The Personal Jewelry Collection of Dorothy Liebes

Kimberly Randall

Dorothy Liebes is known today for her handwoven fabrics that combined bold color, nubby textures, metallic threads, and other unconventional materials such as bamboo and leather in ways that seemed unique when she started designing in the 1930s. Liebes’s appreciation for the maker’s hand, so obvious in her fabrics, carried over to her personal style. The designer cultivated her look using signature pieces of clothing and personal accessories such as hats and jewelry. As her national profile grew, she was frequently photographed wearing several key pieces that served to define her style.  

In the early 1940s, Dorothy Liebes sat for the fashion and publicity photographer George Platt Lynes, who produced a group of black-and-white portraits of the textile designer. In 1944, Goodall Decorative Fabrics selected a photograph (Fig. 1) for a two-page advertising spread when Liebes was already a few years into her fruitful collaboration with the textile company. Goodall’s advertisement stressed Liebes’s creativity and originality, calling her the “textile genius of our age.” The image is a glamorous one, conveying the designer’s ease and confidence. Liebes gazes directly into the camera while seated at a narrow table. She cradles her chin in her right hand while her other hand rests on her right upper arm. Her softly styled hair shines brightly while her dark, slim-fitting top absorbs the light of the photo studio. The minimalistic setting serves to accentuate Liebes’s dramatic jewelry, which the designer employed periodically to great effect, particularly during the 1930s–mid 1940s, when she sometimes assumed a more bohemian and artistic style. These striking accessories offered Liebes another means of expressing her singular approach as she worked tirelessly to establish her design studio and burnish her reputation as a design professional. As her national profile grew, some newspaper columnists could not resist the urge to mix reportage on her professional engagements with comments about her personal appearance. In one 1938 newspaper clipping saved by Liebes, a columnist described her attire as “breathtaking,” noting that the artist accessorized her plain black dress with a pink pillbox turban and matching purse made of her own woven fabric by friend and designer Lily Daché. Pink lipstick and a six-inch cuff bracelet completed her ensemble. [1]  

Liebes began wearing the matching pair of deep gleaming cuffs in the late 1930s. Her close friend Helen Hughes Dulany designed these cuffs and other jewelry, in addition to elegant tabletop accessories, all in smooth, shiny metal. Liebes’s distinctive necklace, though partially hidden in the Platt Lynes photograph, was quickly identified as the creation of the Mexican jewelry designer Matilde Eugenia Poulat (Mexican, 1899–1960), who designed under the name Taller Matl. Referred to as “Palomas y Rosas” or “Doves and Roses,” this heavily worked necklace has all the hallmarks of the Poulat studio, which the designer first opened in 1934. A rough proof from the same photo shoot (Fig. 2) reveals more of the necklace and is a study in contrasting textures—the hand-worked and dimensional necklace flanked by Dulany’s smooth cuff bracelets.  

An enigmatic figure, Matilde Poulat defied her father by enrolling in 1907 at the Academia de San Carlos in Mexico City, where she trained in painting and sculpture. [2] She did not firmly establish herself as a jewelry designer until the early 1930s, as the political and social upheaval that began with the 1910 Mexican Revolution affected most aspects of Mexican life for decades. During this unsettled period, she worked across several disciplines, including glassblowing and textile design. Poulat discovered her passion for jewelry design only after the 1931 excavation of the ruins at Monte Alban, Mexico, unearthed a fantastic trove of pre-Columbian jewelry. By 1934, she had set up a workshop in her Mexico City home, creating jewelry that fused Mexican folk art and pre-Columbian motifs. The resulting designs were markedly different from the smooth, modernist-style pieces made in Taxco by William Spratling and the others who trained with him. Although Poulat never achieved the same name recognition as Spratling and his contemporaries such as Hector Aguilar, Antonio Castillo, and Margot van Voorhies, she is today championed for her use of repoussage and chased techniques, which entailed hammering silver from the reverse and working the front side to add the rich details seen on the large birds and roses of Liebes’s necklace. Poulat also created unique silver jewelry with richly textured surfaces set with native stones such as turquoise, amethyst, and coral. [3] These designs with crudely faceted stones set in oxidized silver have a Mexican baroque flair that is especially notable in the pieces that are most heavily encrusted.  

Another photograph in an undated magazine clipping, probably from 1940, shows Liebes wearing the Poulat necklace with a cardigan sweater and is another clue suggesting that she acquired the necklace around 1939–1940. Liebes’s travels to Mexico are well documented in letters and photographs housed at the Archives of American Art, and although these are not always dated, she traveled to that country frequently, starting in the 1930s. Liebes also kept an address book called “Mexico,” with addresses of friends and of preferred hotels, museums, shops, and restaurants. Unfortunately, no receipt or personal property inventories mention this unique piece of jewelry, so the details of its purchase remain unknown. Also unknown to date is how the fashion designer Bonnie Cashin, Liebes’s dear friend, came to own a similar Poulat necklace, although Cashin’s necklace remains in her archive (Fig. 3).  

Though Liebes’s personal taste most likely influenced its purchase, this necklace was consistent with jewelry trends of the early 1940s. Once World War II had effectively cut off Americans from all European fashion and jewelry, Mexican jewelry, especially high-quality, well-made sterling silver jewelry, became hugely popular across the United States. Buyers from all major department stores descended on Mexico and scoured the country for the best jewelry to send back—and sometimes copy. Women’s Wear Daily published frequent reports on the unique styles of Mexican imported jewelry, with the silver designers of Taxco receiving the lion’s share of the attention from the fashion press. [4]  

In 1941, Poulat was invited to participate in the Pan American Union’s month-long special exhibit of Latin American silver in Washington, DC, with a necklace and a pair of earrings. Another mention came in 1943, when the Daily News of Los Angeles referred to Poulat as the leading jewelry designer of Mexico City. Referring to the artist incorrectly as “Matilda Eugenia Paulot,” the newspaper’s fashion reporter Lee Averill made an apocryphal statement about the designer’s connections to Chanel and other Parisienne dressmakers, probably pure hyperbole related to Poulat’s French surname. [5] Poulat also sold her jewelry in the United States but limited its distribution to just two shops: The Phoenix in Georgetown, Washington, DC, and Gump’s of San Francisco. [6] Similarities between Poulat’s designs and those illustrated by the National Silver Company in 1942 can be seen in the advertisement (Fig. 4) in the rose necklace and brooch with dangling pendants. Although not as well known in the United States, Poulat’s jewelry would have been considered a very stylish choice in the early 1940s.  

By the time the war ended in 1945, Liebes had firmly established herself as a well-regarded and successful textile designer with a national profile. The Dulany cuffs and other exaggerated pieces were mostly set aside, replaced by smallscale jewelry such as the gold ribbed necklace (Fig. 5) that Liebes wore repeatedly in the following decades. She did not entirely abandon Matilde Poulat’s “Palomas y Rosas” necklace, however, as it made an appearance in a 1956 portrait by the artist Brian Connelly, who was seemingly inspired by the Platt Lynes portrait and added swirling yarn and Lurex thread around Liebes’s arms and torso. A later photograph from 1964 shows Liebes at an event, wearing the necklace once again (Fig. 6) 


[1] Scrapbook, 1933–1938. Folder 24, Box 1, Dorothy Liebes Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC.

[2] Penny C. Morrill, Dreaming in Silver = Soñar en Plata: Silver Artists of Modern Mexico (Schiffer: Atglen, PA, 2018), 287.

[3] Beatriz Barba de Piña Chán, “La Joyeria Mexicana,” Artes de México 165 (Mexico, D.F.: Frente Nacional de Artes Plásticas, 1973), 41.

[4] “Mexican Exhibit Boosts Silver Prestige,” Women’s Wear Daily, May 8, 1942: 11; “In Modern Mexico Silver Jewelry Has New Quality of Modern Flowing Design,” Women’s Wear Daily, June 4, 1943: 30.

[5] Lee Averill, “Modern Silver Jewelry Now an Important Mexican Export to U.S.,” Daily News (Los Angeles), August 20, 1943.

[6] Morrill, Dreaming in Silver, 309, 311. 

black and white photo of a woman posed in front of a blank background. she is wearing a dark long sleeve top, two large cuff bracelets and a large silver necklace

Fig. 1 Dorothy Liebes photographed by George Platt Lynes, n.d.; Dorothy Liebes Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC

black and white photo of a woman posed in front of a blank background. she is wearing a dark long sleeve top, two large cuff bracelets and a large silver necklace

Fig. 2 Rough proof of Dorothy Liebes wearing the necklace designed by Matilde Eugenia Poulat for Taller Matl. This is one example of Palomas y Rosas; Poulat designed several variations on this necklace. Dorothy Liebes photographed by George Platt Lynes, circa 1940s; Series 11, Box 17, Folder 3, Dorothy Liebes Papers

black and white photo of a woman wearing a dark sleeveless top and a large silver necklace with bird and flower details.

Fig. 3 Bonnie Cashin was close friends with Dorothy Liebes; she was photographed in the mid-1940s wearing a different version of Poulat’s Palomas y Rosas necklace. Courtesy Dr. Stephanie Lake and the Bonnie Cashin Archive

black and white print of various jewelry forms.

Fig. 4 Illustration from a 1942 advertisement in Women’s Wear Daily announcing a new line of jewelry from Mexico on display in New York at the National Silver Company. Courtesy of the National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution

color photograph of a woman leaning on a table holding textile samples. in the background there are larger textile samples/

Fig. 5 Dorothy Liebes, circa 1940s–circa 1950s; Series 11, Box 17, Folder 4, Dorothy Liebes Papers

black and white photo of a man and woman in formalwear. the woman is wearing a large silver necklace.

Fig. 6 Dorothy Liebes at an event with an unidentified guest, 1964; Scrapbook, 1964, Series 8, Box 33, Folder 3, Dorothy Liebes Papers

Kimberly Randall

Kimberly Randall is collections manager for the Textiles Department at Cooper Hewitt. The textiles collection comprises approximately 27,000 textiles, costumes, accessories, trimmings, and sample books representing twenty-four centuries of textile production across Europe, the Americas, Asia, and Africa. Randall has contributed to museum publications and exhibitions including The World of Radio (2017), Embroidered and Embellished (2019), Underground Modernist: E. McKnight Kauffer (2021) and Sophia Crownfield: Drawn from Nature (2022).