’s great eye for colour, but because the company encouraged their vendors to request bespoke pieces and hues for their best clients. This has resulted in many pieces which are truly one-of-a-kind, requested by only one jeweller for a specific wearer.
Sherman’s signature flowing designs were known for their explorations of monochrome palettes. He loved to combine several tones of the same colour to create a three-dimensional effect, layering hues from pale to deep. Each piece was a work of art, often only produced for a single season.
Sherman was keen to use the newest Swarovski cuts, experimenting with stones that were not widely available. Because he was based in Canada, Swarovski allowed him to work with some of their stones which were reserved for use in the finest European couture houses, including Christian Dior and Chanel. Navettes and elongated marquis shapes were particular favourites, sometimes layered with German art glass cabochons and Czechoslovakian stones. Sherman was known to remake any pieces whose colour combinations did not please him, and was known to say “this brooch just doesn’t dance.”
Though Sherman was able to make his mark in the industry, his great success drew imitators. Competitors were able to cut corners with their manufacturing and offer Shermanesque pieces for much less. The average consumer did not always appreciate the extra-fine materials and elevated techniques of Sherman jewellery, and so in order to stay competitive, Sherman began to cut into his profit margin rather than compromise on quality.
As rhinestone jewellery waned in popularity by the 1970s, so too did the fortunes of the company. An attempt was made to pivot to more the more minimalist gold and silver jewellery that came into fashion. Sherman refused to compromise on quality, and disastrously, began to make fine jewellery at a time when the price of gold and other precious metals began to surge. Sherman was no longer able to make the business profitable, and shuttered the company in 1981. He passed away two years later.
Collecting Sherman today
Sherman jewellery continues to be highly collectible. The internet has enabled fans from around the world to enjoy Sherman’s elegant and recognizable work, and the quantity of Sherman pieces means that his jewellery is readily available. Sherman’s extra attention to quality manufacturing has also paid dividends, as pieces remain durable and wearable several decades after they were made. Sherman’s style is signature regardless of whether the pieces are large or small: experts explain that his jewellery has an elegant sense of movement and fluidity.
Black, fuchsia, deep purple, yellow and red are some of the rarest Sherman pieces, and continue to be coveted by contemporary collectors. Other scarce pieces include the larger-format brooches, necklaces, bracelets and earrings—as they were so expensive and laborious to make, not many were produced.
There is some debate between experts around whether or not all Sherman pieces are signed. Sherman was extremely proud of his work, and used extensive branding in the form of stamps, soldered tags, paper tags and marked boxes. Over the years, “Sherman” marks include all-caps, script, and sometimes “Sherman sterling” variations. Some believe that the exception to the rule lies in some parures (group sets) where perhaps the signature was placed on larger pieces but not small accessories like earrings or crystal bead necklaces. While the debate continues, the one thing everyone can agree on is the enduring appeal of a Sherman original.
About the auction:
Online from December 2-7, 2023, our Silver & Costume Jewellery and Luxury Accessories auction arrives just in time for the holidays.
On view at our Toronto location, 275 King Street East, Second Floor:
Sunday, December 03 from 12:00 pm to 4:00 pm
Monday, December 04 from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm
Tuesday, December 05 from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm
Please contact us for more information.