Angela (Mercurio) Forenza | Jewelry Designer

Photo of Angela (Mercurio) ForenzaBefore her first day of classes at Pratt, Angela (Mercurio) Forenza (Pratt Institute, B.A. Industrial Design ’42) had barely left Yonkers. It was the late 1930s and Brooklyn seemed a million miles away.  But her high school teacher, Ms. Wycoff, had marveled at Forenza’s art and insisted she attend Pratt, after she received four scholarships to use for a school of her choice the first year.

“The next thing I know, I’m at Pratt,” says Forenza, recalling how nervous she was the first day.

Just five years later, she would have another first day—as a jewelry designer at Van Cleef & Arpels. This day would signal the start of a career she had never imagined, one that would see her creating rings for royalty, send her traveling around the world, and allow her to meet the biggest celebrities of her day.

A selection of Forenza’s work from her legendary career was on display at the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum in 2011 as part of the exhibition “Set in Style: The Jewelry of Van Cleef & Arpels.” Forenza was also featured in a video interview at the exhibition.

But before Forenza’s legendary career, there was her time at Pratt. Sitting in her living room in Westchester County on a recent rainy afternoon, Forenza recalled those first-day jitters, and how they dissolved as soon as she met Dora Royer (B.A. Industrial Design ’42) and Jean Pippa (B.A. Industrial Design ’42), the three remaining inseparable throughout school (Forenza still talks to Royer almost daily). Forenza enjoyed Pratt so much that though her scholarship had run out, she was determined: “I had to go back.”

Through a Depression-era federal initiative, Forenza landed a job as a secretary in Pratt’s main office. She oversaw the lost and found, where a policy allowing her to keep whatever went unclaimed kept her in art supplies. On Wednesdays she cleaned a home and on Thursdays and Saturdays she worked in the towel department of Macy’s in Herald Square. She had a two-hour commute from her Yonkers home, and she would often walk about 15 blocks from DeKalb Avenue to campus to save trolley fare.

Still, Forenza found time to do her coursework in her industrial design courses. She had wanted to study advertising, but was told her work was not strong enough. Unfazed, she dove into her industrial design classes and recalls one that taught her “an awful lot about composition,” which she says helped her at her Van Cleef job.

Forenza saw success at Pratt; one memorable success came when Pratt entered her work in a national tablecloth design contest.

“During the white sale, the tablecloths were displayed just a few feet away from where I was working at Macy’s,” she remembers. “All the associates were surprised when they saw my tablecloth and picture displayed as part of the competition.” The sales people were eligible to vote, helping earn Forenza an honorable mention.

After graduation, Forenza worked at various jobs. During one especially dreary stint at a statistics company, she turned to her alma mater.

“I called Pratt and said do you have anything available? And they suggested Van Cleef & Arpels, where they knew there was an opening.”

The French jewelry company had been founded in 1906, but only recently opened a U.S. store.  At her interview, the secretary handed Forenza a diamond brooch and instructed her to copy it.

“I couldn’t even draw it, I was so taken with it,” she says. “But I said I’ll just do it and get out of here, and go back to work and the drudgery.” she was positive she had failed the test, but a week later she received a letter saying she was hired.

When she arrived for her first day of work, Forenza recalls, “I was a wreck. I said ‘I’m never going to last in such an elegant place. It’s not for me.’”

But last she did, for four decades, making an impact not only on the company itself, but, arguably, on the world of the jewelry business.

One of Forenza’s favorite stories about Van Cleef & Arpels took place within her first few weeks. Claude Arpels received word from the Duchess of Windsor who was staying at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel and wanted a new cocktail ring. There were only two designers in the New York store at the time, a cause of some concern for Arpels.  Both were asked to submit sketches. The duchess chose Forenza’s design, and days later this recent Pratt graduate was discussing her design with the Duchess of Windsor.

Then there was the time Arpels asked Forenza to attend a meeting and give her thoughts on the ads the company was planning for The New York Times and the New York Herald Tribune.

“I’m thinking, ‘do I dare tell him what I really think—that it won’t work? That it’s not the image I think you should have?’” She did.

“That’s how I got into advertising,” she says. She began to draw Van Cleef & Arpels’s ads for newspapers, later  setting up a studio in the company’s basement, hiring a photographer, and art directing photographic ads herself for national magazines.

Then, editors began calling to borrow jewelry to put in their publications. “I took care of the editors,” she recalls. “We became friendly and I began to know what they wanted.” Thus began her the public relations part of her career. She met the famous gossip columnists of the day—Igor Cassini, known as “Cholly Knickerbocker” for instance — and provided jewels for such legendary movie stars as Sophia Loren and Elizabeth Taylor for photo shoots.

When Van Cleef expanded, Arpels again approached Forenza. 

“We need someone to do windows,’” he said.

“I took over creating displays for the whole corner, all four windows.” She says. “I would put the display in in the morning. At night, I’d change it to make it less inviting to burglars.”

Forenza worked for Van Cleef & Arpels for almost 40 years, before moving on to work at Piaget in 1983. She stayed there for 10 years, leaving in 1992 to join her family business. She and her family now own the toy company Hugg-A-Planet, that makes plush globes of planet Earth, as well as other soft toys. Forenza created the concept of the soft globe that is now sold internationally.

Forenza says that succeeding in this wide range of creativity could not have been possible without the education and training she received at Pratt.

“Pratt helped tremendously with my design sense,” she says. “How do you make layout and the balance of things. It just came to me.”

But more than just design, she says, Pratt also taught her the skills to solve problems and come up with solutions in an ever-changing workplace.

“Pratt taught me to think creatively,” she says. “I still think creatively, and that’s what the bottom line is. It’s the basis for everything.”

 Photo: Ashley Berger
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