Part of the impressive network of Newark, New Jersey, jewelry manufacturers, Riker Bros. became known for its affordable, high-quality Art Nouveau jewelry. The patriarch of the firm, William Riker (1822-1898), learned the jewelry craft as an apprentice at the age of 15. After setting up shop starting in 1846 with two successive partners, he began doing business under his own name in 1864. During the 1870s, he was joined by his three sons as they came of age. By 1892, Riker had retired and his youngest son, Cortlandt, had also left the firm, leaving the two remaining sons, William, Jr. and Joseph, to continue as Riker Bros. In 1926, the firm relocated to Indianapolis, Indiana, where it continued in business until the mid-1940s. Meeting the high standards espoused by the Newark firms, Riker Bros. did business with many of America's fine retailers, including Tiffany & Co.
"Riker Bros. was one of the five most important jewelry manufacturers in Newark," says Ulysses Grant Dietz, senior curator and curator of decorative arts at the Newark Museum, becoming known for "amazing quality and really great enameling." The firm produced small-scale pieces aimed at the middle-class market, but made of fine materials with very fine craftsmanship. "We have a piece the size of a quarter," says Dietz, "of a crane on a lily pad with a little diamond and a sunset with plique-a-jour enameling behind the crane. The design is sophisticated, the materials are fine, the quality as good as what was being made by the major art jewelers of the time. But its size made it accessible to a middle-class market in a way the glamourous stuff was not, either then or now."
During the Art Nouveau period, plique-a-jour enameling, a technique that allows light to shine through, became fashionable. Riker, says Dietz, "was particularly good with this type of transparent or translucent enameling where you can see the deep engraving underneath that makes the enameling so distinctive and allows a lot of variation in color to be seen."
Riker's enameled pieces, says Judith Anderson, Bijoux Extraordinaire Ltd., The Jewelry Experts, Manchester, New Hampshire, "were typically done in bold, rich colors such as navy blue, green and amber." William Riker patented a process for creating the wonderful rich textures of the firm's designs - scales, feathers, wings, fur, etc. - via mechanical equipment, notes Anderson.
Riker dragons, griffins, basilisks and other creatures that turn up on a variety of jewelry, including brooches, stickpins and cufflinks, "had a strong, bold imagery that was immediately identifiable as their work," says Anderson. Gemstone accents included "diamonds in the mouths of their creatures as well as demantoid garnets in the eyes and also rubies," adds Anderson.
What makes Riker's griffins and such so uniquely theirs, notes Lisa Stockhammer-Mial, president of online retailer The Three Graces, is the "texture, depth of design and a certain fierce but restrained intensity. Pieces with enamel surfaces project that 'Riker' feel. Many of their Art Nouveau bangles are quite distinct as well, some with curvilinear plaques in undulated lines accented with dragons or flowers. Not all firms undertook the delicate art of plique-a-jour that Riker did with dexterity and in exquisite detail."
Riker bangle and link bracelets are a strong category the company is well known for, says Dietz. "They would attach a dragon set with sapphires or a butterfly set with colored gemstones. Their bangle bracelets and link bracelets are uniquely Riker. I recognize them from a mile away."
The design, subject matter and quality of a Riker piece is recognizable, says Lynne Arkin, fine jewelry specialist at Bonhams San Francisco. Typical Riker fantasy symbols, dragons and serpents, especially, are "wildly and widely sought after." Arkin notes that Riker Bros. bangle bracelets are a big draw for collectors, and that the larger, more dramatic examples come up less often. She also points out the appeal of their finely executed "sweet, petite" brooches, which do "okay" at auction.
Anderson says she does see some stickpins and cufflinks, but brooches and pendants are more prevalent. She notes their selling points as the Riker name, beautiful detailing and the quality, "not tinny or lightweight but with a nice heft to them."
Prices for certain Riker jewelry have held, says Arkin. "There's always going to be a population of buyers who are going to recognize and love it." According to Stockhammer-Mial, "better Riker pieces in recent years are increasingly in demand, with prices reflecting that fervor. Riker bangles in particular have been near the top of the list in collectability, particularly wider ones, those set with gemstones or diamonds and those that are more unusual or with strong Art Nouveau designs or dragons. Even for the wholesale market, it seems prices can be near equal to retail. Readily identifiable iconic pieces such as the Riker griffin and those pieces with enamel garner the most interest and higher prices."
Sums up Dietz, "Riker Bros. was one of the great names of the Newark jewelry industry. They deserve to be collected."