By Barbara Riddle
For years, I tried to pull the name out of the mists of time—the name of the avant-garde goldsmith on West 8th Street whose strangely anthropomorphic brooches and bracelets were modestly arrayed in a small glass display case below a Chinese restaurant on the North side of 8th Street, between 6th and 5th Avenues. No luck. In my mind’s eye, I could see the jewelry and display case, but no craftsman’s name surfaced. I wanted to write about this landmark of my 1950s adolescence, to honor the maker of my mother’s wedding ring to Jack, her second and last husband.
Then, one evening a year or so ago, I opened a book I had taken out of the library called Manhattan Mystery Stories. I don’t even like mysteries, but I was feeling nostalgic and I liked the idea of stories that were all set in Manhattan. I leafed through it idly, and my heart almost leaped out of my eyeballs at one of the photographic illustrations: There it was, a shot of West 8th Street from the corner of MacDougal Street, and there was the glass case, with a name in clearly legible letters: Sam Kramer! Mystery solved. It was like a pinball falling into the last slot. Jackpot! I cannot tell you how satisfying it was to see that name again.
As I began to read more about Sam, I was more and more amazed. Sam Kramer (1913-1964) born in Pittsburgh and educated in California, is one of the icons of modernist jewelry design. Collected by museums and sought after by private collectors, his quirky designs incorporate found objects, fossils, and taxidermy eyes in surrealist Dali-esque combinations and forms. These designs expressed Sam Kramer’s unique vision at a time when uptown jewelry featured birds and flowers in conservative settings.
The shop on the second floor of 29 West 8th Street was opened in 1939; Sam and his wife Carol slept in the back room. A 1942 New Yorker piece entitled “Talk of the Town” quoted Carol as saying that her husband often worked until 3:00 a.m. or 4:00 a.m., but she always “got him up by 10:00 a.m.” Customers loved the street-level doorknob in the shape of a cast bronze hand that displayed a pigskin glove in the winter. To drum up business in the 1950s, Kramer sent his “Space Girls” into the streets at night to distribute wild and crazy flyers. They were dancers dressed in black tights, their skin colored an unearthly green, who handed out advertising handbills.
One of Kramer’s advertising cards read, “We have things to titillate the damnedest ego—utter weirdities conceived in moments of semi-madness.” Typical pieces suggested human embryos, or spirochetes, or squid-like forms, often embedded with glass eyes or gemstones. It’s an understatement to say that these designs were strikingly original! (WestView’s esteemed Publisher, George Capsis, still proudly wears his wedding ring from the shop of Sam Kramer!)
I remember my mother’s twisty gold wedding ring from 1958 as being sort of clunky and hand-made looking. It was vaguely embarrassing to me that she didn’t have a delicate, feminine one from a place like Tiffany & Co. Little did I suspect that she was one of the very lucky patrons of a true pioneer in the movement to create uniquely American jewelry that remains timeless and stunning to this day.
Greenwich Village native Barbara Riddle is a frequent contributor to WestView News. Segments of her memoir can be found at talesfromagreenwichvillagegirlhood.blogspot.com. Her novel set in the 1960s, The Girl Pretending to Read Rilke, is available online at girlpretending.com. You may contact Barbara at email@example.com. To read more about this topic, consult Toni Greenbaum’s Messengers of Modernism: American Studio Jewelry From 1940-1960.