Fashion: The indiscreet charms of Hollywood - Exotic jewellery designs that adorned Fifties film goddesses are now available to mere mortals

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As Salome, Rita Hayworth looked sultry, if slightly implausible, in a Joseff tiara. Elizabeth Taylor braided ornamental Joseff scarabs and snakes through her hair in Cleopatra and Tony Curtis looked embarrassed wearing a pearl-strewn Joseff turban in The Prince who was a Thief. More recently Catherine Oxenburg was blown up wearing Joseff designs at her wedding to a Moldavian prince in Dynasty, and Winona Ryder is to appear in some Joseff pieces in the forthcoming Age of Innocence.

Altogether, Joseff designs have appeared in more than 3,000 Hollywood films and continue to be popular with movies luminaries; when borrowing the real thing from Harry Winston for Oscar night becomes too predictable, they frequently hire something substantial and imaginative from Joseff instead.

Eugene Joseff arrived in Los Angeles from Chicago in 1930 armed only with a portfolio of exquisite sketches that other jewellers pronounced impossible to make. Fortunately, in those first few months he met Walter Plunkett, one of the leading Hollywood costume designers of the day, who took him to see The Affairs of Cellini with Constance Bennett. Joseff was so scathing about Bennett's jewels - she was in period costume but the jewellery was completely anachronistic - that Plunkett challenged him to do better on his next film. So he did.

Throughout the Thirties, Forties and Fifties, as well as being highly sought after by the studios, Joseff pieces - witty, exotic and reasonably authentic to the period settings of the films - shaped millions of women's tastes in jewellery. This was an era when women took most of their sartorial cues from film stars, and costume designers such as Plunkett, Gilbert Adrian and Edith Head arguably exerted even more influence than fashion designers such as Lanvin, Schiaparelli and Chanel. The latter began selling paste jewellery to the chic set in the Twenties, but it was the larger-than-life sight of Joseff's unashamedly fake crowns and amulets on the big screen that finally made the average woman take costume jewellery seriously. When Garbo wore a massive Joseff-designed 'pearl' and 'emerald' necklace in Camille, thousands of women lusted after it (though Garbo complained that it dug into her neck and made her bleed).

While other film designers worked within a celluloid vaccuum, replicas of Joseff's work were on sale to the public in America for decades. In the past few years, however, stockists have become increasingly rare, and aficionados have had to make do with the odd piece that surfaced in auctions.

This summer, thanks to Melanie Coe, an English collector who fell in love with the designs and tracked down Joan Joseff in Beverly Hills, limited editions of seven to 100 pieces became available in Britain for the first time. 'Apart from the fact that I had never seen such detailed, dramatic pieces,' says Ms Coe, 'I'm a sucker to the idea that I too can own the grape brooch originally designed for Garbo and later adapted for Olivia de Havilland in Robin Hood.'

Whether others prove as susceptible to this attraction remains to be seen. These days, as the torrent of less than spectacularly successful celebrity perfume launches has proved, star-endorsed products have to slug it out in the marketplace on merit. On the other hand, unlike retailed copies of clothes that appear in some films (from Scarlett O'Hara's best-selling party dress to Batman T-shirts, this kind of memorabilia has often been a bit of a let-down) shop versions of Joseff jewellery are every bit as good as the originals, each one plated in 24-carat gold that has been specially treated to give it an antique patina.

Unfortunately, that makes some of them costly. The necklace Rita Hayworth wore in Suez (available in a limited edition of seven) costs pounds 1,675, although bee- shaped pins can be bought for pounds 29. Yet, against her expectations, Ms Coe is finding that the pricier pieces sell more easily than the cheaper ones. 'I think people are still buying things they consider to be a good investment,' she says.

There is another important factor in favour of splendid jewels: with fashion in clothes changing more slowly than at any time in the last 10 years, and shapes simplifying into straight, uncluttered lines, imposing, escapist accessories seem to be coming into their own.

By 1938, Joseff had dropped his first name and was becoming quite a celebrity. A businessman, however, he was not. In desperation, he asked Sawyer Business School to send him its brightest pupil to help to bring his company under control.

The moment Joan Castle, a Sawyer student from Oregon, saw Joseff's jewellery in 1940 she knew that it - and he - was what she had always been looking for. 'When I saw how subtle the designs were - no corny lovebirds - and how handsome he was, I felt I had to work for him.'

By 1942 she had married him and become so enmeshed in his work that when he died in a plane crash six years later, she was able to carry on the business. Five decades later, Joan Joseff still oversees the foundry in Los Angeles (though the bulk of its profits now come from making fighter aircraft parts).

During their marriage, the Joseffs accumulated a roster of famous friends and personal clients and a lavish lifestyle that compensated for having to work with some of the world's most overblown egos.

Joan Joseff is still amused by the embarrassment Marlene Dietrich caused her brother-in-law, who worked for the company, by insisting that he spend two hours showing her jewellery in her dressing room while she was dressed only in a military cap, and by Errol Flynn's amorous dalliances with starlets between takes on The Adventures of Don Juan. 'I don't know what they got up to but it must have been energetic because we had to make 22 replacements for his pearl earring.'

She was less charmed by Constance Bennett's vanity, Monroe's hauteur, and by the habit of both Bette Davis and Hedy Lamarr of ripping off all their clothes and jewellery at the end of a long scene: 'It wrecked the strings of pearls.' Nor was she impressed by the stars 'too numerous to mention' who used to claim they were allergic to any metal other than gold or who 'forgot' to hand back their jewels when shooting was over. 'I developed a pretty foolproof response to that in the end,' she recalls. 'I just used to send them a note saying I was thrilled they liked the pieces, and a bill for dollars 50,000. It worked like a charm every time.'

Joseff jewellery, priced pounds 29 to pounds 2,000, is available from Harrods, and by mail order from Melanie Coe, 081-802 5627.

(Photograph omitted)

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