Fred Leighton, the Great Estate Artist



The designer’s new wholesale collection draws inspiration from the past while hinting at its future

Fred Leighton has more than just sales riding on its first-ever wholesale jewelry line slated to debut this fall. With the Fred Leighton Collection, as the division is called, the vintage and estate brand has assumed the task of selling new pieces to a select group of retailers worldwide. And for the first time, Fred Leighton Estate Jewels—the business on which the company was built—will be made available at wholesale.

“It is such a powerful and admired brand in jewelry and has been for so long,” says CEO Greg Kwiat. (In 2009, Kwiat Enterprises LLC and two other partners acquired Fred Leighton in a $25.8 million deal.) “We wanted to take the brand and sit it among the most important jewelry that’s ever been created.”

Fred Leighton Collection rock crystal pendant earrings in 18k white gold; price on request

The wholesale initiative could be one of the most fundamental changes in the brand’s history. The ­jeweler got its start as a small vintage boutique in New York City’s Greenwich Village in the 1970s, when Fred Leighton—aka Murray Mondschein—began selling accessories to clients who came to buy his distinctive Mexican wedding dresses. Since that time, the mark has become world-renowned for curating a collection of one-of-a-kind estate pieces from Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels, and Tiffany & Co., alongside lesser known but esteemed jewelers such as Suzanne Belperron, Georges Fouquet, and Rene Boivin. Ornaments from the greatest periods of design have passed through its doors—from the Victorian era through the ­Edwardian and Art Deco periods to designs of the mid-20th century—many signed by the masters of those times.

Fred Leighton Collection black jade and diamond link necklace in 18k white gold; price on request; Fred Leighton, New York City; 212-288-1872; fredleighton.com

The journeys the jewels take—their roles in people’s lives and geographic origins—have helped to form the Fred Leighton mystique. “Somebody wore this her entire life,” marveled one prospective buyer recently while examining an 18th-century piece at the Madison Avenue boutique. The jewelry that comes through the salon is frequently passed from generation to generation—often with a spectacular, and well-documented, heritage: Pieces from Elizabeth Taylor, Jackie Onassis, and Josephine Baker have been sold. A $15 million pink diamond ring and a $6 million diamond brooch worn by the wife of Napoleon III made headlines in 2008. “Other times we simply know that [the owner] adored the piece of ­jewelry and treated it well,” says Kwiat.

That kind of provenance has made the jewelry a red-carpet staple for A-list Hollywood stars. The fashion world is no less smitten: Fred Leighton has graced models in the pages of InStyle, T magazine, and Vogue as well as the world’s most prominent runways.

An 18k gold and aquamarine cuff by Rene Boivin A black enamel, turquoise, and diamond brooch by Georges Fouquet

Kwiat believes the new collection will draw on the Fred Leighton aura and make it more accessible to customers through select fine department stores and specialty stores. Currently, there are only two brand stores in the United States: Fred Leighton moved to its Madison Avenue outpost in 1984 and, by 1998, opened another door at Las Vegas’ Bellagio Hotel. By ­contrast, other well-known jewelers have much greater reach: Tiffany & Co. has 247 stores worldwide; Harry Winston operates 21 stores, four licensed salons, and 190 stores ­internationally for its timepieces. Kwiat has said Fred Leighton’s distribution will remain exclusive and limited; they expect some 10–15 initial U.S. partners. (The chief declined to name specific retailers, saying only that a number of “discussions” are in the works.) Nevertheless, one can see the brand’s potential for growth. After the initial round, Kwiat says he plans to take on additional partners and was in London recently promoting the line internationally.

Fred Leighton Collection green jadeite and diamond pendant in 18k white gold; price on request Fred Leighton Collection black jade and diamond necklace in 18k white gold; price on request

As an estate jeweler, Fred Leighton has a certain creative advantage over rivals, says Kwiat. The antique curator is uniquely positioned as a steward of jewelry-making history, a vantage point that allows the company to study, and reinterpret, iconic techniques from previous eras for the wholesale line. “We have knowledge about every piece—who made it, what period it’s from, who its owner was,” he says. “Whether it’s a combination of color, design, or technical concepts, the pieces are very inspirational—and we wanted to create beautiful pieces,” he says.

However inspired by the past, the line is not a collection of reproductions. “We wanted to say something distinctly Fred Leighton,” says Kwiat. “But they have to be wearable and fashionable for today’s woman.”

Designed by an in-house team, concepts are loosely based on designs from the Art Deco and Victorian periods of jewelry design. There is a starburst series that owes its shape to the early 19th century. There are drop oblong or diamond-shaped black jade earrings, chain necklaces, and briolette drops with lapis lazuli and pink opal. Curiously, the pieces that most closely resemble their vintage counterparts look the edgiest. Dangling spears on diamond earrings, for instance, were inspired by the Romantic period but, remarkably, fit well with today’s trendy tribal aesthetic. 

A platinum, turquoise, and diamond leaf jabot by Cartier, circa 1940

The debut collection will be made mostly in white gold and platinum, though some pieces will be in ­silver-topped yellow gold. Gemstones will include amethyst, citrine, diamonds, sapphires, rubies, jade, lapis, and moonstone. The first collection will contain about 50 SKUs ranging from $2,500 to $30,000 wholesale.

This is not the first time Fred Leighton has created new jewelry. The company has made some pieces as boutique exclusives, and there have been commissions for red-carpet one-of-a-kinds. The brand considered going beyond vintage jewelry in a more significant way in 2008 under former Merrill Lynch broker Peter Bacanovic’s reign. But it took Kwiat and its own 105-year fine jewelry background to make the wholesale line a reality. (Kwiat workshops in New York City have been actively participating in the line’s creation.)

A pair of platinum and diamond earclips by Suzanne Belperron from the 1930s A 1920s platinum, diamond, and onyx ring

That expertise combined with today’s technical advances, an eclectic array of materials, and inspiration from history’s greatest jewelry makers have all aligned to make the Fred Leighton Collection one of the most anticipated debuts in the industry. For Kwiat, the timing is auspicious. “There’s an energy in jewelry right now,” says Kwiat, a vitality the company hopes will help solidify the Fred Leighton brand’s standing among the most powerful jewelers in the world.

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