The Great Innovators
A trio of jewelry giants successfully set themselves apart from the crowd with designs that are distinctively their own.
By Phyllis Schiller
The career of Raymond C. Yard (1885-1964) is the classic American success story. He began his journey at the age of 13, working as a door boy at the illustrious New York City–based Marcus & Company. There, he greeted the tony clientele who came to shop at the exclusive jewelry salon, many of whom would become his own customers 24 years later. Taking jewelry courses at night, Yard worked his way through the ranks at the firm, from stringing pearls in the workshop to selling the jewelry and, ultimately, becoming general manager. By the time he left to open Raymond C. Yard, Inc. on Fifth Avenue in 1922, he had developed the skills and learned the nuances of design that would allow him to create high-end jewelry. He also developed an A-list fan, John D. Rockefeller Jr., who encouraged Yard to strike out on his own. By the time Yard retired in 1958, his elite customers included many of America’s most prominent families as well as Hollywood stars such as Joan Crawford. The firm subsequently was run by one of Yard’s long-time protégés, Robert Gibson, who became sole owner in 1980. Paralleling Yard’s own youthful career curve, Gibson was just 17 years old when he crossed paths with Yard, serving as his golf caddy. The torch was passed again in 1989, when Gibson’s son, Bob, took over the company, which continues to produce jewelry under the Yard banner. During the course of Yard’s career, points out Peter Shemonsky, private jeweler and jewelry historian in San Francisco, California, he worked within each of the changing design eras, catering to a very upper-class clientele base. “The Rockefellers and all the American barons were his clients, and the work he did for them was very traditional.” Agrees Benjamin Macklowe, vice president of the Macklowe Gallery in New York City, “Yard’s patrician clientele necessitated a safer and more discreet sense of design, but he still managed to make classically beautiful jewelry with a high level of craftsmanship.” Yard towed a conservative line, but did it with flair, says Shemonsky. “Yard was a very studied, considered jeweler,” points out Simon Teakle, Simon Teakle Fine Jewelry, Greenwich, Connecticut. “He created understated diamond jewelry with incredibly fine materials and exceptional craftsmanship.” Daphne Lingon, senior vice president, jewelry department, Christie’s New York, uses words like “elegant, refined and sophisticated” to describe Yard’s jewelry aesthetics. “Yard was one of the most important American jewelers, known for exquisite stones and superior workmanship, whose jewelry has had a place in some of the most important American collections.” Putting his own spin on Art Deco jewelry in the 1930s, Yard’s signature was the use of high-quality gems, chosen to enhance the overall design rather than merely to add sparkle. High-quality gemstones, especially color gemstones, were one of his passions, in combinations of different cuts and sizes, says Shemonsky.
Innovator: Raymond Yard
“Yard also had a whimsical side,” notes Shemonsky, “that was expressed in a series of no less finely made, delightfully dapper rabbits introduced in the late-1920s, early-1930s,” dressed in a variety of guises, such as brides, fishermen, yachtsmen and more. In fact, a cocktail-serving rabbit waiter brooch debuted in early 1929, when the country was in the throes of Prohibition. These amusing animals, says Audrey Friedman, co-owner, with husband Haim Manishevitz, of Primavera Gallery, New York City, “are quite wonderful and on the rare occasions they come up for auction, they bring huge prices. Everything Yard did was superb quality and very beautiful, and a lot of it may have been custom designs for clients, but these charming, anthropomorphized animals, depicting things Yard’s clientele would appreciate — from playing golf to serving cocktails — were innovative and iconic. The elements were well crafted, and their designs, their poses show a lot of personality.” Another witty iteration was a series of miniature houses, typically done to order, which allowed Yard to cater to both his upper-crust clients and his playful side. “You had these wonderful little charms or pendants,” says Shemonsky, “encrusted with calibrated stones depicting a country getaway that became almost a badge of honor to wear, knowing that others of your set would recognize both the house and Yard’s workmanship.”
Typically, the Yard pieces that he sees, Shemonsky says, “are bracelets, earrings or necklaces from the 1920s and ’30s; his platinum work is more sought after than the gold pieces. The whimsical pieces bring an incredible amount of money.” According to Lingon, because there are so few of the original Yard pieces turning up at auction, they are highly sought after by collectors. “The iconic rabbit designs are immediately recognizable. But the firm’s excellent workmanship in general has created a strong draw for jewelry collectors and commands a premium. For instance, this past December, Christie’s sold an Art Deco Seed Pearl and Diamond Sautoir by Yard, estimated at $30,000 to 50,000, for $87,500.” Yard’s pieces tend to stay within families, sums up Shemonsky. “Because he does a very traditional look, it speaks to new generations. I think that’s why in the marketplace, people are so enamored of Yard. He was a connoisseur’s jeweler.”
Innovator: Seaman Schepps
Seaman Schepps (1881-1972), born on New York’s Lower East Side, was not a classically trained jeweler, points out Anthony Hopenhajm, current president and owner of Seaman Schepps Co. But his natural talent for recognizing and appreciating beauty in various gemstones, both precious and semiprecious, and combining them at times with somewhat unfinished materials, resulted in creations that are truly unique. “Schepps broke the mold of traditional and classic jewelry design. He stands out as a pioneer of his time.”
Schepps started his career retailing jewelry and antiques. After he traveled cross-country to California and back, he finally set up shop in 1921 on New York City’s Sixth Avenue. Just before the stock market crash, Schepps, by a simple twist of fate, fortunately sold his building on Sixth Avenue. This allowed him to open up a boutique on Madison Avenue, neighboring a fashionable hotel of the day. It was here, in this boutique, that Schepps decided to sell his own creations. “He looked at new ways of creating jewelry with a high aesthetic value and visual appeal but that didn’t have a huge intrinsic value,” says Peter Shemonsky. “That became his benchmark. And the time was right because during the 1930s and 1940s, there was rationing of precious metals and a limited amount of gemstones available. He incorporated branch coral and seashells, items that traditionally weren’t considered terribly valuable, in a way that made them fashionable and desirable.” Coming into his own as a designer right before the Second World War, points out Hopenhajm, Schepps meshed his idea of jewelry with the societal changes of the war years. Women were joining the workforce and earning their own money, which emboldened them to spend on jewelry that made them look and feel good. “He sold jewelry to this new independent woman. He appealed to the woman who wasn’t shy or demure. His designs were flattering — a soft shell on an ear is beautiful; it lights up the face — but they were also bold and colorful. He wasn’t afraid to make grand, large-scaled pieces, like a chunky link bracelet, that make a statement. And this is where he differentiated himself from other jewelers of the period.”
It was about starting with the materials, not the designs, explains Hopenhajm, which often led to intriguing pair-ups, like gold and wood link bracelets. “Now everybody does it, but then, it was a new point of view. He bought gems that others did not think to utilize — baroque pearls, nuggets of tourmalines, tumbled stones, cabochons, which were rarely used at the time — and he made them into exciting pieces like his classic Rio bracelets of the 1940s.” Other unusual materials included carved branches and leaves of coral and jade, chessmen he would pick up from his worldwide travels and other gemstone carvings, which Schepps “cut up and used as the bases of brooches,” says Hopenhajm. “One of his most famous bracelets was made from split jadeite snuff bottles.”
The necessity to keep prices down that led to choosing inexpensive, colorful and large gemstones, comments Benjamin Macklowe, fired Schepps’ imagination to create a new and distinctively American type of jewelry. “It was bold, playful and not in the least self-conscious.” Not quiet…definitely not subtle, Schepps jewelry has a dimensional quality that was enhanced by experimenting with a color palette that went beyond traditional combinations of jewels. By mixing fine gemstones with what used to be called semiprecious, notes Shemonsky, he created a “wonderful confection of gemstones.” In fact, this “pile-up” of cabochons and faceted gems created a completely new look. According to Audrey Friedman, it became known as the “cluster” style. “It was an important innovation and it’s something that’s identifiable as his.” Schepps was irreverent — he’d mix jade, rock crystal and emeralds, points out Hopenhajm. “His classic seashell earrings, for which he’s so well known, were made from shells that were then mounted in gold set with bands of ruby and diamonds. One of my favorites of his earrings has carved coral koi fish ‘swimming’ through blue enamel hoops, with the water’s bubbles and foam represented by pearls and diamonds. It’s not the most high-end pair of earrings in our collection, but to me, it represents Schepps — in its movement, unorthodox use of color, unusual mixture of materials — and a woman putting them on looks fabulous.”
“Seaman Schepps jewelry has held its value very well,” Hopenhajm says. “In recent auctions, bracelets that had originally been purchased in the boutique for $40,000 even just a few years ago are now fetching $70,000 and $80,000.” “Schepps’ daughter Patricia Schepps Vail took over the company after his death in 1972 and the pieces made under her tenure were stamped PSV. My partner Jay Bauer and I bought the company from her in 1992. We’ve changed with care some things, for instance, using 18-karat gold, not 14 karat, because that’s the current standard of fine jewelry. The classic iconic pieces we’re producing are stamped with a shell, so it’s easy to see when pieces were made.” But the design aesthetic hasn’t change, according to Hopenhajm. “I think what appeals to the jewelry connoisseur about Seaman Schepps jewelry is that it really doesn’t look dated. It was modern when it was done and still looks modern today.”
Born in Alsace, France, Jean Schlumberger (1907-1987) eschewed the banking career his family wanted him to pursue, traveling to Paris in his twenties to pursue dreams of design. There, he worked for couturier Elsa Schiaparelli, designing buttons and costume jewelry. After World War II, Schlumberger came to New York City, eventually opening a jewelry salon with longtime friend Nicolas Bongard in 1947. An invitation from Walter Hoving, then chairman of Tiffany & Co., brought the two partners to the firm in 1956 and resulted in a long-term association in which Schlumberger created some of his most iconic designs. Schlumberger returned to Paris, where he died in 1987, at the age of 80.
Innovator: Jean Schlumberger
Working with Tiffany allowed Schlumberger to see his artistic abilities translated into pieces that were made with an extremely high level of craftsmanship, observes Peter Shemonsky. “He was the first major designer who was branded by an American firm. With the resources of America’s premier jeweler behind him, he created some of the most fantastic jewelry of the late-twentieth century.” Among the legendary pieces, Audrey Friedman points out, were three different settings for the famed Tiffany diamond. In fact, in 1961, to promote the film “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” Schlumberger set the stone in his Ribbon Rosette necklace for Audrey Hepburn to wear in publicity photos. Schlumberger had many well-known admirers, including Princess Marina, the Duchess of Kent, the Duchess of Windsor, Elizabeth Taylor, Vogue editor Diana Vreeland, socialite Babe Paley, among others. Jacqueline Kennedy shared a strong connection with Schlumberger jewelry. She was given Schlumberger’s ruby and diamond Two Fruit clip by her husband John F. Kennedy, the so-called “berry brooch” now in the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum. She also owned several Schlumberger bracelets, which became so associated with her they became known as the “Jackie” bracelets, says Friedman. “Schlumberger created the iconic design using a special enamel technique called paillonné, in which a layer of foil was placed over the gold before it was enameled in bright, transparent colors — yellow, lime green, rich blue and a deep red were favorite hues — and they were ornamented with raised gold designs of lozenges, dots or cones.”
Schlumberger was one of the towering jewelry designers of the twentieth century, states Friedman. “His jewelry has a surrealistic edge because he was drawn to the strange and bizarre in nature. He had a house in Guadeloupe, where he studied plants and sea life and shells that provided so much of his inspiration.” Other sources that fired Schlumberger’s imagination included the Renaissance, the eighteenth century, illuminated manuscripts and the exoticism of the East. Elements of dreams and fantasy infused Schlumberger’s designs, allowing him to push the boundaries of what could be called jewelry. “He was unafraid of whimsy and using unconventional forms, which distinguished his work from that of any other designer,” explains Benjamin Macklowe. Although never stepping outside the borders of good taste, Schlumberger brought fantastical gemstone-laden flora and fauna to life, imbuing them with undulating tentacles, glittering branches and other alluring details that captured the imagination. Schlumberger’s work was incredibly organic, notes Simon Teakle. “His designs didn’t conform to the more traditional gem-set jewelry. He also made sculptures and objects; he was quite broad in what he created.” Offering a highly original take on design, Schlumberger brought a breath of fresh air to a war-weary world. Colorful, lush, with figurative, three-dimensional qualities and a touch of the exotic, his creations “had a profound influence on jewelry of the 1950s and beyond,” says Friedman. “Strongly colored enamels, especially in combination with the rich colors of semiprecious and precious stones, were a prime part of his design vocabulary. Yellow gold was also an important element in his jewelry.” Enhancing Schlumberger’s sense of whimsy was his broad palette of gemstones chosen because they fit the context of the design. “I think that came out of his background of starting out in costume jewelry, because there, it isn’t about the value but the visual imagery,” says Shemonsky. “That helped him develop the painterly qualities in using various combinations of gemstones. Of course, having Tiffany’s as a resource to supply the gemstones gave him access to some of the best stones.” Along with his fanciful creatures, Schlumberger is remembered for a number of iconic diamond jewelry designs including the Ivy necklace of branching leaves in pavé diamonds and gold, the feathered diamond and 18-karat gold earrings and the rings with the multiple Xs.
In terms of the estate jewelry market, sums up Teakle, the Schlumberger name “still carries a lot of weight.” But there is definitely a preference for the older jewelry. “When the earlier pieces show up, they go for a lot of money; they’re highly sought after because they are so iconic, especially those from the late-1950s, early 1960s, when Schlumberger was at his height,” concludes Shemonsky.
Article from the Rapaport Magazine - February 2014. To subscribe click here.