Presentation of the designer: " Marie Zimmermann"
Marie Zimmermann, an heiress to a straw-importing fortune, did not need to work for a living. She nonetheless ran a metalsmithing studio in New York from the 1910s to the late ’30s, partly to prove herself to the men who doubted women could succeed in that gritty profession.
She hired men to handle some of the finishing work on her vessels, daggers, jewelry, andirons, stained-glass windows, light fixtures and garden gates. But she did not let the subcontractors express much opinion. “I am the brains and they are the hands,” she told a journalist in the 1930s.
At her request Marie Zimmermann’s personal papers were burned after her death in 1972 at the age of 93, so some biographical details remain cloudy. Surviving correspondence, photos and other documents identify her life partner as the screenwriter Ruth Allen. Zimmermann’s siblings and parents apparently accepted the relationship. “I hope Miss Ruth too has gained in flesh and become strong,” Marie’s father, John, wrote to her in 1927, encouraging the couple to come pick apples at the family orchard in Pennsylvania.
Marie Zimmermann trained at the Art Students League and Pratt Institute and then lived and worked in rooms at the National Arts Club in Manhattan. She and a few employees outsourced the more complicated and dangerous tasks, like bronze casting and aluminum spinning. Zimmermann browsed antiques shops herself, looking for Chinese jade carvings and Mexican silver filigree for whimsical finials and pendants on her pieces.
She studied antiques as design sources, too, borrowing forms and motifs from Egyptian scarabs, Roman cameos, Mughal jewelry and Tang dynasty lobed bowls. She also took on custom commissions, ranging from rings to mausoleums, particularly for other independent women like the suffragist Annie R. Tinker and the meatpacking heiress Lolita Armour.
In 1939, Zimmermann shut down the studio, after disappointedly selling nothing at an exhibition she organized in Santa Barbara, Calif. “I had no business success at all, so feel very discouraged about making any more art objects,” she wrote to a colleague.
During decades of retirement, Zimmermann and Allen hunted and fished at their homes in Pennsylvania and Florida. The metalsmith “seems to have given away or sold most of her jewelry” and then bequeathed some major pieces to household staff.
Only in the last few years have museums paid much attention to Zimmermann. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has acquired a handful of major works, including a 1920s tourmaline engagement ring with lotus and acanthus prongs. Zimmermann made it for Rowena Stewart, a former Pratt student