" /> From the Big Easy to the Berkshires: 5 Reasons to Love All-American - JCK

From the Big Easy to the Berkshires: 5 Reasons to Love All-American

My friends know I’m a fiend for international travel, but the truth is that I love traveling domestically, all the more so when I get to discover picturesque parts of the country with people I care about—just like I did this past week.

Bicycles and Bourbon in New Orleans

I left Los Angeles on Friday, Sept. 5, bound for the Crescent City, where I met up with my partner in crime, Jim Sullivan; my colleagues from JCK, publisher Mark Smelzer and regional manager Randi Gewertz; and our friend Ashley Brown, executive director of marketing and public relations at Stuller, for a couple days of no-holds-barred fun.

Stuller is based in Lafayette, La., about two hours west of the Big Easy, in the heart of Cajun country, and every year our group makes a ritual of meeting in NOLA on the eve of its Bridge Conference, an educational event for retailers who are, and aspire to be, the savviest jewelers in their communities.

Before we could worry about setting the business of jewelry to rights, however, we needed a few days of down time. Jim and I strolled the streets of the French Quarter, drinking Sazeracs and daiquiris, before everyone else arrived on Saturday. That afternoon, Ashley had arranged a bicycle tour of the Bywater and Faubourg Marigny neighborhoods with Confederacy of Cruisers, whose supremely knowledgeable owner, Jeff, proceeded to school us on every aspect of New Orleans’ colorful and endearingly dysfunctional history. The evening concluded with an orgy of Creole-style seafood, cocktails, and Prohibition-era jazz.

Courtesy James S. Sullivan

Jeff, above, the owner of Confederacy of Cruisers, led us on a bicycle tour around New Orleans’ Bywater and Faubourg Marigny neighborhoods.

It was my seventh visit to the city and my fifth since Hurricane Katrina, and I reveled in every second of it. For all the emphasis on New Orleans as a place with profoundly French and Spanish roots, it’s America’s now—and we’re never giving up on it!

Bridging the Gap in Lafayette

On Sunday, we drove across the bayou to meet JCK senior editor Emili Vesilind and JCK Events industry vice president John Tierney at Stuller’s sprawling headquarters for the start of the Bridge conference. Emili said it best in her blog about the event, which ran on Thursday:

A highlight of the conference “was the extensive (two-hour) tour of the company’s 600,000-square-foot facility, which rambles over an entire city block in Lafayette,” she wrote. “To get a scope of Stuller’s output: An employee in the shipping department said that during the holidays, Stuller’s FedEx shipments often take up an entire delivery airplane—or two.”

The magnitude of the Stuller operation is mind-boggling. So, too, is the graceful way in which its hometown has evolved. Once a lackluster collection of bland chain restaurants and dilapidated buildings (at least that’s what I recall from my first visit in 2003), Lafayette has seen a retail and dining renaissance in recent years thanks to an infusion of oil and gas money that has spawned places such as Ruffino’s on the River, a down-home yet sophisticated restaurant in the snazzy new River Ranch development (home to Kiki, the retailer we put on the cover of our December 2013–January 2014 issue!).

When we had our big farewell dinner at Ruffino’s on Sept. 8, the waiters served us their signature sweet treat: hot pink cotton candy, just like the kind you get at a state fair. Does it get any more American than that?!

Stuller chief marketing officer Kevin Metz, JCK regional sales manager Randi Gewertz, and JCK Events’ John Tierney at our farewell dinner at Ruffino’s in Lafayette, La. (I wasn’t kidding about the cotton candy!)

Waltham Returns!

For the next leg of my journey, on Wednesday, Sept. 10, I found myself at Cellini Jewelers in Manhattan’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel admiring yet another slice of authentic American history.

Waltham, a watch brand founded in 1850 in Massachusetts, forged a reputation as a maker of reliable railroad watches. During the world wars of the 20th century, the company became a supplier of watches and clocks for the armed forces. But Waltham paid a heavy price for its patriotism. In the 1950s, the company, faltering in a post-war economy that favored Swiss-made timepieces, was moved to Switzerland. 

Waltham’s rebirth this past summer under the aegis of Italian-American entrepreneur Antonio DiBenedetto heralds a new chapter in its history. I chatted with Cellini owner Leon Adams about the brand (he’s its first retailer), and he told me that he was so impressed with Waltham’s history—the watch was famously worn by American pioneers such as North Pole explorer Robert Peary and aviator Charles Lindbergh—that he’s helping to spearhead its U.S. expansion. “If I’m in the business and I didn’t know about it, then there’s a great story out there,” Adams says.

The watches, which retail from about $5,000 to $9,000, evoke some aspects of Waltham’s historic models—the Vanguard XA, for example, takes some color and design cues from the XA “Spirit of St. Louis” model manufactured in 1927—but the styling is remarkably contemporary. Adams says the accessible price point combined with the brand’s true-blue heritage gives it “tremendous room to grow.”

Courtesy Waltham

The new Waltham Aeronaval CDI (Central Date Indicator) harks back to a 1940s model from the legendary American watch brand.

Ralph Lauren’s Colorful Catwalk

The following day, the somberness of Sept. 11 was offset by the pageantry of fashion week when I had the pleasure of attending Ralph Lauren’s spring 2015 runway presentation. The vibe of the collection was safari glam with an astonishing array of rainbow-hued costume jewels that were either sewn into the clothing or draped like breastplates across it. 

Studying the crowd was almost as fun as watching the catwalk. Before the parade of models began, I spied stylist Rachel Zoe, Vanity Fair editor-in-chief Graydon Carter, New York Times shutterbug Bill Cunningham, and photographer Bruce Weber, wearing his signature American flag bandanna, among the hundreds of people milling around in the bleacher-style stands.

Can you spot Bruce Weber in his signature bandanna in the minutes leading up to Ralph Lauren’s spring 2015 runway show?

If the colorful exuberance embraced by the godfather of American fashion is any indication, expect spring to be a season of kaleidoscopic palettes.

The ornate and kaleidoscopic jewels that graced models at the Ralph Lauren show bodes well for spring 2015.

The Pride of the Berkshires

On Saturday, I hopped in a rental car with my friend jewelry publicist Mark Davidovich and cruised from New York City through the Hudson River Valley to Great Barrington, Mass., in the Berkshires, to visit the new showroom-workshop of McTeigue & McClelland.

Opened two weeks ago by my friends Walter McTeigue and Tim McClelland, the incredible new space—once a 19th-century doctor’s residence, it replaces the much smaller Mc2 boutique that Walter and Tim operated on Great Barrington’s Main Street for the past decade or so—is a destination for gem lovers and in-the-know bridal customers who’ve come from as far away as Doha, Qatar, and Singapore to make their purchases.

The exquisite pieces that McTeigue & McClelland are known for feature gemstones sourced by Walter, a fourth-generation gem dealer, and designs by Tim, a talented master jeweler who trained at Boston University’s Program in Artisanry. As I ogled the cases, which included such standout treasures as a 10-ct. padparadscha sapphire (certed!) in Mc2’s signature bloomed gold setting, I came to one conclusion: Jewels by McTeigue & McClelland are tomorrow’s heirlooms. Trust me on this!

A rarer-than-rare 10-ct. padparadscha sapphire ring from McTeigue & McClelland on Tim McClelland’s finger

That evening, we were hosted at the Blantyre, a grand Gilded Age manor built by Robert Paterson in 1902 (after making his fortune in turpentine) and transformed by Jack and Jane Fitzpatrick (of Country Curtains fame) 30 years ago into a stately hotel. Ann Fitzpatrick Brown, their daughter and the current owner, regaled us with stories about her family and the region’s history over predinner cocktails with Tim, Walter, and Walter’s lovely wife, Caroline. (No surprise—Ann is a longtime fan of McTeigue & McClelland.)

Normal Rockwell, the iconic American painter, came up in conversation when Ann mentioned that she’d sat for a portrait of his when she was growing up in nearby Stockbridge, Mass., where Rockwell spent the last 25 years of his life. When it came time for Mark and me to make our way back to New York City on Sunday, we couldn’t resist paying a visit to the Norman Rockwell Museum. I would recognize his paintings anywhere, but, in truth, I didn’t think his style appealed to me. Seeing his incredibly lifelike work in person, however, changed my mind. You can feel how deeply Rockwell cared for his subjects in the loving details that grace his portraits.

One of the paintings that caught my eye at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass., was this oil on canvas he painted for a 1926 Elgin Watch advertisement. It’s called “She Said It for a Lifetime.”

Looking back over this past week, I can’t help but make the case for American exceptionalism. What other country on earth is as large as the United States and entirely navigable by boat, car, train, bus, bike, or skateboard and is home to a population affluent and adventurous enough to explore it?

Where else, for that matter, can you do what I just did, exploring the byways and bayous of the American south, attending New York Fashion Week, and cruising the country lanes of New England in a single frenzied week of all-American pride?

Exploring America is a singular experience—all the better to do it through the lens of the jewelry industry!