Rapaport Magazine

Iconic Jewels

Verdura’s bold gold and gemstone creations pioneered a new direction in jewelry design.

By Phyllis Schiller

Verdura gemstone, enamel and silver “Maltese Cross” cuffs, circa 1930, made for Coco Chanel.
Photo ©David Behl, courtesy Verdura.
At a time when society wore diamond and platinum jewelry, Fulco di Verdura offered colored gemstones set in gold. “Nobody was doing that then,” says Ward Landrigan, chairman and chief executive officer (CEO) of Verdura, “everything was white. But it wasn’t just about gemstones; it was about art.
It was about design.” Much of it is classical, he points out, inspired by Renaissance motifs, “but it
was bold.”
   The merger of old and new is something to which Verdura was accustomed. Although he made his way among modern society’s movers and shakers, his background was firmly anchored in old-world roots. Born Fulco Santostefano della Cerda, Duke of Verdura, in 1898, his family was Sicilian aristocracy and he grew up on an eighteenth-century estate and studied art. A friendship with Cole and Linda Porter brought him to the attention of the legendary Coco Chanel, who hired him in 1925 to work with her in Paris, originally to design textiles but ultimately to design jewelry, including reworking her personal gems.
   “In the same way Chanel made clothes easier to wear and more comfortable, Verdura did that with jewelry he designed for her and that really launched his career,” says Landrigan. “Through his association with Chanel, Verdura met Diana Vreeland. The earliest two pieces that we have a record of he made for Vreeland.” These brooches, which sold at Christie’s in October 2004 for nearly $200,000, have the Maltese Cross design Verdura used in cuffs he designed for Chanel, which became a staple of her personal wardrobe.
   In 1934, Verdura came to America, where he worked with Paul Flato in both his Hollywood and New York boutiques. In 1939, backed by Vincent Astor and Cole Porter, Verdura opened his own shop on Fifth Avenue. Trying yet another direction, Verdura collaborated with Salvador Dali on a jewelry collection in 1941. It got Verdura publicity at a time when he was growing his business. The pieces, sums up Landrigan, “were pretty out there.” In 1973, after many years of designing for the rich and famous, Verdura sold the business to his long-time associate Joseph Alfano and retired to London, where he lived until his death in 1978. In 1985, Landrigan purchased the company from Alfano.

Something Different
   Verdura made signature pieces for amazing women from society doyennes to Hollywood stars. “Garbo wore Verdura bracelets. For Marlene Dietrich, he designed the Lily bracelet, mostly gold, with little touches of diamonds, and she wore it all the time. Babe Paley wore his jewelry, as did Wallis Simpson and Mrs. Brooke Astor,” says Landrigan.
   “Verdura had an exceptional clientele of fashionable women,” agrees Benjamin Macklowe, vice president of the Macklowe Gallery in New York City. “He understood their lifestyle and what would fulfill their aesthetic and fashion requirements. And although sometimes Verdura used impressive gemstones, for the most part he created jewelry for the modern woman to wear to work, to a luncheon and then out for the evening without having to change her jewels.”
   “Not everyone understands that jewelry is part of fashion,” points out Jeff Russak, owner, Lawrence Jeffrey Estate Jewelers, Litchfield, Connecticut, “and Verdura
definitely made that connection in a time period when it wasn’t necessarily the case.
He had an unerring fashion sense. And that may have had to do with his association with Coco Chanel. He was definitely someone who loved color. Like Chanel, he understood that a look doesn’t have to do with the material but with the design. So he was not afraid to use materials that were less valuable.”

   Verdura came onto the scene at a time when there were new players creating very compelling jewelry, explains Yvonne Markowitz, the Boston Museum of Fine Art’s
Rita J. Kaplan and Susan B. Kaplan curator of jewelry. “Up to the late 1930s, jewelers looked to Paris, but by the end of the thirties, many of them, particularly Paul Flato and Verdura, were looking toward their own imagination. They weren’t making heavy, platinum and diamond conservative jewelry, they were using a lot more gold, which became as appropriate for evening wear as it was for daywear. Verdura was certainly one of the most whimsical.
He had a very creative mind.”
   The museum recently included vintage Verdura pieces in the exhibit “Jewels, Gems
and Treasures: Ancient to Modern,” as “very fine examples of American high-style
jewelry made of precious materials,” says Markowitz. On loan were Chanel’s famous Maltese Cross cuffs, a brooch of the masks of comedy and tragedy, made for playwright Clare Boothe Luce — “It has a wonderful cascade of emeralds; it’s very graphic,” says Markowitz — and the American Indian tiara worn by Betsey Whitney when she was presented at the Court of Saint James in 1956.

A Bespoke Jeweler
   Almost all the jewelry Verdura made was one of a kind, points out Landrigan. “More than 50 percent of his designs feature nature themes — undersea creatures, leaves, flowers, animals. We have over 10,000 of his drawings, actual size, with stones and colors indicated. Verdura made about half of them, about 5,000 pieces, during his career.” The company today only makes a few pieces of a design, says Landrigan, each signed in a certain way to differentiate it from pieces made in Verdura’s lifetime.
   Probably 90 percent of Verdura’s work was signed, adds Landrigan. “Almost all the pieces have scratch marks and if an old piece shows up and I can’t find the drawing, which is rare, I can usually identify it by the scratch marks.” Another hallmark of Verdura’s jewelry is the construction. “When I see any piece I’m doubtful is his, the first thing I do is flip it over because the copiers never get the back right. It’s so expensive to get the back nice and the ajouring.”
   The thing Verdura loved most was color, says Landrigan. “While he appreciated gemstones, for him, jewelry was more an object of beauty than an object of value. In the late 1930s and ’40s, when he was with Flato, Verdura did a lot with tourmaline and aquamarine. His favorite stone was pink topaz.” And his mabe pearl earrings were worn by Chanel and others, including Mrs. Astor and Katharine Graham. “You can put them on and go anywhere and look chic,” says Landrigan. And that, he believes, is one of the reasons Verdura’s jewelry has had an enduring appeal.

   While Landrigan tries to buy back vintage pieces, he says people tend to hold onto them. Some do show up at auction, but prices are high and there are collectors to compete against. “It’s almost impossible for me to purchase the older pieces now,” says Landrigan.
   Verdura changed the look of twentieth-century jewelry, sums up Landrigan. “He was a seminal force in making jewelry more wearable, introducing gold jewelry, introducing semiprecious stones. He designed beautiful jewelry for beautiful women.” 

Article from the Rapaport Magazine - December 2012. To subscribe click here.

Comment Comment Email Email Print Print Facebook Facebook Twitter Twitter Share Share