Anyone familiar with how the American jewelry industry works knows that the business virtually shuts down during the weeks bookending Fourth of July. Which is another way of saying this week’s blog post isn’t exactly newsworthy—more like food for thought:
I’m not a great cook. (I’m not even a so-so cook; I’m no kind of cook.) But I’m a pretty damn good hostess. And dinner parties are my forte. The secret: Inviting people who know how to tell good stories. (An abundance of alcohol is, of course, a close second.)
That’s why that old chestnut of an interview question—what five people, alive or dead, would you invite to a dinner party?—has always appealed to me. If we’re restricting things to the jewelry sphere, here are my picks:
1. Peter Carl Fabergé
Nearly 100 years after his death in Lausanne, Switzerland, the Russian maestro is still a point of reference in the luxury trade. The master jeweler of the 20th century inspired the jury at L’Exposition Universelle of 1900 in Paris to label his work “craftsmanship at the very limits of perfection.” Not to mention he’s from my hometown (St. Petersburg)! At my fictitious dinner party, I’d ply him with a little vodka, a few pickled vegetables, some pelmeni (delicious Siberian dumplings), and ask him to spill some secrets about his techniques, from his mastery of cloisonné enamel, in which enameled color zones are separated by fine inlaid wires, to his little-known but exquisite work in wood. Nazdarovya!
2. Suzanne Belperron
Before there were Fulco di Verdura, Paul Flato, and David Webb, there was Suzanne Belperron, the Parisian jeweler whose iconoclastic designs of the 1920s and ’30s redefined jewelry and continue to be admired today as the work of a genius. “Her effect was nearly that of Coco Chanel in fashion,” Cathy Horyn of the New York Times wrote in 2012. “Belperron’s sculptural shapes anticipated modern design and, like Chanel, she showed that high style could come from unfancy elements.” Although Belperron never signed her work, claiming that her style was her signature, collectors can recognize it in a second when it appears on the secondary market, and they value it accordingly. A strong woman with bold taste and an unerring sense of individuality—now that’s a dinner party guest to die for.
Photo courtesy Siegelson
A double strand of chalcedony beads set in platinum with matching cuffs, circa 1935, designed by Suzanne Belperron and once owned by the Duchess of Windsor
3. Victoire de Castellane
If there’s a contemporary jeweler who has inherited Belperron’s spirit, it’s De Castellane, the inimitable talent behind Dior’s outstanding fine jewelry collection. The forward-thinking designer recently had a showing of her independent jeweled artwork at the prestigious Gagosian Gallery. In April, I interviewed De Castellane over Skype for a feature I wrote for the New York Times on the notion of jewelry as art. As research, I spent some time admiring the pieces at Gagosian’s Manhattan gallery. De Castellane’s wicked use of lacquer, supreme selection of rare colored stones, and singular ideas about how jewelry should be displayed—on carefully crafted pedestals that suggest that jewelry and traditional pieces of fine art have more in common than many people are prepared to believe—left a deep impression on me. Plus, when we Skyped, she was warm and humble and oh so chic.
4. Jean-Baptiste Tavernier
The Marco Polo of the gem trade, Tavernier was a 17th-century gem merchant best known for discovering the 116 ct. blue diamond that would eventually be recut into the Hope. A native Frenchman, he crisscrossed India and Persia at the height of the 17th century in search of gems to bring back to the royal courts of Europe. In 1675, he published a book about his travels, Les Six Voyages de Jean-Baptiste Tavernier, that became a best seller and still serves as a reference for scholars writing about the period. At my party, I’d ask Tavernier to describe the legendary mines of Golconda, which he visited on his second journey—the same voyage brought him face-to-face with the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan (the man who commissioned the Taj Mahal). To have dinner with someone who’d traveled the gem world in its infancy would provide insights into the milieu that produced today’s most valuable and storied stones. I can’t think of a better blast from the past.
5. Theo Fennell
It must have been 2006. It was my first trip to the IJL show in London’s Earl Court, and I wanted to make the most of it, so I booked an appointment with Fennell, whose flagship location on Fulham Road, the epicenter of London’s swinging ’60s scene, housed an office space where he charmed me with his impressive mane of blond hair and British wit. A year later, I returned to London to see “Show Off!”, an exhibition of his jewelry at the Royal Academy of Arts that pretty much blew my mind. But it wasn’t the jewelry, per se, that impressed me; it was the clever and utterly original ways in which he staged the pieces. He placed a single jewel at the center of each macabre display, like the disembodied head of Marie Antoinette lying at the base of a guillotine, her ears glistening with Paraiba tourmalines. The museum-like experience made the point: Jewelry will outlast us all, so let’s give it the reverence it deserves. Amen! I’ll drink to that.