My interest in Hillcraft
Jewelry started when I moved to Indiana and found a couple of unique pieces.
Here was a "local" company that made lovely jewelry. They used such
materials as Czech glass cabochons, beads, Swarovski crystals, and rhinestones,
gold filled wire and unique designs for the clips and fasteners on earrings,
necklaces and bracelets.
What most people know about Hillcraft Jewelry is many
pieces were made by patients in the Indiana State TB Sanatorium. The most
definable features are the wired work and slide on clip earring. My latest
research, which isn't completely finished (still trying to determined exact
dates of operations), is as follows:
At this time, the closest I can determine for dates of
operation are early 1950's thru 1990's. The company was in place in the late
1940's, but it didn't start really selling until the 1950's. Original ownership
was Allen Chamberlain, Bill May and at some point in the early days, Charlie
Ellis. (Charlie Ellis started his own company Castlecraft, making similar
jewelry.) I was told by Evelyn Swaim, an employee of Hillcraft for 38
years, all the owners remained friendly, helping each other with work
loads, designs and she even worked for both at the same time. After Bill May
and Allen Chamberlain passed away, in late 1960's and early 1970's, Mrs.
Chamberlain continued the business with help/partnerships from Dale Kirk and
Joe Reisinger. Mrs. Chamberlain, Dale Kirk and Joe Reisinger sold the company
to Dick Stuffle and then in 1995 Kenneth and Julia Baker purchased the company
name and stock.
According to Evelyn Swaim, Allen Chamberlain and Bill
May spent a lot of time at the Sanatorium in the beginning, working with
patients on the design elements and particular attention to quality -- the
wiring, loops had to be perfect. If anyone couldn't produce to the high
standards of Hillcraft, they didn't stay with the company for very long. All
pieces were hand wired, using gold filled wire and caps. They had a huge
selection of glass and Lucite pieces, and the owners went on buying trips,
purchasing glass cabochons and beads from Czechoslovakia, Germany, New York and Japan. Julia Baker said many of the glass cabochons were the work of a small
family run company in Czechoslovakia. The glass cabochons were used less often
because they had to be grooved for the wiring and, of course, were easier to
chip. Hillcraft had their own in house craftsman who did the entire glass
cutting. Frank made his own equipment/jig using a diamond bit.
The jewelry was sold to club groups or fund raisers,
not in stores. The clubs worked hard to sell the jewelry to make money for
their organizations and Evelyn said everyone was always happy with the results
from selling Hillcraft Jewelry. It was the "Don McNeil Breakfast
Club" on Chicago radio KQV that helped Hillcraft Jewelry to take off in
They did have specialty lines of jewelry and most
notable was their Frost line -- pastel color glass cabochons set with Swarovski
Aurora Borealis rhinestones. The white with gold fleck jewelry in my collection
was called Dresden. I'm finding out, in addition to what is seen most
often, they also had cameos, dangling earrings, cuff links and tie tacks.
Pearls were also used, but remember, if it was a Hillcraft
piece... all items had the gold filled wire design (pearls had a curved
"cage"), brooches were cabochons dangling from a bow pin. Even the
gold filled wire was specially made for Hillcraft, Alan Chamberlain and Bill
May wanted a wire with springiness, to hold the shape but have some flexibility.
The unique wiring, clips and necklace clasps are the way to identify Hillcraft
Jewelry, unless of course the jewelry still has the paper tags or are in the
Hillcraft box. Evelyn Swaim is probably the only person who can tell the
difference between Hillcraft and Castlecraft jewelry. She said they were little
things like the caps or the way the clips were put together on the backs.
Hillcraft Jewelry was customer oriented. If one
earring was lost and they had the same cabochon or bead, they would make up one
earring to match. If they no longer had the same jewelry piece, they would make
a pair of earrings as close as possible for the customer. Part of their good
customer service was to clean the customer's one remaining earring, so both
looked new and put the new pair into a box with new cotton. Local customers did
come in to Hillcraft with swatches or new clothes and special ordered jewelry
was created to match. They were taken into the production area, shown the
drawers where all the latest beads, cabochons were kept and allowed to pick out
what they wanted.
I'm not sure of the total employees they had besides
the owners. Evelyn said there were 2 office employees, 8 in orders who
were also responsible for making the jewelry and 1 in checking. There was
Frank, the glass cutter, and of course, the patients at the Sanatorium. After
some of the patients were well enough to go home, they continued to make a
living working for Hillcraft from home. Evelyn stayed home raising her
children, all the while making jewelry. Someone would bring her the components,
and a week later come pick up the finished jewelry. She worked at Hillcraft for
38 years and said it was the best place she worked.
Julia Baker lived around the Rockville area and knew
about Hillcraft Jewelry for years. She told me, during Rockville's Covered
Bridge Festival, Hillcraft always had a booth and sold their jewelry at a
discounted price. She bought many pieces and when the company was first for
sale, she wanted to buy it and continue the jewelry line. However, Dick Stuffle
became the new owner and he changed some things. Instead of gold filled wire,
he went to gold plated without the springiness or the quality. By the time
Julia Baker was able to purchase the Hillcraft Jewelry Company, she couldn't
revive it to the "glory" days.
more interesting tidbits:
--Hillcraft Jewelry starting producing jewelry in an old bank building, then
moved to Stark Street, converting a house into a manufacturing business place.
Some time after Hillcraft Jewelry was no longer a business; the TB Sanatorium
restored the Stark Street business back into a residential home.
--Evelyn Swaim is quite positive that Rose of "The Golden Girls"
television show wore a pair of Hillcraft earrings on one episode. I need better
eyes and a whole lot of time to check this tidbit out!
--Prices for a less expensive line of earrings sold for $2.00 - $2.50 at the
Covered Bridge Festival or to local customers during the early years.
--Rockville Post Office became a Class A Post Office because of the volume of
These last 2 photo show the most popular line called Frost. Left
photo is white/iridescent and the right photo is blue Frost (rare).