A Turn of Turtles
Whales travel in pods, fish collect in schools, quail gather in a covey. But a grouping of turtles is known as a turn, and that's where this story starts. It took me almost two years to design this brooch, with its shell of 100-year-old mother of pearl, emerald eyes, and diamond-pebbled skin all set in handmade platinum. I had been visiting a client & friend in Connecticut, and in walking up to her front door, noticed that all of her planters had turtle sculptures in them. I inquired as to why and she informed me that turtles signify good luck and that she had been collecting turtle objects for years.
But, as it turns out, there's more to turtles than luck. The turtle, it seems, is one of those creatures that carries a lot of symbolism around on its back. To some cultures it represents longevity. To others, the shell of the turtle represents the heavens, the body - the earth, and the undershell - the cosmos. To still other cultures, the turtle represents strength and stability. But to my friend in Connecticut, her turn of turtles brought good fortune to her home and all who lived there. She had given me carte blanche to design a piece for her. As I ruminated on this it occurred to me: the only thing wrong with her turn of turtles was that there wasn't one to accompany her all the time. So I made one to fill the need - a little luck and strength for her to wear as she moved (as we all do) through the cosmos. As I delivered it to her, I wished her a long, strong, and very blessed life.
A Cottage Fit for a King
World-renowned jeweler, Raymond C. Yard came from humble beginnings. In fact, his career began as a door boy for Marcus & Co., one of the premier New York jewelry houses around the turn of the last century. He rose through the ranks as a salesman and was eventually discovered and patronized by none other than John. D. Rockefeller, Jr., who helped him open his first shop at 522 Fifth Avenue.
Over the years, Yard developed a unique Art Deco style that incorporated different cuts of stones with enamel accents. Two motifs have become most associated with Yard - rabbits, dressed in formal wear, in various poses (usually serving drinks), and small whimsical houses, of which this brooch, which I acquired from a client in Boston and presented to my wife, is one. In fact, this style of Yard "cottage" was frequently seen, with its delightfully colored tree arching up and over the roof of the simple, sparkling dwelling.
Eventually, the well-heeled (especially of New York) began to commission Yard to create gemstone representations of their own houses, and the brooches became more elaborate. But, the early house brooches mirrored Yard's own humble beginnings, for they were simple, carefully imagined, and consummately crafted. Cottages they were, but fit for kings. In fact, somewhere along the way, it would not surprise me to know that this delightful bauble itself might have caught the eye of a turn-of-the-century king of industry. But for now, it is truly a treasure for the wife of a fortunate jeweler.
When a flower will do
I admit, albeit reluctantly, that sometimes a gift of fine jewelry simply isn’t appropriate. It’s not that jewelry isn’t always wonderful (well-made jewelry with some thought in its design, mind you), but, what it communicates can be unintended. It can, for instance, suggest an unexpected degree of intimacy or an intent to take a relationship to the next level. So, what is one to do when fine jewelry is too much, and a box of chocolates too little.
This was the quandary the Russian aristocracy of the late 19th and early 20th centuries faced. Carl Peter Faberge himself noted that it was sometimes “awkward to give expensive jewels.” And so, precious objets d’arts, fashioned in the form of floral displays in a style that paid homage to the art of Japan, became a popular alternative. They helped soften the bleakness of Russian winters and foreshadowed the coming of much anticipated springtime. And, they were appropriately subtly seductive.
This particular Faberge vase, crafted under the guidance of chief master Henrik Wigstrom, seduced me – and how could it not? The rock crystal vase holds two 18K gold stems with delicately shaded violet blossoms enameled en plain of a gold ground, each with a centered diamond. The leaves carved in nephrite mimic actual violet leaves astonishingly. In fact, the whole piece is so lifelike at first glance, one is tempted to smell them to see if somehow the exquisite jewelers of a bygone age had captured the very essence of the flower itself.
Le Frisson de la Chasse
Or so the French say about romance. For them, the chase is often more exciting than the quarry. Pondering this turn of phrase, I am reminded of Gatsby, who is so obsessed with Daisy– the ethereal paramour of his mind– that he builds a monument for her. When she wanders back into his life, Gatsby seeks finally to possess her– the object of his desire– but is bitterly disappointed by her insistence that their idyllic past cannot be repeated.
Occasionally, certain celestial pieces haunt my desires. A pair of sapphire Van Cleef and Arpels seri mystérieux (mystery setting) earrings, the beau ideal of all romantic arrangements, has long captivated my attention. Perfected solely by Van Cleef and Arpels, this exquisite technique of individually placing gems on hidden gold rails requires the stonecutter and master jeweler to work side-by-side tirelessly so that, the precious metal underpinnings are completely invisible, creating the illusion that the gems are floating as if experiencing the buoyancy of young love.
Pursuing a pristine pair of the seri mystérieux earrings, I journeyed to-and-fro across continents for years before I encountered my coveted objet d’ art. The voluptuous curves of the bombé hoops and the Indian ocean blue eyes of the Ceylon Sapphires seduced me; the experience was like an intimate glance of lovers at a large party, an oeillade.
For nearly three decades these exquisite earrings eluded me…the Daisy to my Gatsby. And just like Daisy, they proved even more elusive. For, they weren’t in my life long before a customer chose them. Jewels, you see, are like beautiful ladies– they desire companions of their own choosing. And in the end, its not always about the jewels, but the pursuit of them. As the French say, “C’est le Chasse.”
I am fascinated and honored to have acquired this precious bit of history. Let me tell you its story, a story that takes place at the end of an era in the dying embers of a bygone age.
August 4, 1907. The last Kaiser of Germany, Wilhelm II, and the last Russian Tsar, Nicholas II, met in the lavish Polish harbor town of Swinemünde for what would be called “the emperors’ meeting.” Wilhelm arrived on the white imperial yacht, Hohenzollern, escorted by the German fleet, while Nicholas arrived on the black “Kronstadt,’ the Standart, circled by Russian torpedo boats.
In honor of the gathering, Tsar Nicholas had this exquisite Fabergé platinum and diamond brooch made to be presented as a gift to the Kaiser – presumably for his wife, Princess Augusta Viktoria of Schleswig-Holstein.
The two spent the day on the Hohenzollern’s decks, enjoying festivities that culminated in fireworks that lit the summer night’s sky with huge letters of fire – W for Wilhelm and N for Nicholas. There is a poignancy here, belied by the brooch’s brilliance, for in a few short years, the stars of the two emperors would go as dark as the dying of fireworks. The peace between the two countries was fleeting. The brooch is timeless.
King's Pawn to Duke's Knight One
I have a weakness for Verdura. His work piques my imagination. So, acquiring this little chessman was, if I might be so bold, a masterful move! And his story is simply fascinating.
In 1939, a woman entered Duke Fulco di Verdura’s jewelry studio hoping to sell a collection of twenty-seven painted ivory chessmen from India. Entranced, Verdura bought the lot. He would transform them into a marvelous set of figurines and brooches, bedazzled with jeweled turbans, pendant pearl earrings, medallions, precious and semi-precious cabochon buttons, and trim.
Fulco, the last to bear the Sicilian title of Duke of Verdura, found inspiration for the chess pieces in an elaborate 18th-c. work called The Birthday of the Grand Mogul Aureng-Zeb, which still resides in the Green Vaults of Dresden. This masterwork, created by Johann Dinglinger, court jeweler of the Sun King of Saxony, Augustus, features 137 enameled and jewel-encrusted figures of men and animals in a lavish gold and bejeweled setting.
All this to say, that our brave knight has found his way through inspiration from the work of a King’s jeweler, through a collection of delightfully painted chessmen, to the exquisite piece you see before you. Checkmate!
The old saying that a cat has nine lives tracks all the way back to the 16th century. This beautiful David Webb cat has had five lives that I know of… perhaps more. I first encountered this magnificent bracelet, which traces its beginning to the mid-twentieth century, in 2002 when I purchased it from a woman whose husband first purchased it in the ‘60s – quite likely from the world renowned designer David Webb. Webb was viewed as a high society figure whose clientele included Jackie O, Doris Duke, Elizabeth Taylor and more.
The panther is unusual for a David Webb piece. He rarely worked with diamonds; in fact, most of his work featured bold, audacious designs in enamel and precious colored stones, which leads me to believe it was originally designed for a particular person. I was immediately attracted to it and was proud to be giving it its second life.
I sold the bracelet in 2002, but asked the owner (its third life) to give me the privilege of acquiring it should they ever decide to sell it.
One day, I took a call from Palm Beach. The caller asked me if I remembered the piece, to which I replied, “Of course.” Upon examination, I was once again taken by how very extraordinary this cat is and re-purchased it without hesitation. The cat is back – delightful, enigmatic and quite simply stunning.
I have coveted this brooch ever since I first knew of its existence. So, when it came up for sale as part of Doris Duke’s jewels auctioned off to benefit her charitable foundation in June, 2004, I seized the opportunity.
Italian jewelry designer, Fulco di Verdura loved flea markets. One of his finds, an antique folio of lithographs of Native Americans, inspired some of his work during the ‘50s. It was during this time that he created this piece for Doris Duke, choosing, it is said, one of the three Native American chiefs who’d inspired James Earle Fraser in his design of the buffalo nickel as his model.
Owning this piece has taught me something. Inspiration is an energy we pass one to the next. Mr. Fraser was inspired by a trio of proud warrior chiefs. Verdura was inspired by a collection of beautiful prints, and by the work of Mr. Fraser.
And I find myself inspired by Verdura, a passionate designer from Palermo, Italy, who created this iconic and quintessentially American piece.
Sometimes I wonder how much I owe to serendipity. Certainly this amazing diamond found its way to me as though by fate. In Geneva while on business - the air crystalline and electric - I ran into a colleague I’d not seen in years. “It’s remarkable timing running into you.
You’ve been on my mind.” Over coffee, she explained that she had just seen a diamond and thought of me. A mutual acquaintance was handling the sale. My interest piqued, I phoned and was pleasantly surprised to set a meeting straightway in an elegant hotel alongside Lake Geneva.
At the hotel, I took the lift to the second floor and met the gentleman in the hallway, whereupon he produced an ordinary envelope from his breast pocket and removed this magnificent ring. Moving to a window to view it in the natural light glittering off of Lake Geneva, I was mesmerized by its magical character. Seven minutes later, I owned it.
I suppose nothing compares with Swiss precision: from the moment I met my friend for coffee to the purchase of this exquisite ring, but an hour had passed. When you are on the right path – one that lets your soul dance – events turn as if governed by the precise workings of a watch, a precision I sense most clearly when life happens like clockwork.
I once encountered a pair of earrings that had been worn by Marie Antoinette. They were fashioned from two pear-shaped diamonds. Acquired by Cartier in 1928, they added diamond triangular tops that let them fall lower on the neck like blazing white-hot tears, a suggestion of the rage the young queen must have felt, accused of tyranny and facing the guillotine.
When I acquired these matching sapphires from a stone cutter in Ceylon, I knew at once that they should become something truly celestial. They were midnight teardrops on a starlit evening, the long gaze of a pensive woman, a delicious poignance. In homage to the earrings of Marie Antoinette, I let them fall low, linking them to two pear-shaped diamonds with two round brilliants, and surrounding them in a constellation of smaller diamonds. The result was stunning. Profound.
A faceted gemstone communicates a mood. These are like the pining of a deep winter night, tears shed by the heavens. They are what happens when the moon cries.
Ephemeral, and illusory, the iridescent dragonfly has always been the stuff of symbol and legend. Ancient cultures viewed this mysterious creature with awe. For the Chinese, it was the harbinger of good news. To the Japanese, the dragonfly is still an emblem of light and joy. Here in the west it is thought by some that having one land on you is an omen for good luck.
This particular Marcus & Company dragonfly once lived in the jewelry box of the wife of Henry Osborne Havermeyer, a sugar baron, who sold the vast majority of the refined sugar sold in the United States right around the turn of the 19th century. Perhaps when this elegant dragonfly landed on her, it brought great fortune. One never knows. I do know this: when It flew into my life two years ago, I viewed it with awe. With wonder. And it has most certainly brought me light and joy!
Visiting my colleague Nikolai, a Faberge restoration expert in New York, is always a treat. We share a passion for the exquisite and rare, and when he showed me a Faberge brooch during a recent visit, I fell instantly in love. Though I didn't know its provenance at the time, some three months later I discovered that its story was also one of love at first sight.
In 1890 Nicholas II, heir to the Russian throne, first witnessed the ballerina Mathilde Kshesinskaya. He 21 and she 18, they met following her performance and fell instantly in love. Royalty and politics being what they are, he wed Queen Victoria's granddaughter, but the petite ballerina forever owned his heart. In 1912, 22 years after they first met, Nicholas had Karl Gustavovich Faberge fashion this brooch of rubies and diamonds for Mathilde, the brooch I now possess.
You see, love attends to different rules than those of politics and men. Unable to place a crown on his ballerina's head, Nicholas had an exquisite one made for her heart. Love rules.
I once came across a book, The Encyclopedia of Knots and Fancy Rope Work. First published in 1939, its 700-pages is an incredible work, intricately detailing the history of knots and rope work chock full of beautiful examples. How would I not become wrapped up in a book like this? After all, tying together jewels in ropes and threads of precious metal has always been the province of the jeweler.
But what truly fascinates me is the notion of knots as metaphors. A knot might suggest the interconnectedness of the universe; or it might communicate the notion of eternity. Sometimes, a knot can even channel the complexity of human emotion. I like to think, for example, that love is a knot. It is a mooring that inextricably connects us. It is our tether. Our anchor line. And that, you see, was the inspiration for this piece.
I call the Love Knot Bracelet. And it is meant to be worn by a woman loved so deeply as never to be unbound from the man who gives it to her.
A Matched Pair
I recently had the good fortune to acquire these Cartier diamond clips. Their story is as intriguing as the jewels themselves. You see, they were sold to me by none other than the granddaughter of Irving Berlin, one of America's most important songwriters. So this isn't simply a story about jewelry; it's a story about devotion.
Berlin, a Belarusian Jewish immigrant who grew up selling newspapers on the Lower East Side of New York, fell in love with and married Ellin Mackay, the Irish Catholic granddaughter of a telegraph mogul. The marriage forbidden by Ellin's father, they eloped. Though Irving had already risen to fame, an elopement between a Catholic socialite and a Bowery newsboy - no matter how famous he had become - bordered upon scandalous.
In spite of the vast differences in heritage, the pair were ferociously in love and were married until her death parted them in 1988. And, though he grew up hard and lived modestly for a man of his wealth, Irving always loved to give his wife beautiful gifts.
You see, sometimes, a perfect match is as straightforward as these exquisitely crafted Cartier clips Irving gave Ellin back in the 1930s.
And sometimes, it is quite the opposite.
About fifteen years ago, I came across my first Art Deco gem set charm, one designed with a delightful, romantic twist. I was bitten at once by the desire to collect them. Along the way since then, I have acquired some 35 charms - expressions of love, luck and whimsy - and assembled them into a bracelet for my wife, Linda. Over the years, I hope to find enough of these fanciful notions for two more bracelets to be passed down to my daughters.
There is something in a charm bracelet that draws you in, asks you to spend more time with it. Each of the charms is its own story. The outsider wonders at it - at the mystery of these stories linked together around a woman's wrist. As I reflect on this bracelet it occurs to me that a charmed life is much like a charm bracelet; we string together exquisite moments, bright storied points in time that become bejeweled memories.
And we link them together with love.