Joan Castle Joseff was living proof that not every great Hollywood story makes it to the silver screen. A small-town girl moves to 1930s Los Angeles and snags a job as secretary to a charismatic older man, a maker of costume jewelry that appears in nearly every Hollywood epic. They fall in love and marry, but before their only child has his first birthday, the husband dies while piloting his own airplane. Friends advise her to sell the business, which by now also makes parts for aerospace manufacturers, but she won't, and she goes on to run the company with an iron will for the next 60 years, never remarrying.
Joseff, known as J.C. to employees, died March 24 of congestive heart failure. She was 97, and she left behind a collection of more than three million pieces of costume jewelry made for the movies, a small foundry business, and a record as a remarkable entrepreneur.
The Joseff of Hollywood foundry pioneered the making of historically accurate jewelry for movies using the investment casting process. Its work appeared on Shirley Temple in The Little Princess, on Vivien Leigh in Gone with the Wind, and on Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra. The stuff was rented, rather than sold, to studios, leaving J.C. and her heirs with a valuable legacy. Sotheby's in recent years offered to auction the collection, according to Tina Joseff, J.C.'s daughter-in-law, who now runs the business. But the family wants it kept intact, perhaps in a museum. "It's Hollywood history," Tina says.
During the 1950s, the tail end of Joseff of Hollywood's heyday, J.C. threw lavish Christmas parties attended by as many as 2,000 guests, who gathered around a tree dripping in Joseff jewelry. J.C. at times dressed outlandishly. "She dyed her poodles and her hair to match the outfit," says Tina. "Today, the ASPCA would get after her."
"No man is going to forget I'm a woman," J.C. once said, according to a 1991 book on the Joseffs, Jewelry of the Stars.
But there was more than flash to J.C. After Eugene Joseff's death, "all of her friends said, 'Sell it. You can't take care of it,' " Tina says. "But she went to classes, learned how to read blueprints." And she picked the brain of everyone she met.
Studio work waned after the '60s, as period epics requiring elaborate jewelry gave way to contemporary settings in films. But aerospace work begun during World War II sustained the company. Its foundry still makes brackets, handles, levers, and the like for the C-17 transport, the F-18 fighter, and other aircraft.
Julian Kovacs, a salesman for a supplier to foundries, recalls watching Joseff present a paper at an industry meeting in the early 1990s. Her topic, Kovacs says, was "how to do business with the big guys -- Boeing, Honeywell." Coming after dreary presentations, "it was so refreshing. Most of the foundry guys are guys -- very technical. And there was a lady."