Venetian Finds: The Best Jewel, Watch, and Celeb Sightings From My Week in Venice

I’m writing this on a plane (again!), as I watch Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring, a true-life tale about a band of teenage criminals who burglarized celebrity homes in Los Angeles, with jewels being the ultimate booty. It’s a fitting cap to a week that found me in Venice, in the midst of the city’s glamorous film festival, surrounded by movie stars decked out in diamonds and designer duds.

When I was invited to Venice several months ago by the Swiss watch brand Jaeger-LeCoultre, my initial reaction was naaaah. I’d already been to the city three times, including two past trips to attend the festival—JLC has sponsored the event for nine years—and a fourth trip during prime tourist season seemed like overkill. (Crazy talk, I know!)

But then, the organizers of the VicenzaOro fair extended an invite to attend the About J show, an upscale, invitation-only jewelry buying fair that was also, coincidentally, taking place in Venice, immediately following JLC’s press event. The back-to-back timing would allow me to kill two birds with one stone, so I came to my senses and said yes.

I arrived in the City of Bridges on the Sunday of Labor Day weekend and checked in at the Bauer Hotel, a restored 18th-century palazzo perched on the Grand Canal, just a few minutes’ walk from St. Mark’s Square. My room overlooked the terrace and a side canal where gondoliers rowed boats of tourists past my balcony. The sound of water lapping, glasses clinking, and Venetians singing lulled me to sleep at night.

The view from my room at the Bauer Hotel in Venice

A reflection of St. Mark’s Square in the windows of the legendary Venetian jeweler, Nardi

The watchmaker went all out for this year’s festival because 2013 marks its 180thanniversary. Unbeknownst to the dozens of watch journalists in attendance, the brand had pulled strings to commandeer the famous La Fenice Theater for not one but two nights of grand celebrations to honor the milestone.

On the first night, we were treated to a mesmerizing rendition of Verdi’s La Traviata. Marked by traditional performances and contemporary staging (one scene showed partygoers doing lines of coke off the table), the opera was extraordinary—not least because we were watching it in the very theater where it made its debut in 1853.

Grand doesn’t begin to describe the opulent Teatro La Fenice di Venezia, where we attended a contemporary performance of La Traviata, courtesy of Jaeger-LeCoultre.

Night two found us back at the theater for the big 180th-anniversary gala. Tables had replaced the seats and the sparkling lights of the theater were outshined only by the stars in attendance. JLC’s new CEO—Rolex and Tudor veteran Daniel Riedo—played host to “friend of the brand” Diane Kruger (accompanied by her boyfriend, actor Joshua Jackson), and Carmen Chaplin, the Little Tramp’s granddaughter, among other notable attendees, such as the director Paul Schrader, not to mention retailers and clients from as far away as Peru, China, and Russia.

Jaeger-LeCoultre CEO Daniel Riedo and Diane Kruger at the watchmaker’s 180th anniversary at La Fenice Theatre in Venice. (photo by Getty Images, courtesy of Jaeger-LeCoultre)

The gala concluded with an astonishing techno-opera spectacle produced by the film soundtrack composer Eric Serra, recalling his work on The Fifth Element.

Composer Eric Serra staged a techno-opera at the end of the Jaeger-LeCoultre gala that he’d created after visiting the manufacturer’s workshop in the Vallée de Joux.

The following morning, we were shuttled across the Grand Canal to the Bauer Palladio Hotel on Giudecca Island, where a slew of brand new Jaeger-LeCoultre timepieces were being passed around on trays like tasty marzipan treats. The watches ranged from classic Reverso models with stylishly thin cases to a super-complicated round-cased Gyrotourbillon from the new Hybris Mechanica collection to a Master Grand Tourbillon whose dial depicted a scene of cranes amid green leaves rendered in the delicate technique of Grand Feu enamel.

Jaeger-LeCoultre’s Master Grand Tourbillon Enamel features a miniature painting on the sapphire glass of the watch depicting cranes, the ancient symbol of longevity.

One side of this diamond-encrusted Reverso Cordone Duetto boasts a beguiling lapis dial.

No word yet on which of the pieces were snapped up by the clients who’d been flown in for the event, but I suspect the brand sold a bundle last week. Really, is there a better way to endear yourself to customers than by feting them in the world’s most beautiful city—is there even a contest?—among the world’s most sought-after celebrities?

Diane Kruger’s lovely face and Jaeger-LeCoultre’s new ladies’ model, the Celestial, graced the colonnades of St. Mark’s Square in the thick of tourist season.

After three days with JLC, it was time to move my beast of a suitcase to the Hilton Molino Stucky, the venue for About J. A former flour mill located on Giudecca Island, a 10-minute boat ride from St. Marks Square, the hotel has a soaring brick façade topped by a pool with one of the most spectacular views I have ever seen.

Jen Cullen Williams from the Luxury Brand Group (which represents the About J show in the United States) and I were bowled over by the view atop the Hilton Molino Stucky Hotel in Venice.

It was an inspired setting for a fair that boasts just 34 handpicked exhibitors, a mix of Italian, American, and British jewelers with a shared talent for making distinctive designs—including Sutra, Roberto Coin, Utopia, Stephen Webster, and Kara Ross.

Based in Torre del Greco, Italy’s famed center of cameo- and coral-carving, Borriello 75 showed carved cameos, like these chic earrings, with a contemporary spin.

New York City–based Kara Ross brought her fine jewelry collection to About J, in a first-time bid to meet its exclusive cast of retailers, who hailed from all over the world (including a big contingent from America).

About J lasted only two days before the majority of its exhibitors and buyers carried on to the fall VicenzaOro fair in nearby Vicenza. But wow, what days they were. On our final night, a group of 20 of us—retailers, designers, publicists, and journalists—drank Bellinis and Aperol spritzes on the terrace of the famed Gritti Palace, a five-star landmark that once served as the private residence of the Doge of Venice, Andrea Gritti.

I don’t think there was a single soul present who didn’t recognize just how sublime the moment was—or how thrilled people would be to do more business here. Jen Cullen Williams summed it best with her many Instagram shots from the show: “Feel so blessed having job that takes me to places like this, w/so many amazing people” #aboutj #dontwanttogo.” Amen!