Ostby and Barton Co., a jewelry manufacturing company, was founded in 1879 when Engelhart Cornelius Ostby and Nathan B. Barton formed their business partnership. Previous to their partnership, Mr. Ostby trained to be a jeweler at the Royal School of Art in Norway. He furthered his education and expertise with six years of apprenticeship working in his hometown of Oslo.
In 1869, Ostby joined his parents and brother in emigrating to the United States. It was here that he worked for two different jewelry companies, first Hunt & Owen, then Arnold and Webster, where he specialized in jewelry design & engraving.
When Ostby & Barton formed their new jewelry company, they had barely three thousand dollars in capital! Despite this, their company would soon be known as “the largest ring manufacturers in the world”. The business was thriving, and people in the industry could easily recognize the well-known “O-B” stamp on rings.
Ostby and his daughter Helene traveled to Europe frequently, to study European jewelry design and production. After 1906, all of Ostby’s trips to Europe included his daughter. Little did they know, their last father - daughter trip together would be to France in 1912. This final trip ended in tragedy.
When the duo were prepared to head back home to Providence, RI, Ostby heard from friends about a ship traveling to New York. The name of the ship was the Titantic. Ostby paid £62 for first class tickets for him and Helene. Ostby was assigned cabin B-30 while Helene was assigned to cabin B-36. It is documented that Ostby carried a black leather doctor’s bag, which contained gems and other souvenirs from Paris.
At 11:40 P.M., on April 14, 1912, the Titanic hit an iceberg. Helene recalled:
“I sat up straight in bed, trying to make out what had happened. It seemed completely silent for a minute or two. The engines were cut off. The corridors were quiet until one began to hear doors open and voices speaking. The first voice I heard was a woman asking the steward what had happened. He replied calmly "Everything will be all right."
After the collision, Ostby and his daughter, along with their friends the Warrens, climbed the grand staircase and went out to the boat deck. It was frigid outside, so Ostby decided to quickly return to his room to gather some warmer attire. While he was inside the ship, men insisted Helene board a lifeboat. She desperately wanted her father to join, but she listened to the men and got on the boat. Helene would never see her father again.
While on the lifeboat, some people were lamenting the loss of their jewelry aboard the sinking ship. Twenty-two year old Helene recalled,
“When somebody happened to mention jewelry left behind, I remembered for the first time that I had lost a diamond bar pin which was given me by my father which was still pinned to my nightgown aboard ship. I hadn't given it a though, and when I was reminded, it didn't matter.”
Ostby was 64 years 3 months and 28 days old when he perished on the Titanic, with 1500 other individuals. His body was found by the ship, MacKay Bennett, and the following description pertaining to the findings was documented:
After Helen had time to process the terrible tragedy that occurred, she was able to focus on the family business. She returned to Providence, RI, and along with her brother Harold and his daughter, the three became joint owners of the business their father began back in 1879.
Despite the 1912 catastrophe, Ostby and Barton Co. continued to produce jewelry into the 1950s. Their advertisements boasted their large jewelry lines, and stated that they specialized in “emblem rings, stone rings, mountings, bar pins, misses’ rings, cameo rings, cuff links, pendants, ladies’ rings, festoons, men’s rings, signet rings, tie clasps, baby pins, baby rings, band rings, brooches, ear rings, and scarf pins.” (The Jeweler’s Circular, 1921)
On October 20, 1917, the The Saturday Evening Post newspaper included an Ostby & Barton Co. ad that read:
“Women of taste and experience have found one unfailing test of a jeweler’s standards of style and value -- How does he look upon Ostby & Barton Jewelry? If he knows all the facts, as he ought to, the strongest feature of his stock will be Ostby & Barton -- The foremost House among the jewelery makers of this country…”
On May 15, 1978, Helene passed away at the age of 88. As requested, she was buried close to her beloved father.
Still to this day, Ostby & Barton jewelry is highly desired by collectors of fine antique jewelry for its beautiful workmanship & historical ties to the Titantic. The quality of these pieces speaks for themselves, as many of the pieces jewelry enthusiasts come across are over 100 years old and are in exceptional antique condition.
Ostby & Barton Maker's Marks, as seen on Maejean Vintage Jewelry:
Original Ostby and Barton Ads
During my research for this post, I came across this news clipping from 1918. A woman named Sarah Hartman was arrested after she stole gold from Ostby-Barton. She later ended up committing suicide with the poison cyanide of potassium.
Another interesting piece I stumbled upon was a website that contains all the names of the people who were aboard the Titantic, along with their age and jobs. The website found five passengers who identified as jewelers, Ostby included.
Note added 2/19/19
Jewelry has the ability to hold so many stories, and bring people together in unexpected ways. Since I wrote this post, dozens of people from all over the country have reached out to share their stories of relatives having worked for the firm. Recently a man named Steve Shapiro shared this stunning photo of an Ostby & Barton booth at a trade show. He wrote "My grandfather, along with my grandmother and their infant child (my mother) came over from Germany in 1940, having barely escaped being forced into a Nazi concentration camp. He was a successful scrap dealer in Europe and ran his own company, but was never able to build an import/export business here as he had hoped with his European contacts. After several years of trying to find any job in the industry he knew well, he was able to find this position selling for Ostby and Barton." Thank you for sharing your photos and history so we can all learn more about the stories behind the jewels!
I hope you enjoyed reading this post as much as I loved researching it.
Ostby & Barton jewelry is some of my favorite antique jewelry pieces. I feel a special connection to them and appreciate their quality design and the historical significance. Most of the OB pieces we come across are from 1910-1920, which is my absolute favorite time period!
- The Jewelers' Circular, Volume 85, Issue 2, 1922 - 1923
- The Saturday Evening Post, Volume 190, Issues 14-19
- The Cosmopolitan, Volume 58, Issues 1-8
- Providence Magazine, Volume 30, April 1918.