THE FIFTIES the age of affluence were the Verdura decade. Fulco's dream of establishing a Paris branch of Verdura was brought within the bounds of possibility when the French luxury tax dropped from 33 to 13 per cent. It was not just the prospect of returning to old haunts that attracted him, but the opportunity of working with skillful master craftsmen like Drouet and Verger in the world capital of haute joaillerie. In terms of quality of execution as well as cost reduction, invisible-set jewels could now be made in two stages. In Paris, the basic design could be entrusted to specialists in serti mysterious, the technique of aligning stones so as to conceal the metal mount; then jewelers in New York would add the final touches. It was Charles de Noailles who came to the rescue in 1953, offering Verdura the use of a small office suite in an inner courtyard at 9, rue Boissy d'Anglas, ideally located for the carriage trade, a few blocks from Place Vendome, between the Hotel Crillon and the American Embassy. The four rooms were handsomely furnished with wood panels from an eighteenth-century provincial apothecary, and the forest green wall-hangings that were Fulco's own decorator signature. The fact that there were no streetside vitrines was considered an advantage: Verdura's European clientele still preferred discretion to ostentatious consumption.
The new generation was epitomized by Giovanni Agnelli, the handsome, high-living heir apparent to Italy's foremost automobile firm. By virtue of his long-time friendship with Gianni's American grandmother, the formidable Princess Jane di San Faustino, Fulco had always occupied a vaguely avuncular role in the extended family circle. The ties had become closer when Gianni served as a cavalry officer under Tom Lequio during the war. Agnelli's patronage was instrumental in launching and sustaining Verdura's French operation. Able to recognize and afford excellence, he displayed in all his dealings a seductive form of elegance that bordered on nonchalance. When Fulco misplaced a rare pink diamond intended for delivery to Gianni, instead of throwing a tantrum he shrugged amiably at the mishap.
During the Fifties 'break-the-bank' presents and 'scene-stealing jewels' were no longer considered vulgar, but exuberant expressions of self-confidence and prosperity. It was the heyday of the celebrate Elsa Maxwell's combination of the words celebrity and sybarite. In her gossip columns and how-to-entertain books, Maxwell, the famous international hostess, never failed to heap fulsome praise upon Fulco, whom she selected as one of the eleven international personalities whose presence around her dinner table would guarantee the "most perfect party imaginable." The others were the Duchess of Devonshire, Maria Callas, Evangeline Bruce, Mrs. Fell, Clare Boothe Luce, Prince Ali' Khan, Somerset Maugham, Lord Astor, Noel Coward, and Cole Porter all signally endowed with at least one of the "big six in the catalogue of personal allure: beauty, glamour, intelligence, charm, wit, gaiety." She commended the Duke of Verdura in particular for his flawless manners and his erudition: "all history both of Europe and of America, all poets from Dante to Auden, is open books to him, as well as every artist from Botticelli to Picasso and Peter Arno." Fulco, however, would probably have preferred to attend Elsa's "nightmare party" that included Elvis Presley. "He looks just like a Roman emperor," he explained nonchalantly to friends startled to discover Hound Dog and Blue Suede Shoes on a shelf alongside Puccini's La Rondine in his new New-York apartment.
His sense of humor and his infectious love of laughter were remarked upon by all his acquaintances and friends. His passions were drawing, reading, and listening to music. He carried a book with him wherever he went. History was his favorite subject, in the form of memoirs, letters, and biographies. He also adored nineteenth-century novels and could have won first prize in any competition of knowledge on the works of Wilkie Collins. This reading of books in three languages was topped by regular doses of History Today and History, depending on the country he was in. It is no wonder that he amassed a fund of knowledge, and this led him to refer to himself as 'Le petit Larousse roulant.
A summons from Fulco to "come wallow in the green room" at 107 East 6oth Street was regarded more or less as an invitation to join an exclusive club. At his after-theater gatherings, fare was basic (Fulco liked to cook a large bowl of spaghetti for his friends), but the conversation sparkled, thanks to his "heart of gold and tongue of quicksilver." The expression was Cecil Beaton's, by then a close friend and frequent house guest. Purists might dismiss the eclectic clutter of Fulco's apartment as "poor man's Charlie Beistegui," but Beaton enjoyed the "avalanches of good art, books and long-playing records of the classics; a mixture of Mannerist paintings, seventeenth- and eighteenth-century engravings and sketches by Berard; nice bits of china, palm-trees and dark green walls, an effective if slightly sketchy attempt at interior decoration." London decorator Nicky Haslam still treasures one of Fulco's tips: "Always remember, chairs walk in the night," the point being that furniture should not be placed, but allowed to "migrate."
Fulco's personal and public lives meshed seamlessly, at least in the public eye. He would entertain Umberto of Savoy with the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, delighting in the inevitable diplomatic skirmishes. At one memorable soiree, to which the former "King of May" arrived almost an hour late without apologizing to the other ex-royal, the Duchess was heard to observe that "at least, my King went of his own accord, while you were kicked out." Fulco was at Tallulah Bankhead's side when she celebrated her television debut at an all-night champagne bash; pinned to her gown was his glittering lion's paw brooch from her famous 'tragedy fund' of jewels. He was not above gloating at having retained his position as jeweler 'by appointment' to Brooke Marshall even after she married Minnie Cushing's ex-husband Vincent Astor. Fulco was thrilled when Gianni Agnelli became an even more frequent buyer: he instantly guessed the lucky woman's identity when the Fiat heir insisted that the pendant earrings black and white drop pearls suspended from diamond bows had to be "lunghi, lunghi, lunghi." It could only be "European swan numero uno," as Capote referred to the long-necked Princess Marella Caracciolo di Castagneto. The half-American aristocrat had, at the age of 24, just embarked on what was to be a very short New York career as model and assistant to the photographer Erwin Blumenfeld.
Another of Fulco's young expatriate protégées was Countess Afdera Franchetti, involved in a secret liaison with Henry Fonda, whom she eventually married. Verdura miniatures were the love tokens of this tempestuous May-December romance. The actor commissioned a view of the Piazza San Marco complete with tiny pigeons for his homesick fiancée; she gave him a painting of a view of Toledo as a reminder of a happy Spanish holiday. Other gifts were less successful. One Christmas, when Fonda surprised his young bride with a Tiepolo Verdura, she instantly dissolved into floods of tears as she realized there would be no white mink coat under the tree for her. As one whose forebears had often negotiated (lire financial straits by selling off ancestral treasures, Fulco tried to cheer Afdera with the assurance that "one day, that canvas will be far more valuable to you than a fur." After Verdura's death, Afdera expressed the wish to visit the undertaker's chapel where his body was resting. She claimed that whenever she had wanted to say anything to him, he would interrupt her; now she had the opportunity to tell him all the things she had wanted him to know.
Enthusiasm for Verdura's paintings began to spread beyond his immediate coterie, and in December 1953 the Hugo Gallery on East 55th Street offered him his first exhibition. Cole Porter was quoted on the invitation, praising "these small tranquil timeless pieces of beauty... I which! Only a great jeweler's hand could have created. In fact their jewel-like size is one reason for their exquisite taste: Fulco di Verdura has used his paints in the manner that diamonds should always be worn: preciously." Admiring reviews appeared in all the major art periodicals, citing Verdura's "magic realism and...dreamlike evocation of time and space." Some motifs shells, insects, blossoms, and carved masks were borrowed from his jewelry. Other subjects, in particular the distant Italianate vistas, were unique. All were executed in the same meticulous technique: Fulco applied tempera to parchment with the aid of a powerful hand-held magnifying glass, adding a light coat of transparent nail varnish to fix and brighten the soft hues. Art Digest remarked that "choosing his elements with great care and classic disdain for the superfluous, the artist endows his landscapes with a silvery serenity and enigmatic silence that borders on surrealism." Fulco, who took to signing his letters 'Father Moses', began to make invidious comparisons with another public figure with a known penchant for art: "As a painter , Winston Churchill is much less good than I am."
A few years later, the Iolas Gallery held another show, where Verdura's capricci, Botticelli-inspired allegories and composite architectural views were compared by the painter and critic Michael Ayrton to "the miniature paintings Edwardian ladies propped up on their drawing-room tables amid the clutter of carved ivory paper knives and repousse snuff boxes, souvenirs of grand tours past." In 1956, the first European presentation of his pictures was held in Rome's Sagittarius Gallery, run by Princess Stefanella Barberini Colonna di Sciarra. The compositions had become more extravagant. Belying a serene palette, one small tondo depicted a modern disaster in the making: two locomotives steaming towards each other on the top level of a three-tiered bridge, high above a river in a verdant landscape. In his introduction to the catalogue, the distinguished journalist Luigi Barzini compared the concision of Fulco's miniatures to that of poetry.
In contrast to these meticulously composed images for public consumption, Fulco continued in private to caricature friends, clients, and the odd passerby, with pen strokes that were as sharp as his tongue. The bandeau-coiffed pianist is instantly identifiable as the patroness of the arts Marie-Lau re de Noailles. The "Eleventh Best-Dressed Woman" is an expensive, yet anonymous amalgam of big jewels, blond chignon, brown mink coat, and lapdog. The lank-haired young woman in sandals, with a portfolio tucked under her arm, can only be "Faintly Connected with the Arts." "Artistic Ecstasy" is an equally universal figure, lost in open-mouthed contemplation of some unfathomably avant-garde work.
Despite Fulco's attempts to downplay what he insisted on referring to as his 'craft (or sometimes even 'hobby'), the press recognized Verdura invenzioni as twentieth-century classics: the medals and decorations, the polished pebbles in nets, the lightning style, the use of pink gems, the romantic profusion of hearts and feathers, and especially the fantastical baroque pearl jewels. A whimsical bestiary was born of these irregular, oversize pearls: a sapphire-horned rhinoceros bearing a ruby obelisk, a camel iii circus garb resembling the beloved Moffo, a dodo brooch patterned after a famous sixteenth-century Netherlandish pendant belonging to Fulco's friend Arturo Lopez.
There were surprising Sicilian sources for several designs. The crowned eagle brooch with baroque pearl breast and outstretched wings, clutching a round pearl in each talon, is reminiscent of such imperial insignia as the Austro-Hungarian single-headed eagle. However, there are greater similarities to a popular motif in Sicilian settecento decorative art: the crowned eagle of the Senate of Palermo, with a white breastplate and a pair of roundels in its claws. Verdura's elephant brooch, with its diamond-set baroque pearl body, counts among its obvious sources the Royal Danish Order of the Elephant and the jeweled elephant at the Schatzkammer Residenz in Munich, as well as the pallid 'space elephants' that stalk Dali's later surrealist landscapes. But there were also Sicilian antecedents: Fulco had been fascinated since childhood by the elephant in the coat-of-arms of his Leofante relatives and the elephant device emblazoned on the Florios' porcelain. And the Liotru fountain in Catania, with its rough-hewn elephant centerpiece, is one of Sicily's best-loved monuments, inspired by Bernini's elephant in Piazza Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome. Verdura elephant pins and charms were collected by such taste makers as the Duchess of Windsor (who insisted upon raised trunks for good fortune) and Baba Metcalfe, the daughter of the Viceroy of India, Lord Curzon, whom her staff referred to as 'Lady Baba r'.
The blackamoor brooch, Verdura's most glamorous baroque pearl jewel, portrayed a turbaned Moorish warrior of antiquity with a pearly cuirass. Like many distinctive pieces in his repertory, the blackamoor associated Thirties-style elements with references to historical pieces. Sculpted busts worn as gems as early as the fourth century BC influenced the ebony and sardonyx statuettes crafted by European goldsmiths during the nineteenth century. Venetian camee habillee or tete de noir brooches representing Othello the Moor of Venice or Hannibal were highly prized as tourist trinkets. By 1933, this "absurd, delightful creature, whose costume is generally that of the East of Persia or Byzantium," was swarming over the most sophisticated Parisian salons from Chanel's suite at the Ritz to Misia Serfs bohemian Rive Gauche flat. Predictably Baba de Faucigny-Lucinge had been the first to flaunt a Cartier blackamoor brooch in black and cream lacquer, spurring Diana Vreeland to display he own vast collection across her chest, in "rows and rows." Verdura's most idiomatic pieces were generally also discreetly evocative of some aspect of the designer's personal experience, and the blackamoor was no exception. The exotic personage was a tribute to his handsome childhood playmate, Abu-ba-Ker. Fulco considered the double blackamoor pin William Paley bought sight unseen for his second wife, the former Barbara Cushing Mortimer, to be his supreme achievement in the genre. One day Jo Mann literally bumped into Paley on Madison Avenue, on his way to the workshop on 53rd Street. He apologized, explaining that he was rushing two exceptionally large American baroque pearls to be mounted as a single piece. Paley's inquisitive, acquisitive instincts were instantly aroused when he learned that the unprecedented design would feature two embracing figures.
"Fine, send it to me when it's finished," he said. Attired in motley costumes of ruby, emerald and canary diamonds, each bust was fitted with a sculpted onyx head adorned with a plumed gemstone headdress and a diamond parure consisting of eardrops and choker with detachable pendant.
Babe Paley elected to the Best Dressed List in 1953 and elevated to Fashion's Hall of Fame five years later, was the quintessential trophy client: not so much for the money her socially ambitious husband invested each year in her appearance, as for her exquisite taste and manner. "Aura," "beacon of perfection" and "nobility" was the words most often used to describe the impeccable impression she conveyed. In fact, as Capote put it, "Mrs. P. had only one fault, she was perfect; otherwise, she was perfect." Babe put together each one of her outfits "as if making a painting of her." She was faithful to those stylists first Mainbocher and Givenchy, later Halston and Valentino capable of enhancing her ladylike femininity. Verdura's opulent creations added a luscious note to her studied elegance: a 21.25-carat canary diamond ring with a special gold and diamond crown setting, 44.48-carat pear-shaped emerald earrings set with thirty-four round diamonds, a fabulous 700-carat emerald bead necklace, a garland-style parure of faceted pink topaz and diamonds, two multi-strand torsade bracelets with pearl and diamond clasps, one of natural black and the other of white cultured pearls. To an interviewer asking what kind of woman wore jewelry to best advantage, Fulco responded (probably thinking of Babe): "Tall and dark." And what about the others? "They do their best."
It was also an exhilarating time to be in Italy and, according to Count Rudy Crespi, "it started in those wonderful, crazy Fifties." A brilliant public relations impresario for the country's nascent fashion industry, the Brazilian-born socialite and his American wife Consuelo later to become Italian Vogue's most influential editor paradoxically embodied the best of Italian style. "Everything had gone wrong for so long. The Italians had been repressed under fascism, beaten in the war, humiliated, occupied. Then the Marshall Aid money came in and there was a lot of money. Upper class Italians were suddenly the gayest and best-dressed people in the world." The success of the 'Italian look' first featured in the March 1953 issue of American Vogue was instant and durable. The combination of opulent materials and classically proportioned cuts intended, unlike French designs, to last more than one season, was flattering to women who were not professional clothes horses.
Fashion, however, was never the main attraction for Fulco, who organized his Italian holidays around lengthy stays in Sicily, wrapped as ever in its "heavy cloud of sadness and madness." During the year, Mama's letters almost illegible documents crossed in the Victorian manner provided him with weekly reports. A friend cured of a nervous breakdown thanks to the telepathic intervention of a psychic, a wave of mysterious orchid thefts, an heirloom painting long believed to be by Lippi disappointingly re-attributed to Vivarini: bizarre phenomena put down to the scirocco, a disorientating, hot wind out of Africa, laden with red dust. Cracking her whip over "the bears" her servants Marn5 continued to read voraciously and to lead socially exclusive spiritual exercises. Although even his closest friends were not allowed inside the shabby labyrinth of Casa Verdura, Fulco happily took visitors trawling through Palermo's "weird sprawling mixture of Byzantine, Norman, Arab, Spanish baroque, Mussolini's Italy and Brooklyn's slums." There were palazzo parties, soirees on the Niarchos yacht Creole and pilgrimages to "Cerda, the cradle of a noble race." On one such reckless drive, two blown tires resulted in 14 hours on the road; Fulco survived "a terrible struggle to mend the inner tubes by the flickering light of a hurricane lantern and the exertions of a dwarf mechanic. Also the luggage rack blew away with half our luggage..." House parties at Fulco's rented cottage ill Taormina drew the likes of Beaton and Capote, Duff and Diana Cooper, the Trees, and exuberant Roosevelt offspring whose dalliances with local fishermen provoked afrisson among their elders. Judith Montagu often presided as hostess: Judy was not only a surrogate sister, but a soulmate who fueled Fulco's dangerous sense of fun, shared his love of the absurd and reciprocated his letter-writing "Sevigne moods" during the many months of the year they were apart. The tres haute et puissante Dame Judith, affectionately known as Jude or even Goose, introduced Fulco to her cousin Nancy Mitford, who embraced him instantly as a "great new friend," drawing on his store of gossip to enliven her brittle romans it clef. One such episode in The Blessing featured an Englishwoman on a guided tour through a Paris mansion, discovering in a secret boudoir none other than her roguish French husband with his teenage mistress.
By 1954, Fulco's traveling schedule had become very regular. He divided his time between New York, where he spent most of the winter and part of the summer, and Paris, where he stayed always in his own apartment in order to direct operations in his shop. His holiday periods consisted of the customary visits to Sicily, where he went two or three times a year to see his mother, arid Italy, where he would stay either with his sister in Rome or with Domitilla Herculani or friends in the country.
In the summer of 1954, he went to stay with his old friend Princess Ferdinand Liechtenstein, born 'Dumpy' Oelrichs; member of a well-known American family, she was the sister of the wife of the popular band leader Eddie Duchin. At the Villa Fioretina next door, the beautiful home of Lady Kenmare and her son Rory Cameron, there was a large party, including a tall, handsome Englishman called Tom Parr. At this time Tom was just about to open a shop in London in partnership with David Hicks, to be known as Hicks and Parr. This business was to last for six years, when Torn left to join the most highly esteemed interior decorating firm of Colefax and Fowler, where he worked and eventually became chairman until his retirement in 1995.
From the time of this meeting in the South of France, Torn and Fulco became great friends, and this friendship lasted until Fulco's death in Tom's apartment in London in 1978. As a result of their meeting, Fulco added London to his regular ports of call. He always stayed with Tom in Eaton Square, and it was there that he saw his old friends from the theater, such as Joyce Carey, Dorothy Dickson, Irene Worth, and a large group of Italians who gathered mostly in the welcoming house of Ascanio Marina Branca, and often saw Carlo the son of his old friend Olga di Robilant.
Weekends would be spent with Michael and Anne Tree at Merriworth Castle, their splendid Palladian house in Kent and with Caroline and David Somerset in the cottage where they lived in the shadow of the big house until the Duke of Beaufort died and David eventually succeeded to the Dukedom. Fulco also enjoyed visits to Lady Juliet Duff and her friend Simon Fleet at Bulbridge House in Wilton; and in London he had a bevy of friends, including Marion Sainsbury and the Glendevons, John and Liza, who was the daughter of Somerset Maugham.
Fulco was often high-spirited, boasting of "health triumphant, age regressing temper lagoon-like, charm overwhelming." But even his most successful years were veined by melancholy. "Life seems to go on in its own rickety way," he wrote to Judy. "One gets older, pretending to get wiser, realizing that one has remained the same old fool and covering up this dismal discovery with a threadbare mantle of so-called sophistication." Mama sent him prayerful missives, doubtless intended to raise his spirits. In December 1954, she wrote: "As Christmas approaches, I think of you even more intensely (if possible), especially before the Holy Child. May He heap upon you His blessings. Sursum Corda! Let us wait upon Him with trust, let us pray for Him to come to console us and reassure us and give the world peace." Sharp practical advice would follow: "I exhort you to abandon your hermit-like existence, and to accept some invitations."
Religious themes appear more frequently in Verdura's work at this time. One outstanding example is the pin featuring a crucifix with a diamond-encrusted cloth draped over the crossbar (a two-tone gold pendant version was also available). The fabric represents Veronica's Veil, believed to have been miraculously imprinted with Christ's likeness when a woman used it to wipe his brow as He passed her on the road to Calvary. Artists traditionally painted the relic unfolded, so as to display the Holy Face. Verdura transformed the symbol, assimilating it to other motifs in early Christian and medieval iconography in which the Cross is shown together with the seamless tunic or the winding sheets.
Linda Porter's death in 1954 had come as a blow to her friends, despite her protracted illness. Her last commission was a case patterned with interlocking Cs, to be presented to Cole on the gala night of Can-Can in May 1953, which her illness prevented her from attending. The twinned Cs an obvious reference to the names of the musical and its author also drew on historical precedent: aside from Chanel's famous interlocking logo, there were the jeweled emblem of Charles the Bold, the combined monogram of Catherine de' Medici and her son, the future Charles IX of France, not to mention the vast rococo repertory of double-letter motifs. At the opening night of Silk Stockings two years later, Cole's oldest friends continued Linda's tradition, presenting him with a special box. The lid was inset with a Russian gold coin framed by a sunburst; the inscription within read: In memory of Linda, followed by the signatures of . can Howard, Preston Sturges, Nicky de Gunzburg, Natalie Paley, and Fulco. In 1956, Cole ordered his celebratory box himself, for the premiere of the movie High Society. The black enamel case was scattered with a lustrous constellation of thirty-eight old mine diamonds of various sizes that came from an heirloom brooch of Linda's. She was mourned as the last of the legendary beauties to have bridged the gap between "the worlds of fashion and glitter and the pantaloon world of the theater."
Although these worlds were now spinning farther and farther apart, some stylists were energized rather than disoriented by the changed social environment. One was Chanel; after several years of taking potshots at Dior from the safety of retirement, the couturiere made a surprise comeback in February 1954. Initially dismissed by European critics as a retrospective at best irrelevant, at worst embarrassing her sporty yet elegant line caught on quickly in the United States where women were eager for high fashion that was also wearable. Within a year, sales of Chanel clothes (In both sides of the Atlantic were skyrocketing. Once again, magazine writers recommended accessorizing Chanel's outfits of "enormous casual chic" with Verdura jewels. And for those who could not afford authentic Verdura, Fulco's original semi-precious creations from the Thirties notably the Maltese Cross bracelets were put back into production in France as Chanel costume jewelry.
Another designer who came to the fore was Jean Schlumberger. Society writers magnified the rivalry between Verdura and Johnny Schlum, who had moved in the same social circles in Paris before the war. In fact, when Schlumberger first moved to New York, Fulco offered him the use of his apartment. The two master jewelers were supposedly engaged as Letitia Baldrige recalled in a "heated race to supply the biggest, most exciting brooches to the most prominent women." She enjoyed a view from the grandstand, first as Clare Luce's assistant at the American Embassy in Rome, then as Director of Public Relations for Tiffany & Co.
Although both designers shared a keen interest in floral motifs and precious objets, Schlumberger tended towards sharply defined pieces with a certain volumetric cubist flair (Fulco criticized them for being Verdura's manner reflected the softer, illusionistic qualities of baroque art. Their personal styles couldn't have been farther apart. Eight years younger than Fulco, Schlum the scion of a textile manufacturing family prominent in Alsace had a certain Protestant reserve that enabled him to interact easily with America's industrial elite. In 1956, he was recruited as Tiffany's house designer. Since his debut in couture with Lelong and Schiaparelli, Schlumberger had always been accustomed to catering to a wider clientele, while Verdura was known mainly for 'bespoke' pieces. One outstanding such creation was the massive 'commodore' brooch, made for Anne Kinsolving Brown to mark her husband's election as Commodore of the Newport Yacht Club: fo9r diamond stars nestled among sapphires encircled with thick gold twine. Verdura continued to extend the range of his rope jewels, updating ancient motifs as well as inventing contemporary models with an appealingly improvised look. The sections of a four-strand pearl choker are linked by gold Heracles knots, inspired by the reef knots that embellished Hellenistic jewelry. Diamonds drip from a macramé-style knotted gold rope bib.
"Diamond is king" was the watchword in the Fifties. In retrospect, Diana Vreeland gave a more nuanced view: "People only remember diamonds." Although much has been made of Verdura's special way with semi-precious stones, he found the challenge of diamonds irresistible. He would quash a client's unreasonable demands with a haughty "You don't take liberties with diamonds." His creations could be as naturalistic as the golden horse-chestnut brooch with a pave diamond slit inspired by Thirties bijouterie or as imposingly ancien regime as a garland-style necklace with 289 old-cut diamonds supporting a fringe of pear-shaped diamonds and three large ruby-and-diamond cluster pendants. For Washington hostess Marjorie Merriwether Post, Fulco remounted an outdated brooch as a distinctive bracelet that still exudes glamor. Thanks to her fabulous wealth, Marjorie Post had become not merely a collector, but a real connoisseur. When her father C. W. Post left her $ 1oo million, he explained that as a result she would never be able to trust anyone, but would have to rely solely on her own expertise. She therefore developed an appetite, as voracious as it was informed, for items of historical relevance that led her to amass Faberge eggs by the dozen, Habsburg regalia and the jewels of Marie Antoinette. As he sat with his discerning client, Fulco let his pencil rove across the paper until inspiration struck: interlocking gold and diamond crescents inspired by the headdress of Diane de Poitiers, as illustrated in a painting at the Louvre. The royal favorite, first of Francois I, then of his son Henri II, adopted as her own the lunar emblem of Diana, goddess of the hunt, using it profusely throughout her castle at Anet. This substantial piece was particularly pleasing to Mrs. Merriwether Post who had an aversion in jewelry to anything 'constipated', i.e. small in scale.
As early as 1953, the historian Joan Evans, who was both a connoisseur and a collector of historical gems, remarked that "it is not easy to see the future for the art of jewellery; it may even be considered that as an art it has not a future. For all the centuries of recorded time it has existed as and art in which style and fashion were set by the taste of an aristocracy." As patrons changed, and full-dress ceremonial occasions became ever scarcer, the custom of wearing certain kinds of jewels such as tiaras became less frequent. In Britain, however, tiaras actually returned to fashion after the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in t954. Verdura's sprightly American Indian Tiara was commissioned by Jock Whitney for his wife when he was appointed Ambassador to the Court of Saint James. It was not designed to compete with the diamond tiaras worn by European ladies and was meant to emphasize her American and therefore republican background. It was much admired at the 'courts' when Mrs. Whitney would introduce American debutantes and on other social occasions that merited such a headdress. It bristles with irregularly spaced feathers, curling upward and slightly forward, diamond alternating with gold. The jewel is sometimes mistakenly described as composed of laurel leaves, patterned after the laurel wreaths worn in ancient Rome as a symbol of victory and adopted during the neoclassical period as an emblem of excellence. Josephine Bonaparte wore a diadem of golden leaves set with diamond and ruby berries for her Coronation as Empress in 1804. Empress Eugenie had the motif copied by Bapst in 1855; so popular was the laurel-leaf style throughout the Second Empire that Mellerio designed a diamond version. Half a century later, the Duchess of Sutherland was portrayed by Sargent crowned with golden laurel leaves. At the request of the Duchesse de Cadaval, the former Olga di Robilant, Fulco agreed to remount the historic Cadaval tiara, made of eighteenth-century rose-cut diamonds reputed to be the first to reach Portugal from Brazil. The result was an elaborate beribboned concoction that could almost pass for an heirloom of the period or perhaps an Edwardian replica.
Certain quirky models of the recent past continued to intrigue Fulco, and his attempts to revive them had varying degrees of success. Not surprisingly, there was little enthusiasm for filigree 'fingernail rings' similar to those Etienne de Beaumont devised in 1938, inspired by the discovery of a hoard of pre-Columbian gold funeral ornaments. However, demand was strong for Verdura brooches in the form of a single ivory hand encased in a net glove, adorned with a bowknot, cuff or ring, clasping a single black pearl or ruby heart. These were throwbacks to a motif popular in both the arts and fashion of the Thirties. Schiaparelli's 1934 hand-shaped purse-clasp, Cartier's onyx and coral hand-shaped pins, Flato's Hand of God pendant and his set of twenty-four black enamel hands forming the letters of the alphabet in sign language, were contemporaneous with the tiny cast of intertwined hands shown in Man Ray's portrait of Dora Maar as well as his punning Main Ray sculpture of a milk-white hand holding a golden orb. Fulco was also familiar with earlier iconography, from the hand-shaped bronze votive relics unearthed in Gallo-Roman sanctuaries, to sixteenth-century silver hand pendants from Spain, to the suggestive coral hands that still serve as talismans against the evil eye throughout southern Italy. By the end of the nineteenth century, such amulets were highly sought after by ethnologists like Giuseppe Pitre, whose extensive collection had been displayed at the Villa Favorita from 1935 onward.
Verdura objets and accessories continued to be promoted as fashion essentials, such as a lady's cigarette-holder tipped with pink quartz to mimic a lipstick-stained filter. His compacts served as portable conversation pieces. One in the shape of a wicker basket filled with tiny tourmaline and turquoise 'eggs' resembles a child's Easter prize. A rough fossil set in the lid of an octagonal gold poudrier contrasts unexpectedly with a lustrous black pearl button. In a revival of late eighteenth-century modes, gold pillboxes 4re surmounted by delicate mosses agate 'pictures'. A spectacular tour-de-force is the oval powder case on which Verdura arranged twenty-four American Eagle gold coins with Indian chieftains' profiles on their obverse: the $I gold pieces from the base of the carefully balanced heap, which is topped by $2.50 pieces.
Harking back to the Art Nouveau femme-fleur theme, flowers were making "fashion news...on everything from grand evening dresses to raincoats," according to Vogue. Singled out for praise was Verdura's double narcissus brooch, "realer than real, with emerald stems, diamond petals, centres of canary diamonds." Thanks to an ingenious mechanism, it could be divided in two, or worn as one. For the Baroness Alain de Rothschild, Fulco remounted a necklace of rough emeralds, to create two stylized diamond-centered blossoms linked by double strands of beads.
He called them les ferrets de la Reine, after the diamond cloak clasps given by Louis XIII to Anne of Austria in Dumas's novel The Three Musketeers, Although he made lavish orchid, hibiscus, and arum lily pins, Verdura preferred using precious and semi-precious stones to reproduce single sprays and bunches of wild and garden flowers, such as the 'emerald-eyed' pansy brooch with pave amethysts and diamonds. Verdura blooms were generally life-size, one notable exception being the iris earclips he designed for Jock Whitney's sister, Mrs.
Charles Whitney Payson. In this tour-de-force, 182 sapphires of varying hue, thirty-six emeralds and twenty-eight canary diamonds were set in 18-carat gold to reproduce the blossoms in the famous Van Gogh painting that graced her family's Manhasset residence.
The brilliant palette that was already recognized as a Verdura trademark is best exemplified in the necklaces known as 'collars of color'. So extravagant were these pieces that they were often mistaken for fakes. At a New York dinner party, one of Verdura's clients wearing a diamond and star sapphire necklace and bracelet was pained to overhear another guest whisper to her partner:
"Don't you think it's perfectly awful to go out to dinner wearing plastic?" These subtly proportioned, tapered bibs seen almost to float, as stones of differing size and hue are clustered to create a shimmering, painterly effect, rather than emphasize a single gem; fresh green peridots are mixed with yellow zircons, for example, or amethysts with rubies. In the more elaborate 'ribbon necklaces', yellow diamond trim might wind through massed amethysts and emeralds; or pave diamond and calibre-cut sapphire streamers crisscross a diamond-dusted collar of cabochon sapphires ranging in color from misty gray to deepest violet. A circular-cut white and yellow 'diamond ribbon is softly looped around a graduated square-cut amethyst line neck chain from which hangs a magnificent cushion-shaped 99.88- carat Siberian amethyst pendant.
The introduction of enameling further extended Verdura's chromatic scale. While American firms tended to avoid the use of enamel in fine jewelry, Verdura yearned to restore a tradition that had become virtually extinct after the heyday of Lalique and Faberge. The loss of a technique that had once been regarded as essential worried many European jewelers. Only a few years earlier, the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths had convened at Goldsmith's Hall in London in the presence of Her Majesty Queen Mary, to debate the question of "How far the traditional craft of the enameller will be applicable to present-day conditions.
" When he was approached by Andre Chervin, Fulco welcomed the opportunity to experiment with a master craftsman. Chervil), a young French enameller, who had unsuccessfully been making the rounds of the major New York companies, was delighted at last to find a client "unafraid of doing fine jewellery in enamel and of charging high prices for it." And Verdura had finally found a skilled artisan able to interpret his painterly renderings a la francaise. Together they developed novel effects.
Red enamel could be striated to resemble invisibly set calibre-cut rubies; in floral pieces, champlevé details were inserted to suggest the spidery veining of petals. In a modified lotus necklace, the green-and-blue enamel ground enhanced the luminosity of sapphire and emerald cabochons
.Chervin was passionate about every aspect of his trade. When a long-time supplier located near Paris announced that, after several centuries in business„ the family firm was finally closing down, Chervin toured the factory, alert for bargains. Peering inside a half-open desk drawer, he noticed a mound of grayish powder.
"You won't be able to do anything with that," the proprietor said. "It's all that remains of the blue enamel that was once used for Versailles porcelain." Chervin decided nonetheless to dump a kilo of the unpromising dust into a plastic shopping bag. Upon his return to New York, he processed and purified the granules "to the point where I had tears in my eyes" eventually reducing two pounds to a mere three ounces. The result was superlative royal blue enamel that Marie Antoinette probably once loved and that Verdura used for as long as it lasted to embellish yellow gold knotted rope bracelets worn by the Duchess of Beaufort and Baroness de Rothschild. A more modest example of Verdura's enamel work found its way to Buckingham Palace.
Jock and Betsey Whitney were invited to lunch with Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip, where the conversation unpredictably turned to the lost art of enameling. To illustrate a point, the ambassador removed his enamel tie clip. So keen was the Duke of Edinburgh's enthusiasm for the piece that Whitney insisted he keep it. He was amused to receive a note from the Prince, graciously enclosing one of his own "in exchange" a safety-pin.
Another addition to Verdura's professional entourage was Lois Lee, a young Parsons School of Design graduate with a bent for fashion illustration. A filmily friend, convinced that her exquisite draughtsmanship was ideally suited to jewelry rendering, arranged for her to meet Verdura, who hired her as his assistant. Lee eventually went on to a successful career with a major American firm, and in 1976 won first prize in the De Beers design competition for a bracelet of heart-shaped links brimming with diamonds. With her fine features and trim figure, the fair-haired Lee also served as house mannequin, obligingly slipping into a black velvet dress with a boat neckline whenever clients needed to see a piece modeled. However, it was her skill as an animailer artist that had most impressed Fulco; animal charms had lost none of their popularity since Hato first launched the mode for pet portraiture in jewelry. On one of her first assignments, Lee captured the attitudes of Vincent Astor's poodle in a series of lively pencil and watercolor vignettes: lion- or lamb-cut, begging, seated, and pouncing, at play, at rest, in profile, with crimson bow, gilt coronet or emerald collar.
Verdura also begot nobler beasts. Unlike the Cartier panther glamorized by the Windsors during the Forties, Verdura's crowned leopard with jeweled collar par took less of the fauve than of the gattopardo. This heraldic creature, lifted from the Lampedusa codt of arms, appeared in Verdura's repertory as his cousin Giuseppe was finishing II Gattopardo, and as Fulco was starting to compose his own later published memoirs, unbeknownst to the many friends who were constantly urging him to record his witty Palermitan anecdotes. Letters flew back and forth across the Atlantic, as Fulco and Maria Felice reminisced over deliciously cruel childhood sport, and the genealogy of the various Angelinas at Villa Niscemi.
Writer – Thames & Hudson