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Visiting with Rita

Updated on February 13, 2018

Visiting with Rita

I met Rita at Katya and Kolya’s. ( Theirs is a separate story, a story of the founders of a unique museum, the Museum of Modern Renaissance. Although some do not realize it, everything happens for a reason. As one lady said, we are all like trees in a forest, connected by our roots; we just do not always see it.

As soon as Rita walked in, she attracted attention not only as a beautiful woman, but as a woman wearing unique jewelry.

This was a Shakespeare night at Katya and Kolya’s place, a cozy, friendly event led by Alla Tsybulskaya, an actress and theater specialist.

After the performance we had tea and talked. Rita showed her jewelry to the curious guests and invited us to her place to see the collection. Now I know it was more than just a collection; it was a museum!

Rita Bykhovsky came to the US from Moscow 25 years ago. Her father was executed when she was little, and her young mother raised the two children. As a child, Rita lived next door to the Pushkin Fine Arts Museum in Moscow. It was not surprising that she turned her suburban Boston home into a museum to honor the local history as well as her own roots.

I thought I was going to Boxboro to see a collection of American 1950s fashion jewelry. I had no idea I would find myself in a Russian-American museum of culture and crafts.

Rita taught Russian, and her students brought her gifts from Russia. When she visited her native country, she would buy new pieces for her collection. In the past years she had learned how to restore furniture, and she had always enjoyed sewing. Her works are of remarkable taste and uniqueness.

Touring the house, we stopped by the walls, shelves, holders, and cabinets that displayed and stored Rita’s treasures. There were paintings, pottery, sewing, fashion jewelry, and a table with findings from the Boston Big Dig.

There were Russian artist dolls dressed in Rita’s fabrics, painted boards and trays, old and modern Ghel, and finally, costume jewelry by an American designer Miriam Haskell.

Miriam was born in Tell City, Indiana on July 1, 1899, across a river from Kentucky. Her parents were Russian immigrants that ran a dry-goods store. After high school in nearby New Albany, she studied for three years at Chicago University and then moved to New York City in 1924.

I am sure Rita did not know a lot of Miriam’s life story when she saw a brooch by the artist at a flea market in Boxboro. Now, of course, she owns books and albums of her favorite designer’s works, as well as catalogues to help her study the purse collection for example.

With $500 in her pocket (it is interesting that Rita’s family came to the US also with $500) Miriam opened a small jewelry stop in New York City in 1926. It was a boutique in McAlpin Hotel. Soon she started a second outlet at West 57th Street, and Frank Hess joined her business. Their inexpensive jewelry made of glass and plastic were very popular during the Great Depression, a difficult time in American history. Miriam’s jewelry was sold at Saks Fifth Avenue, that also offered pieces by Chanel, and Burdine’s, and soon found its fans in Miami and London, where new boutiques were open. Miriam’s jewelry was worn not only by common people, but by movie stars Joan Crawford, Lucille Ball, as well as Gloria Vanderbilt and the Duchess of Windsor. Joan Crawford owned almost all of Miriam’s pieces produced in 1920s through 1960s. Watercolors used for advertising, by Larry Austin, showed models wearing Miriam Haskell pieces.

Miriam Haskell passed away in 1981.

Her life was not an easy one. She survived the hard times in the country’s history; she learned to work in a world where all designers and businessmen in general were men.

A lot of Miriam’s works designed before 1950 did not have her signature, a horseshoe-shaped plaque with Miriam Haskell embossed on it. The first regularly signed Haskell jewelry was introduced by her brother Joseph. The custom signed pieces from 1940s are rare. Rita owns several of them. Now Haskell jewelry is very valuable. In 1940s it started selling in New England. I think that is how they ended up at a flea market in Boxboro.

Miriam Haskell traveled a lot. She bought glass from Venice and Bohemia, Daniel Swarovski crystals in Austria, and other materials in Paris. She built a mansion on the Hudson River near Ossining. Unfortunately, when she moved to Cincinnati in her later years, her family sold the mansion along with her other possessions, including her archives, to pay for her care in nursing home.

Miriam sent relief materials when the Ohio flooded in 1937 and contributed to the war effort in World War II. She even created new patriotic jewelry designs.

The horror of World War Two affected her emotional stability; in her fifties, she became ill. She lost her company to her brothers and dedicated her life to taking care of her elderly mother. Later she moved to Cincinnati where she in the care of her nephew until her death.

Miriam will remain in history through her art and effort of collectors such as Rita.

All Miriam Haskell jewelry is hand-made. Sometimes a single piece would take three days to finish. Now Haskell jewelry is owned by the First Lady Michelle Obama and many American celebrities.

Rita’s collection, though, also carries the warmth and spirit of Miriam Haskell, which give it a special value.


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