Monday, February 28, 2011

Ruth Saltz Handbag Designer - A True Pioneer

Ruth Saltz Photo provided by Marcella Saltz

I have been curious about the story behind Ruth Saltz handbags ever since I found my first example in a vintage shop many years ago. It was an oversized, fold over clutch in the yummiest shade of red. I could tell right away that the quality was superior. The leather was soft and supple and the interesting closure was as well made as a piece of jewelry. I was not a big fan of envelope style bags at the time. They just didn't seem a practical choice for a working mother of three. My typical handbag was more the size of a duffle bag (OK slight exaggeration), but I really fell in love with this one so I bought it anyway. At some point, in a fit of closet-purging, I decided to put it up on my website and sad for me, it sold. That was nearly a decade ago and I still kick myself.

Since then I have come across many Ruth Saltz handbags (although that long lost clutch remains my favorite) and they are always beautifully made and designed. Even if you don't recognize the name I'm sure most of you are familiar with her work. You know those iconic 1970’s and 80’s handbags with the long chain handles and cougar head ornament? THAT’S Ruth Saltz. Oh, and those flat clutches with the leather rose, she designed those as well. As I mentioned, I've always wondered who the talent was behind these wonderful bags so imagine my delight when daughter Marcella Saltz agreed to an interview about her mother!

Left to right clockwise... Ruth Saltz rose clutch...handy pockets and handsome details on a bone leather bag...signature lining

Our first contact was via e-mail. We introduced ourselves, I sent her a list of questions and she promised to send back her answers.... standard procedure for an online interview. A follow up phone conversation was planned for the weekend. I had no idea how fascinating that phone call would be! Marcella was warm and funny and had a delightful enthusiasm about her. It appears the apple did not fall far from the tree...

Saber Handbag from the Early 1960s Designed by Ruth Saltz. Note the Pretty Toile Lining.

I asked Marcella for a bit of history on her mother. Ruth was a painter before she started designing handbags in the late 1950s. Her husband, Sam Saltz owned Saber Handbags an accessory company based in New York. Sam asked his artist wife, Ruth, to help design the showroom and to give advice on color and new direction for the new collection. Ruth had great design talent and became the creative force behind the company. Throughout the late 50’s and 1960’s Ruth and Sam Saltz were a successful team and pillars of the Accessory industry. Her artistic nature lead her to rebel against the smooth and somewhat boring frame handbag of that day. A lover of color and texture, she experimented with soft supple leathers, suede and exotic skins like ostrich, rhinoceros and turtle. Alligators were a protected species at the time, so Ruth went to Italy to work with leather tannery’s where they custom created fine leathers and suedes for the company including embossed leather that closely resembled alligator and crocodile. She was a forerunner in her industry, creating ever new avenues of design with texture, color and finishes. I would give my eye tooth to see the turquoise alligator embossed handbag that her daughter, Marcella described to me!

Ruth was also a champion of practicality. She understood the need for convenient compartments and easy access in a handbag and was the first to extend the inside zippered compartments from each side to the bottom of the bag. Besides all the handy compartments, Some of her bags even had convenient outside change purses that were attached with chain and fit into their own pockets. She was a great fan of the shoulder strap and in the 1960s she was a pioneer of unisex handbags as well as a handbag made exclusively for Men. Quoted from the Aug. 8, 1968 edition of the Times-News Hendesronville, N.C. " are starting to carry handbags. This latest fashion for men had it's start around Fathers Day...when a couple of handbag manufacturers ventured into purses for men." the article went on to say, "Ruth Saltz at Saber handbags uses whipcords and unpolished leathers in her "Gentry" and "Now Voyager" styles". Just a little aside here... it's obvious the writer of this article did not know much about the designer herself because Ruth Saltz disliked the word purse referring to a handbag. I can't imagine what she thought of someone calling a mans bag a purse! Marcella quotes her Mom as saying “the word purse relates to something you put change into inside your handbag”. She educated the public and the buyers and insisted they use the word HANDBAG.

Ruth was always loved and admired in the fashion industry. According to her daughter everyone adored her. Marcella wrote "Ruth was a warm, loving and generous person and a source of great delight to all who knew her. She was a force to be reckoned with, always ahead of the curve". In the early 1970s Ruth and Sam Saltz created the label Ruth Saltz Designs, which remained successful until the company closed in the late 80”s. Through out her design career Ruth continued to be innovative and fashion forward. She created the first signature lining, with an all over "autograph" print.

Marcella..."Throughout the seasons and the years the cougar bag came in many designs and elements and I guess you could say her signature ornament."
The handsome cougar head adornment was a functional pull to open and close the handbag.

I asked Marcella to tell me where her mother found her inspiration. Without hesitation Marcella said her mother loved the water and could sit for hours watching the ocean. She loved to be with family and friends. Entertaining was her joy "At the drop of a suggestion she would throw together a fabulous dinner party". She continued to be passionate about painting and was devoted to her family and good friends. Marcella said "Her designs came from her heart and her love of life each handbag collection was filled with love and mother most definately took pleasure in all her moments"

When I set out to write this blog I suspected Ruth Saltz must have been a remarkable person, but I had no idea... Her creative genius continues to influence the handbag industry and her designs continue to be echoed in the work of contemporary designers today. I am indebted to her daughter Marcella for sharing so generously and please stay tuned because there is a future "Saltz" blog in the works. You see Marcella is a prominent jewelry and accessory designer and she has promised to share on her own intriguing career, highlighting the wild and wonderful accessories world in the 1980s!