Magic Carpet Ride

Beverly Hills jeweler Martin Katz was among the first to appreciate the power of celebrity marketing. Today, he’s still reaping the rewards of that epiphany.

In the spring of 1992, jeweler Martin Katz was working at his kitchen table in the one-bedroom Beverly Hills apartment that doubled as his office when a call came in asking him to come to the set of the movie Sliver. “Sharon Stone wants to see your jewelry,” was the request.

“Okay,” Katz replied. “Who’s Sharon Stone?”

The actress was considering wearing his jewels to the premiere of Basic Instinct, the film in which her infamous reveal made her a household name. Once Katz showed the bauble-loving Stone his latest work, the next call arrived: “Sharon would like to borrow these earrings for the red carpet.”

“Borrow?!” Katz said, perplexed. “I thought she was going to buy them.” After all, Stone was a highly paid actress, and Katz would bear the burden if something were to happen to his earrings. But after a little arm-twisting by Katz’s friend and client John Goldwyn, then the president of Paramount Pictures, Katz agreed to loan Stone his pearl and diamond choker and earrings, on one condition: “I want her to wear my ­jewelry when she does any magazine shoots.”

That basic instinct of Katz’s might have been the single wisest reflex the jeweler has ever acted upon. Receiving credit in print for decorating the aptly named Stone helped build the young designer’s reputation. Over the next seven or eight years, Katz’s vintage finds and his own designs—what he calls “contemporary jewelry with an old soul”—came to dominate the necklines that trod the red carpets, from Madonna and Courtney Love to Kate Winslet and Halle Berry. And thanks to Katz’s success, the velvet rope guarding those coveted walkways—which had been the sole domain of such luxury houses as Cartier and Harry Winston—gradually lowered to welcome smaller-name artisans and antique collectors.

“I monopolized the red carpet in ’96, ’97, and ’98. I would have 25 to 30 women wearing my vintage and contemporary pieces,” recalls Katz, who dressed Stone in new items, but was the first to introduce vintage designs—on the necks of Kate Winslet and Emma Thompson—to the red carpet.

“In the next couple of years, Fred Leighton and Neil Lane jumped in, and it opened up,” says Katz, whose work graces just a handful of awards show nominees today, and who cringes when referred to by the moniker he earned in the ’90s: “Jeweler to the Stars.”

In the heyday of his Hollywood hullabaloo, Katz appeared on Oprah, Entertainment Tonight, and Extra, he was featured in the pages of Elle and People, and he became a regular in the VIP room of Elton John’s annual Oscar party. Around that time, he graduated from his one-bedroom “office” to a penthouse showroom with views of the city, where he dealt his stones from behind the bar, a setup Vogue dubbed “The ­Jewelry Bar.”

Katz’s arrangement received so much media coverage that his shtick on the topic is well-honed: “You’d open a drawer and instead of a corkscrew, you’d find a ring. Instead of cocktail napkins, you’d find a bracelet.”

The bulk of Katz’s business was referrals, and his address and phone number were unlisted. But that could last only so long. “We got so much press. They were calling the studios; they were calling Entertainment Tonight. ‘How do I get ahold of him?’” One day a client walked into Harry Winston and asked for Katz’s information. “They were nice enough to tell them,” says Katz, who broke down in 2002 and opened a proper showroom on Beverly Hills’ Burton Way. (He has since added a second store in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif., and a boutique at New York City’s Bergdorf Goodman.) The soothing, neutral-colored storefront is convenient enough to serve his clients, but tucked away enough to feel off the beaten Rodeo Drive path.

That’s where Katz gave JCK a look at his latest effort, the Divine Collection, a new line of hand-sculpted earrings, rings, and pendants anchored by large sapphires and emeralds and practically dripping with diamonds.

Katz used to be all about vintage finds, mostly Edwardian and Art Deco, but now he’s focused on creating his own work—often with unusual, boldly colored stones he finds through brokers. “I still sell a few vintage pieces, but mostly when I find something great I keep it, or I take an incredible stone and make something new out of it,” he says, showing off one uniquely large ruby. “I say to brokers, ‘Show me what’s weird, show me what you don’t like, show me what you can’t sell.’ I want unusual stuff, but very high quality.”

Katz has no formal gem training, but what he lacks in technique, he makes up for in gumption, a passion for gems, and decades of experience. While majoring in psychology and minoring in business at Indiana University, Katz picked up extra money hawking puka shells to coeds in dorms and sororities. Don’t scoff at the power of the puka shell: “It’s how I got my date with the Pi Phis!” he recalls proudly.

Katz comes from modest means—his father sold industrial equipment for Laundromats and dry cleaners—and his entrepreneurial whim helped foot his $600 tuition bill. The seed money for the puka shell operation was borrowed from his little brother. “He had earned $250 on his newspaper route,” says Katz, smiling. “I said, ‘Cough it up!’?”

That 250 bucks has yielded a veritable gold mine. It’s also opened doors that few nice Jewish boys from South Bend, Ind., get to walk through. And yet, to this day, Katz’s Midwestern values prevail. “I’ll never forget, about 10 years ago, a guy I know who was running one of the big jewelry houses said to me, ‘Who are you paying to wear your jewelry this year?’?

“Yeah, right,” Katz replied, laughing. “Like I’m going to pay people to wear my jewelry.” But his friend wasn’t joking. Katz discovered that this ­jeweler had paid Hilary Swank to wear his necklace. “I had been [lending] Hilary jewelry up to that point,” says Katz, who was taken aback.

Now, of course, the feeding frenzy over who will bedeck this year’s starlets has led many houses to pay for the privilege, and some of them make no bones about it. (According to reports, Tiffany paid Anne Hathaway $750,000 to wear its necklaces at this year’s Oscars; both the jeweler and the actress’ reps denied the reports.)

“I lost a celebrity to Cartier just this last season,” says Katz. The actress had already selected Katz’s design to wear, but he was informed the day before the ceremony that Cartier had gifted the star two watches, so she went with Cartier.

Katz has no hard feelings. He was already disenchanted by the image that comes with celebrity-bred success. “It started to bother me,” he says. “I didn’t want to be known by virtue of who I associated with. I wanted to be known for my work.” Plus, he was tiring of the increasingly impersonal business of celebrity styling. He had really enjoyed the days when stars such as Sandra Bullock and Salma Hayek would visit his showroom to pick out what to wear. “We’d laugh and play.” Now, at best, their stylists will stop by.

He recognizes that he can’t get out of the game altogether: “I have to stay relevant.” This past awards season, Katz decorated the likes of Annette Bening, Claire Danes, and Gabourey Sidibe, but since he refuses to pay, his celeb-heavy days are done. “Nobody’s beneath paying,” says Katz, who understands that paying stars can make good business sense for a larger operation like Tiffany, which can amortize the cost across its stores around the world and justify the expense as, essentially, cheap advertising. “I’d rather just walk away from the red carpet than do that.”

But he doesn’t think he’ll ever have to do that. There’s always someone who’s either not big enough to be paid, or doesn’t want to be. Last year, an actress client of Katz’s was offered $100,000 to not wear his jewelry to the Golden Globes. The woman’s stylist called to tell Katz that she loves his jewelry and had opted to forgo the check so she could wear it. “I did say, ‘That’s a lot of money. I wouldn’t blame her one bit if she did it,’?” says Katz, who’s too professional to reveal her name.

Reluctantly, he lets one detail slip: “She’s a Desperate Housewife. That should narrow it down.” Evidently, at least one red-carpet denizen isn’t so desperate after all.

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