Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Verdura Jewelry Introduction

A necklace of graduated aquamarines, tooling 553 carats, connected with diamond ribbons.AS THE CHAOTIC, aggressive excesses of turn of the century fashion recede into obsolescence, the serenely romantic jewelry of Fulco Santostefano Della Cerda, Duke of Verdura is once again looking very fresh and timely. Auction prices for his civilized, nature-based designs are climbing, sales at the Verdura shops in New York, Palm Beach, and London are brisk, and the Verdura name, which briefly had fallen into obscurity, is now recognized among cognoscenti as a signifier of rarefied glamor. Verdura's cosmopolitan sensibility has been absorbed by a new, ascendant generation of jewelers who readily acknowledge the refined influence of the Sicilian master. 
 
Brought up in the languid, cultivated world of the Palermo aristocracy memorialized by his cousin, novelist Prince Giuseppe di Lampedusa, in The Leopard, Fulco, from an early age, was an aesthete with a facility for drawing. Finding the inbred Palermo society 'a little narrow' (according to his friend Prince Jean-Louis de Faucigny-Lucinge) and his pockets a little empty, Fulco left his ancestral Sicilian home in the mid 19205 with vague plans of becoming a painter in Paris. For the young nobleman poverty proved to be "a heaven-sent grace," said Faucigny-Lucinge. With the help of Linda and Cole Porter (whom he had first encountered in 1919 during their honeymoon stopover in Palermo), Fulco landed a position at Chanel first as a textile designer, then as a jeweler. 

"Chanel was the most chic woman I ever met," Fulco declared, and "the first person ever to take me seriously." In collaboration with the couturiere, he developed a suavely naturalistic style of jewelry that displaced the reigning hard-edged, slick, abstract 1920s Deco taste.

Verdura Jewelry Bracelets
"Fulco came into Chanel's life at the end of her Grand Duke Dmitri period," explains veteran Harpers Bazaar and Vogue fashion editor Babs Simpson, a Verdura intimate and client. "Chanel and Fulco were responding to that Russian feeling for extravagance, of barbaric color and enormous scale, stones being thrown around like nothing. Never, never at Boivin or at Cartier, who were all about serious diamonds and platinum, would you ever have seen tourmalines next to diamonds, or settings of gold."

Verdura's organic but urbane aesthetic closely paralleled tendencies in the Parisian avant-garde of the 1930s. Disillusioned with industrialism, artists by the beginning of the decade had begun exploring the more unruly, irregular shapes of nature, particularly of the sea. Former cubist Ozenfant began painting mermaids; Man Ray photographed sea horses, while Picasso assembled beachcomber sculptures. In 1928 Fulco's friend, Count Etienne de Beaumont, hosted his eccentric Sea Ball, and around 1930 the architect and ebeniste Emilio Terry planned a house in the form of a nautilus shell. 

The surrealists Dali, Masson, and Magritte were especially attracted to aquatic motifs partly because the ocean depths served as a metaphor for the unfathomable unconscious but also because in marine fauna they found creepy-looking organisms that could playfully suggest the primordial, slimy origins of life. More preoccupied with worldly existence, the neo-Romantics Christian Berard, Eugene Berman, and Pavel Tchelichew rejected the avant-garde altogether, instituting in its place a retro vogue for lyrical symbolic figuration. "There was a kind of osmosis between Society, and artists and writers," Faucigny-Lucinge reminisced. "Those Paris years no doubt helped Fulco's development and artistic formation."

Verdura broke from this heady milieu in 1934 when he sailed for America. Not only was he fleeing Chanel whom he had begun to find a little `scary,' Simpson says he was also on a mission to distance himself from his dissolute Old World friends. Working first for the jeweler Paul Flato in Hollywood (Fulco designed Katharine Hepburn's adornments for The Philadelphia Story), he next migrated East because, he asserted, "Movie people like to wear things from New York." In 1939 he opened his Manhattan business, which he ran until he retired in 1973.

Verdura quickly discovered that his work appealed as much to Park Avenue patricians as to Hollywood royalty. "His clientele was very rich and sophisticated," Babs Simpson says. "But one didn't buy Fulco's jewelry the way you'd buy bonds, as an investment. They were less expensive and more fun than that like baubles, or toys."

Verdura Jewelry 's DogDiana Vreeland wore his dynamically bold Maltese-cross cuffs, and Averell Harriman presented his fiancée Pamela with a ring composed of an emerald insouciantly embedded in black enamel. Playwright Clare Boothe Luce in 1941 accepted from Jock Whitney a pearl-tasseled brooch depicting the doubled masks of tragedy and comedy, and Linda Porter, in a more flagrantly theatrical spirit, commissioned a cigarette case for the opening of each of her prolific husband's shows. "Every time Linda gave Fulco a free hand to do something novel and amusing," Simpson says. "His ideas were lovely, no one ever rejected them." One of his more outlandishly clever conceits was the tiara he concocted for Betsey Whitney in 1955 after her husband was appointed American ambassador to the Court of St James. Instead of the usual fussy diadem bristling with heraldic emblems, he conjured up an Indian chief's headdress, all in gold and veined with diamonds. 

"That was so typical of him," Simpson says. "He adored American Indians, and always had his book of Edward Curtis's photographs of them around." For Whitney's exquisite sister Babe Paley, Fulco made a baroque-pearl swan with black enameled legs, each encircled with a delicate diamond ankle bracelet. The Duchess of Windsor also brought her snobbish cachet to Fulco's wares; his mabe pearls latticed in gold were identification badges for both of them. And Fulco, in turn, facilitated her process of self-creation. "Verdura alone," the photographer Horst said, "knew how to make her a Duchess."

Meanwhile, inside the recherché Colony Restaurant, the uniform for the ladies who lunched was "Hattie Carnegie's suits with the little collar, brightened with a clever brooch from Fulco," Babs Simpson recalls. "A popular one was the big bunch of violets, made of cabochon amethysts and emerald leaves" a beguiling trinket originally conceived for Betsey Whitney. (Fulco even appeared in a 1944 Life magazine spread on the Colony, consorting with an array of café society notables, including Myrna Loy, Kitty Carlisle, Princess Natasha Paley, and Elsa Maxwell). And when it came time to reapply lipstick and powder one's nose, out of the crocodile handbags come his "lovely little clamshell compacts real ones picked up at the beach, rimmed in gold."
Verdura Jewelry 
A compelling reason for the sensational success of Verdura's designs was that they were ingeniously calculated to flatter the wearer. Earrings undulated to complement the convolutions of an earlobe, rings seductively followed the phalanges of a finger, and necklaces gracefully traced the anatomy of the throat. Likewise, his supple handheld objects compacts or lighters rested sensually in the palm. Understanding that the jewelry was as becoming against a backdrop of fabric as of skin, women displayed Fulco's cunning treasures in way we no longer think of: on belts, hat bands, glove cuffs, furs or, to judge from a 1940s photo of Paulette Goddard, on beach-cabana outfits.

Shells like the one with which the starlet embellished her bathing costume had for Fulco the charm of throwaway chic. Determined to downplay glitz (flashy gems were to him like wearing "checks around one's neck"), he incorporated fascinating but inexpensive found objects specimen rocks and purple scallop shells from the American Museum of Natural History, pebbles gathered during Fire Island weekends into his designs. He then transformed these mundane items by studding them with precious stones or wrapping them in gold netting. On one pin a golden escargot body slithers through a perfect, sapphire-topped snail shell. On another, meandering diamonds and emeralds mimic the effect of foamy seaweed clinging to a mollusc. 

His gold 'nautical ropes' (based on his complete knowledge of sailor’s knots) are twisted into elaborate necklaces or looped around cabochon clusters. So understated was his treatment of gems that the irregular, cascading emeralds in one necklace caught by a gold mariner's knot could easily pass for sea glass. "The important point about Fulco," Simpson says, "is that he has an aristocrat's attitude his jewelry, like him, was totally unpretentious."

If Fulco's eye was steeped in contemporary art and natural history, it was also conversant with art history. His pearl-bodied Baroque dolphins, Raphaelesque putti, diamond Hokusai waves and rococo acanthus leaves only hint at the vast range of his erudition. Among his friends (interchangeable with his clients), he was known as le petit Larousse roulant the walking dictionary. "Fulco Verdura was a man of much culture and knowledge in many directions," wrote Prince Faucigny-Lucinge, "and always made me think of Renaissance men such as Benuto Cellini or Jean de Bologna." Decorator Billy Baldwin admired Fulco's apartment as "obviously the residence of a person of great intelligence and wide interests.... Books on architecture and decoration, history, music… were the heart of the place."
A Verdura Pin

Though an expatriate who adored the fact that "there was no past for me" in America, he regularly mined the rich lode of his patrician Sicilian background, especially through his subtle references to classical mythology and the Church. In his asymmetrical diamond and gold 'Pleiades' brooches (named for Atlas's seven daughters who metamorphosed into the constellation), four stars twinkle on one shoulder and three on the other. Flaming hearts, symbols of religious fervor, appear time and again, enameled or engorged with nuggety cabochons. Fulco's hearts, however, were probably also infused with a more private, secular meaning. "Fulco was a man who had 'crushes' on people of either sex," Faucigny-Lucinge recollected, "and this rather ruled his life.

" Airborne feathery diamond wings some bearing aloft pearl drops could suggest either Icarus or the Archangel Michael, and even the signature Verdura scallop shell was an emblem worn by Christian pilgrims on route to St James's tomb in Spain. Of course the scallop shell also conjures up imagery associated with the birth of Venus, as well as, perhaps, of Fulco's own. The jeweler, it seems, entered the world at his family's Villa Niscemi in a narrow room illuminated in all four corners by plaster seashell sconces. Less personal and perhaps more typical of the period are Verdura's nostalgic references to colonial exoticism, at a time when the British and French Empires were rapidly shrinking. (Another of Etienne de Beaumont's fancy-dress parties was his 1930 Colonial Ball.) Blackamoors dangle from bow eardrops, a rhinoceros lumbers beneath a ruby obelisk and 18th - century Moghul ivory chess figurines are converted into bejeweled brooches.

Verdura leaf style Brooch
Like no one else's objects, Fulco's seem to possess an élan vital. They swell with life, sometimes to the point of bursting. A peridot pomegranate (ancient symbol of the Passion) explodes, exposing ruby seeds within. Blackamoors embrace, ecclesiastical tassels swing, cornucopias spew their contents, and Jovian lightning bolts crackle. By contrast, other designers' work looks flat, inert.

 Verdura's thousands of miniature tempera-on-vellum sketches reveal that these astonishingly animate effects were meticulously planned right from the start. Ward Landrigan, the former Sotheby's jewelry head who took over the Verdura firm in 1985, has now painstakingly restored the company's design albums. At the New York Verdura showroom customers can view not only these diminutive archival masterpieces, but also Fulco's equally accomplished landscapes, figure studies, and still life’s, which are on display among the jewelry vitrines.

While the old guard remains faithful to Verdura, a new, well-informed, and stylish clientele attracted by serendipitous, one of a kind vintage estate pieces as well as by the changing inventory of new objects has now found its way to the 12th floor door at 745 Fifth Avenue. The appeal of Verdura to the younger customers, some of them children and grandchildren of Fulco's original patrons, is the jewelry's ideal balance between restraint and flamboyance, sophistication and accessibility. Says Babs Simpson, "Fulco's references to nature, culture, and religion keep his work classic. But without question he was a revolutionary, the one who changed everything. Fulco made it all modern."

Writer – Thames & Hudson
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