Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Artist is Revealed!

Matt McColm emailed me the other day – we’ve kept in touch during my brief sabbatical that has turned into a slightly longer sabbatical, then turned into two books and taking over the editorship of The Pennant (the Pen Collectors of America’s journal). I’ve missed posting articles here, so much that I’ve often forced myself to refrain from picking it up again, because I know once I get started again, I’m not going to want to stop.

My other projects haven’t stopped me from picking away with various little research projects, putting together a little piece here, a tidbit of information there, tucking everything away into a "I’m going to do an article about that" pile that has gotten to be pretty intimidating. It’s hard to know where to start at this point with all the wonderful things I have found to share with you.

Matt’s recent email was the loud and clear indication of where I needed to start: with this story. He reports that while on vacation in Skagway, Alaska, he found another example of a pencil I’ve come to refer to as "Sigma" pencils, and he referenced an article I posted here on November 9, 2012. Remember this one?

It wasn’t much of an article, really. It was more a desperate cry for help. Matt’s find didn’t answer that cry – his casual email simply reported that he’d found another of these with the same maddening lack of any further details. What Matt had no way of knowing was that after that article had been floating around in cyberland for nearly two years, just two days earlier I had coincidentally found our answer. Here’s a hint: it isn’t the Greek character sigma imprinted on these pencils. If you guessed a sideways W, you’re getting warmer.

As is so often the case, I found the first clue when I was looking for something else. I’d picked up a "Sta-Rite" ringtop pencil in an online auction last week, and while I was a-googling around hunting for information about it I found a reference to an advertisement in a 1923 issue of The Jewelers’ Circular and Horological Review. Unfortunately, all I was able to see was a confounded "snippet view" which didn’t show the very parts I needed to see, so I embarked on a frantic search of Google Books for a full e-book version I could download.

Blast. No 1923 version was available, and the closest I was able to find was the volume covering the end of 1922 through early 1923. I scouted around for another half an hour, muttering ill thoughts about Google to myself, and finally decided to "settle" for the 1922 volume. What the heck, I thought. Maybe Google didn’t pick up another version of the Sta-Rite ad running in the same magazine a few months earlier.

I was up until three in the morning trolling through more than 1,100 pages in that Volume of the Jewelers’ Circular, and while I never did find anything about the Sta-Rite, I did find a few other neat tidbits of information that I’ll share with you in other articles here. But when I got to the January 31, 1923 issue at around 2:30 in the morning, this stopped me in my tracks:

That is unmistakably our "sigma" mark . . . but this advertisement isn’t much more helpful than the markings on the pencils themselves (although the examples Matt and I have are in sterling, and the advertisement indicates only that they were offered in 10k and 14k gold). But . . . wait a tick . . . this was only one of several small ads on the page, which included watches, rings, and other novelties . . . and several of those other items also bore that same mark. As my eyes drifted to the bottom of the page, I noticed this printed across the bottom of the page:

Could the jewelry firm of J.R. Wood & Sons be our culprit? I went back through and searched other issues of the magazine, and I found another advertisement in the January 25, 1922 issue, in which the firm sought new sales agents in Boston and Philadelphia.

But do you notice what’s embedded in the border?

With the name "J.R. Wood" in hand, it wasn’t long before I found a copy of the firm’s 1923 catalog, owned by Nona Grampp and posted by "Illusion Jewels" at .  That catalog includes the entire range of jewelry, buckles and other metal specialties offered by the company, including three pages of pencils:

But most importantly, this catalog finally answers the question that’s been bugging me for years in a two-page spread titled "Extraordinary History of Our Trade Mark":

"For two generations there has been something extraordinary about the way goods sell stamped with the J.R. Wood & Sons’ trade mark.

"Retail jewelers from coast to coast have repeatedly told us that goods so stamped find a more ready sale in their stores than any other merchandise they have in stock. Merchandise stamped with the [sigma] has, as a matter of fact, sold so extensively that in the jewelry trade J. R. Wood & Sons have grown to be the largest users of gold in America.

"Some of our competitors have accredited our success by saying "J. R. Wood & Sons have always been LUCKY." Our success really has been due to high grade merchandise of honest quality, skillfully manufactured and sold at a more modest profit than is customary. If this constitutes LUCK – then we are LUCKY.

"It has developed that our trade mark really is an ancient sign of GOOD LUCK which makes the following authoritative sketch most interesting. We are indebted to Dr. S----rain [illegible] of the University of Pennsylvania, for the following historical sketch of this mark.

"It was a symbol used by earliest man and indicated, in picture drawing, a bow. A man confronted with a wild beast in the forest considered himsel LUCKY if he had a bow and arrow with him. As a consequence, the symbol was known as a LUCKY omen.

"It was found on chiseled rocks estimated to be many thousands of years older than the Christian Era. Through many centuries this symbol, [sigma], has been prominent in most of the semi-civilized and civilized Asiatic, European and African tribes. Through Mediterranean, African, Chines and Arabian sections this sign was constantly used – through Biblical times, the symbol [sigma] in varying forms always represented good fortune or good luck.

"The Chinese added a further interpretation to this mark and called it "Child of Love," or the modern "Cupid’s Bow."

"From the co-mingling of these early tribes, through vast ages of slow development written letters and alphabets developed gradually with this symbol [sigma] always prominent and apparently always meaning GOOD LUCK either in love, war, hunting, fishing or in trade.

"The symbol is quite prominent in the alphabet of the early Phoenicians, the symbol being naturally very popular because of its meaning. This probably explains why it became the most used letter of all alphabets — Hebrew, Helenic and Egyptian writings. An example is the Greek letter Epsilon which is a development of this same symbol. It is the most popular letter of ancient alphabets remaining to this day in the English alphabet in the form of the letter E which is the most used of all letters in writing. If you will write the letter (E) in the Greek fashion, as many writers do, the similarity of this sign is quite apparent.

"Bridging the gap of time we find it was used in the early cowboy days on the Wester plains as a favored branding mark for cattle, and was known as the lazy W. The brand, naturally, meaning, good luck to the ranch owner. Horses and cows so branded were supposed to be less apt to stray or be stolen.

"Its latest usage was its adoption by this firm two generations ago as a trade mark for jewelry."

Lucky or not, It wasn’t long before J. R. Wood & Sons abandoned the use of their unusual trademark. By the 1940s, the company’s focus appears to have narrowed to the production of wedding bands marketed under the brand name "Artcarved" and "Woodcrest," advertised heavily in Life Magazine. This advertisement, from the December 4, 1950 issue of Life, indicates that the company was turning a century old, supporting the statement at the Illusion Jewels website that the company was founded in 1850.

According to Illusion Jewels, the firm merged with Lenox, Inc. in 1970 and was formally renamed "Artcarved, Inc." in 1975. The company is still in existence today, still using the "Artcarved" name – their website is

So our sigma (or epsilon or lazy W of cowboy fame) wasn’t intended as anything more than a symbol designating good luck – one so obscure that it took two pages in the company’s catalog to explain. My research so far indicates that the company’s gushing explanation of the symbol’s significance is nothing more than marketing hogwash, although I have found references that the sideways W is sometimes referred to as a "Lazy W." Perhaps that’s the best interpretation, in light of the coincidental association of the symbol with "Wood."

One thing’s for sure: while I never thought of this as a good luck symbol before, after stumbling across all of this information ...

I do now!


Chthulhu said...

Jon, some of us are *very* glad to see you blogging again! :-)

Jon Veley said...

Thanks! It feels great to be back!