Alex Sepkus’s Belle Epoque

“Diamond beads threaded as a necklace may be the ultimate in casual chic.”

In a 1993 essay, Dodie Kazanjian, the irreverent former art and fashion critic for Vogue, described a necklace “made out of old Indian round diamonds strung on platinum wire, with nine very rare diamond briolettes hanging down from it like teardrops.”

Until recently, these faceted teardrops of carbon were used almost exclusively in one-of-a-kind pieces, for the simple reason that they weren’t readily available. Even if they were, chances are nobody would have understood their subtle appeal a decade ago. Then, big and showy was the preferred style for jewelry.

When Kazanjian wrote her diamond essay, fashion was searching for a Nineties identity. By late 1993, it was poised somewhere between ecclesiastical severity and rumpled khakis. The Casual Friday idea was gaining momentum, anything glitzy or showy was considered vulgar, and Eighties-bashing was a national pastime. Coincidentally, this was also the year Alex Sepkus was named “New Designer of the Year” at the Jewelers of America show.

Within five years, both the author and the designer had established new ground in their work. Kazanjian moved to The New Yorker and published Icons, The Absolutes of Style, a book of essays about the things in life that transcend fashion and become true style. Sepkus, meanwhile, had gained a strong following for his fluid-as-fabric gold, with minute surface details rich as ancient brocade. Last year, he gave a hint of a new direction to come, with a diamond bead necklace interspersed with carved gold barrels and cabochon ruby teardrops. It was snapped up by an eager collector almost instantly. Through the rest of 1997 and into early 1998, Sepkus turned out a few briolette pieces here and there, and his managing partner, Jeffrey Feero, took them into the marketplace to test consumer reaction. It was even better than the pair expected.

I went to see the nearly complete collection in March. In Sepkus’s New York showroom was a big, round table spread with gourmet take-out and some of the most exquisite jewelry I’d ever seen. Sepkus was sitting, Feero was pacing. Both were closely watching my response. I reached for the necklace that’s on the cover of JCK’s Luxury.

“Here, wait.” Feero fetched a mirror, a candelabra and two tapers. He snapped off the lights and put the candles in front of me. I was transfixed. (There’s a lesson here!) The woman who stared back from the mirror had skin made luminous by the necklace, and eyes that radiated the soft light caught by the dangling briolette earrings I’d also put on. Instinctively, I gathered my hair up, out of the way.

“This is definitely put-your-hair-up jewelry,” Sepkus smiled. Obviously pleased with my reaction, he didn’t mind waiting for me to stop admiring myself and get on with the interview.

The Lithuanian-born designer is dark-eyed, intellectual, intense. You can easily imagine him picking up Dostoyevski for a little light reading. Feero, who runs the business side of the company, has an equally keen intelligence, a mischievous grin and a romantic streak a mile wide. He’s also got a wicked aim with a rubber band.

So, I asked, what was the catalyst for this dramatic new launch? Is it a post-Titanic coincidence that all kinds of romantic, delicate, antiquey-looking jewels are making news? Or are jewelry and fashion designers tapping into some kind of dreamy, watercolor zeitgeist?

“In a way, yes to both,” says Feero. He grabbed a folder and pulled out a recent ad for Christie’s jewelry auctions. It shows a diamond briolette, some diamond beads and a few rose cuts. Another article, from Town & Country, shows a group of briolette-cut colored gemstones styled in dangles and rows.

Every 50 years or so, diamond briolettes turn up, he says. He then spreads out his treasured copies of old – very old – advertisements and book pages. Briolettes appear prominently in ads from the 1860s, the 1880s, again in the 1930s and even one dated as late as the 1950s.

At this point, Sepkus, who has been quietly taking in our whole conversation, speaks up.

“But this collection is modern.” He’s emphatic about this point. Most people who use briolettes, even today, are doing something retro with them, he says. Sepkus doesn’t want to reinvent jewels of the past. Instead, he’s using old (and new) stones in a thoroughly modern way. There is an antique feel inherent in the cut, but there’s nothing retro about the way Sepkus combines them with clean, pure, geometric forms.

“My jewelry isn’t like everybody else’s because I don’t have a jewelry education. I learned to blow glass. I learned interior design. I learned mechanical engineering. I learned art history, and I even had to design a cardboard box to transport young chickens.”

Jeff Feero fell in love with diamond briolettes a long time ago. At the time, he was working for the late Julius Cohen. “The second day I was there, I saw some briolettes, and I was just captivated! There’s a certain excitement about them. They just look so romantic! They were new to me, yet they felt familiar right away.” A self-confessed pack rat, Feero began amassing briolettes over the years.

“The collection was probably my idea,” says Sepkus. “Jeff bought the stones in the hopes that we would someday use them. My desk has lots of little things on it that we might someday use.”

“I baited him,” Feero grins wickedly. The first time he spread his cache before his partner, Sepkus’s reaction was one of frustrated fascination, like seeing a dangerous lover you want but can’t have.

“I said ‘take them away; don’t show these to me!’” he recalls. “I always wanted to do something with them, but I didn’t know how to work with the holes.” People were afraid to wear briolettes because they looked too fragile; he didn’t want to do anything with them until technology made it possible to produce something people wouldn’t be afraid to wear.

Lasers really have made this entire collection a reality, says Feero. “It’s all in the hole. Without a good hole at the top of the stone, you can’t connect them and you can’t use them. Lasers make beautiful, clean, smooth holes.”

In fact, he explains, the hole is one of the key ways to tell an old stone from a new one. In old briolettes, two holes were drilled by hand from the sides inward at an angle. But if they didn’t tunnel all the way through, a jeweler was forced to clamp the stone rather than thread it securely on a wire or ring. The new stones, cut in India, have holes drilled fully through. They can be strung on a wire, turned into a pendant with a simple, unobtrusive connector ring or attached securely to a decorative cap. Sepkus says, “All my work is done with a thought of how it’s going to be manufactured. My thought is to have a handmade look, but manufactured in bigger quantity.”

The critical difference from other diamond jewelry is that briolettes catch and hold light, whereas rounds scintillate it.

“It’s about character. You’re looking into them instead of all the light coming out of them,” Sepkus explains. He examines each stone under a microscope, analyzing its internal patterns, inclusions and cavities, and he chooses clean, simple forms for the mountings because the stones have so much life of their own.

He says each briolette is an individual, especially the old ones, which come in irregular shapes, varying colors and a wide range of sizes. Sepkus thinks the inconsistencies make the stones even more precious.

“If they were perfectly calibrated, I wouldn’t touch them.” Nor does he always adhere to the notion that whiter diamonds are better diamonds. Often, briolettes are cut from rough that’s too yellow for anything else.

“Some people try to disguise yellowish stones with yellow gold, but I don’t like that. I think platinum works very well with yellowish stones. That’s their natural color, and I like it.”

Not everyone is as enamored of imperfection as the artist, however. Yes, they do get calls saying “these don’t match” from people who are used to everything being perfect. The partners explain at the outset that differences are part of the charm of the collection but they’ll do their best to accommodate a request for a match. And customers who are willing to pay for perfection can have it – up to almost perfectly matched D color stones.

These old stones also have given new life to some of Sepkus’s old jewelry. One discontinued style of earrings looked completely different with the addition of a briolette drop; what had never been quite right suddenly became just right.

“I want to design the piece almost like it’s a living animal. The metal just enhances it so when you hang it on a chain, it has movement.”

Sepkus and Feero are anxious to finish analyzing the science of stone cutting and get into the romance of the collection. Feero warns me this is his favorite get-on-a-soapbox topic. His pet peeve is how little romance he sees at the sales counter. Whenever he goes on the road to do trunk shows, he tries to move consumers away from the science of gemology.

“Of course gemology is important! But you don’t see couture customers asking how many threads per inch. You may eventually get there, but you start with what a beautiful gown! But everyone starts selling diamonds with gemology, and eventually works up to what a beautiful ring! It’s like looking at a dental X-ray instead of saying ‘nice smile.’”

When he shows store owners the briolette collection, he says, “all they envision is a nightmare of explaining to the sales staff how to explain to customers.” So he decided to do a little show-and-tell, instead. By introducing the briolette pieces during in-store appearances, Feero got to see consumer reaction for himself – and prove to the jewelers how positive it was.

Like the proverbial cat with a canary, he describes the first woman who saw the dangling earrings. “She came into the store for a watch battery. She had two toddlers, and no intention of shopping. She saw these, got all sweaty and said she was coming back the next day with her husband.

“Now, she was wearing maybe a $1,500 engagement ring. Her jewelry wasn’t

expensive. But the next day, on the way to some dressy event, she came back and tried on the earrings and a drop necklace for her husband. He said, ‘This is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen,’ and bought it on the spot.” Total tally, about $15,000.

Sepkus and Feero had a vision of the type of customers who would respond to this collection, but the clientele is far more broad-based than they expected. Most are college-educated, professional women with sophisticated, not flashy, style. But while some women have a lot of jewelry already, others have very little.

“If you put all our customers together in a room,” says Feero, “they’d all like each other. They’re all intelligent. You can see it in their eyes.” And although jewelers do dread explaining what briolettes are, customers love explaining them to their friends.

Hours later, the interview is finished. The candles have been blown out, the lights are back on, and our lunch is cleared away.

I can’t resist asking Feero what other little goodies he might have stashed away, awaiting Sepkus’s future inspirations. He gives me a grin that’s one part Oracle of Delphi, one part Dennis the Menace.

“You’ll just have to wait and see.” He picks up a rubber band, and sends it flying out the window into the brilliant spring sun.

What is a Briolette?

A briolette cut, the oldest form of symmetrical diamond cutting, is a teardrop shape that’s faceted all around. In early times, diamond cutters were content just to polish off the dull coating that covered a rough natural diamond, revealing the hard bright stone within.

By the 17th century, increasing knowledge of optics led to the discovery that symmetrically placed facets would unlock the beauty inherent in diamond’s high refractive index. Subsequent knowledge has enabled cutters to bring out ever-increasing levels of brightness, but at the expense of the fascinating ability to look inside the diamond itself. Briolette cuts retain this advantage.

The shape of a briolette lends itself well to a pendant or dangle, and the cut is found in the crown jewels of many royal families, including the Austrian dynasty, the Romanovs of Russia, and both the royal and Napoleonic houses of France. A diamond briolette necklace given by Napoleon to the Empress Marie Louise is now in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

Few of the oldest briolettes still exist, because when newer cuts began to appear in the late 17th century, many people had their old stones re-cut into the newer forms. Briolettes slowly lost their popularity, but today they’re again becoming valued for their unique properties and delicate beauty.