BY THE END OF 1944, jewelry had "entered on a new phase calling for a standard of artistry, workmanship and creative invention comparable to that which distinguished the great designer craftsmen of the past," according to the Art News Annual. Verdura was singled out as "the Most truly creative of modern designers and the one most closely related to the Renaissance." The Verdura style appealed to cultivated patrons with the knowledge to appreciate his sly historical references, and the self-assurance to enjoy his lack of pomposity. One of these was John Nicholas Brown, scion of the wealthy Rhode Island dynasty that founded the University of that Name in Providence. A connoisseur of Italian Old Master drawings, Brown also championed modernism in the arts: he was, for instance, one of the first American clients of Viennese-born architect Richard Neutra. Brown recognized in Verdura not only an inheritor of the Renaissance tradition of sculptural jewelry, but a significant contemporary stylist. Verdura approved of Brown's refusal to treat jewelry as a financial investment; he would often opt for semiprecious stones enabling him to stretch his dollars in the design department. Brown was a great favorite with the Verdura staff: "the richest baby in the world," as Alfano called him, quoting newspaper headlines on the day he was born.
Since it was Brown's custom to celebrate Christmases and anniversaries with gifts of jewelry, over the years his entire family acquired a highly representative collection of Verdura gems. The birthdays of his wife Anne Kinsolving were often marked with heart-shaped jewels, of which the most romantic was a brooch featuring a beautifully proportioned 142-ea rat deep pink tourmaline of rare clarity, bound with a double string of diamond-set gold stars. Pink stones had never been popular in haute joaillerie, but Fulco loved the sweet nuances of rosy kunzite, sapphires, rubies, and tourmalines. When it was rumored that the world's largest hoard of precious pink topaz had come onto the London market, Fulco lost no time in despatching Joe Mann to locate and acquire the entire lot of forty gems.
Another important client was Mrs. Albert Lasker, the philanthropist whose well-publicized love of beauty took many forms from a superb collection of canvases by Picasso, Van Gogh, Monet, and Renoir, to a donation of 150,000 tulips to be planted along Park Avenue so the city wouldn't look like "a woman without lipstick." Between July and November 1945 alone, she made six major purchases of the morganite and tourmaline jewels for which Verdura was becoming famous. The actress Ruth Gordon was also a fan of his "beautiful, original, wildly expensive jewelry." In her autobiography, she outlines an imaginary comedy entitled 23 Beekman Place, to star Katharine Cornell and Clifton Webb, with costumes by Mainbocher and jewels by Verdura. She supposed that the show could not fail to be "the chicest thing in town, everyone would come to see it, they'd have to, it would be a must."
When Gordon's husband, Garson Kanin, gave her a 75-carat emerald cabochon, she insisted on having it mounted by Verdura. By chance, she found herself in the elevator at 712 Fifth Avenue with Marie Harriman, who was bringing in a pink diamond, a present from her husband Averell, then Roosevelt's envoy to the Soviet Union. When Gordon went in to pick up her ring some weeks later, she was thrilled with the gold rope setting that was so unmistakably Verdura. And what had Fulco done, she enquired, with the Harriman stone? "I didn't," he replied significantly. Gordon gloated: "How about the Kanins get emeralds and the Harrimans get pink glass for their money?"
Fulco was his own worst salesman, disconcertingly honest when not feigning indifference to hide his discomfort at selling. He implemented a liberal policy regarding exchanges and upgrades, obliging even when one young magazine editor asked him to take back a bracelet so she could afford a Louise Nevelson sculpture, of which he heartily disapproved. When an important customer entered the shop, Alfano would tap softly at Fulco's door: "Mrs. So-and-So's here, do you want to see her?" The lapidary response never varied: "Tell her I died." He subscribed to Chanel's perversely effective sales philosophy, according to which "every client met is a client lost."
American women of style and personality made up the majority of Verdura's clientele; it included women such as Anita Loos, Diana Vreeland, and Mrs. Paul Mellon. In one of his first post-war catalogues, he wrote: "We are endeavoring to offer jewels that are truly artistic and unusual jewels with an old-world touch yet with a smart distinction that makes them right for the modern woman." Not a new, but a rare breed, these tastemakers displayed an "inordinate aesthetic sensitivity," and were often inspired to reach "beyond the fashions of their times, as well as into other periods and places, to develop a style that is essentially American in spirit and completely a projection of themselves." Truman Capote compared these beauties to carefully wrought icons: their appearance was the result of an "adherence to some aesthetic system of thought, a code transposed into a self-portrait; what we see is the imaginary portrait precisely projected." The most exquisite of these creatures he called "swans," and indeed many of them the three Cushing sisters, for example wore Verdura swan brooches like the badge of an exclusive sorority. It was an appropriate emblem, associated in antiquity with the goddess of love Aphrodite and Artemis the virgin huntress. Later, immaculate swan maidens and the Swan Knight, Loherigrin, appeared in Northern mythology. According to one seventeenth-century treatise, the swan embodied "the whiteness of peace." Like the Tudor jeweled swan pendants that inspired Faberge at the turn of the century, Verdun' brooches feature huge baroque pearls for the body; the head and wings are of chased gold, highlighted with diamonds; sharp accents are provided by ruby eyes and black enamel webbed feet. Some swans bear pear-shaped diamonds in their beaks, or clutch old-fashioned briolettes. Others preen, glide or soar in flight.
Baroque pearls, with their unique imperfections, sparked Verdura's imagination in a way no flawless gemstone ever could. The result was reminiscent of Renaissance grotteschi, hybrid creatures first inspired by the decor of Nero's Golden House. Michelangelo defended these protean inventions, maintaining that an artist was justified in "changing some limb or part if, in starting with a griffin or a stag, he modifies its posterior to that of a dolphin, or if he puts wings in the place of legs, if wings go better, whether it be a lion, a horse or a bird." The most outrageous juxtapositions were admissible, in the interest of "better decoration," or just "for the pleasure of mortal eyes, which often desire to see that which they have never seen." The fashion spread quickly: soon Netherlandish jewelers were universally recognized as specialists in baroque pearl gems, supplying the courts of Europe with pendants in the form of whimsical sea-sprites and mythological beasts. There were also other less remote origins. Dali had introduced Fulco to the Surrealist cadavers exquis, combining outlandish fragmentary figures sketched by different hands. The sculptures at Villa Palagonia were another source: Fulco had always been entranced by the freakish array of "bodies of winged women with elephant's feet and hog's heads, camels that end in eagles, Chinamen that begin as fish..."
Nin Ryan's daughter Ginn, who had special permission to visit Fulco on her way home after school, was one of the few people allowed to watch him at work. "He'd put a baroque pearl onto a sheet of heavy tracing paper, and draw around it very quickly a head, then a tail. It would become a camel, then he'd move the pearl and do a triton, followed by a swan and finally, something completely different, like a mermaid. Then he'd set little stones all around." Fulco designed turbaned Arab warriors, winged dragons, and a tricky porcupine whose gold quills had to be affixed in dentist's cement. He enjoyed reinventing designs from the past. His Chinese junks are an exotic variant of boat-shaped nef pendants produced in Genoa, Venice, Sicily, and Spain as seafarers' ex-votos. His unicorns only faintly resemble the beasts of medieval heraldry or the Dame a Ia Licorne tapestries; in fact, they are patterned after the robust folk carvings on early American carousels. He gave the most extravagantly Old-World creations a topical twist, like the merman bearing two conical sapphire torches pictured in a Pearl Harbor Day ad with the patriotic caption: "Light the Path to Freedom."
Fulco participated in the full spectrum of New York social life, from charity benefits for Sister Kenny, the Australian nurse who advocated physical therapy against polio paralysis, to coming-out parties in honor of Christine Jorgensen, the first known transsexual. The American fashion world was in a state of effervescence: a major revolution was in progress, launched in Paris on 12 February 1947 by Christian Dior. From the sidelines, Chanel poured scorn upon his New Look, dismissing the narrow-waisted, wide-skirted silhouette as mere "upholstery." But the very createurs who had rallied around her in her heyday Berard, Cocteau, Poulenc, the de Noailles realized that Dior had revitalized the true spirit of French couture, which somehow contrived to be both frivolous and rigorous. Even Etienne de Beaumont allowed himself to be coaxed out of retirement to craft jewelry for the new maison. And when Dior established headquarters in Manhattan the following year, Nicky de Gunzburg was recruited to give the Fifth Avenue premises a Gallic gloss: the result was a sprightly mélange of Provencal, Louis XVI and 1910 styles.
Fulco's glamorous designs perfectly accented the New Look. Vogue recommended "one bold jewel" by Verdura, "a great deep blue Ceylon sapphire wreathed in diamonds...as a favour for your suit." As if the end of the war had released new energy, his creations become more vibrant, more flexible `crushable' in the language of fashion than ever before. Bracelets and necklaces seem to bounce wit It life, embellished with golden tassels and 'cages' in which captive pearls dance. One extravagant brooch features a golden Naiad clasping billows of loosely strung fancy colored pearls to its lustrous opal bosom. A gold shell brooch overflowing with pearls of all sizes and colors combines rocaille elegance with belle epolitic opulence. Gold wheat stalks bend under the weight of marquis diamond grains. In a palm-sized lilac brooch, a mass of heart-shaped amethyst florets glistening with diamonds lies across a leaf in pave emeralds and peridots; each heart-shaped blossom is articulated such that the cluster bends as naturally as fresh lilac. The lilac, symbolizing young love, was associated in the second half of the nineteenth century with Empress Eugenie: in Winterhalter's portrait of her among the ladies of the court, her dusky beauty requires no other ornament than the blossoms in her hair. During the Second Empire, lilac jewels were composed by all the major Parisian joailliers; Verdura's piece is closest to the stylized diamond spray Rouvenat made as an Imperial commission in 1867.
The return to prosperity sparked Verdura's interest in the delicate garland style which had been popular for court jewelry tiaras, bowknot brooches, entire parures from the eighteenth century through the Edwardian era. However, he was also responsible for reviving a variety of less formal historical modes. Pins decorated with rows of sapphire bluebirds on golden boughs exude Victorian sentimentality. Of Verdura's many floral brooches, the most coveted remained the violet posy. When the heiress Brenda Frazier was forced to return some $3oo, 000 worth of jewelry to a delinquent suitor, the only item she genuinely regretted losing was the bouquet. Unaware that the original brooch came from Verdura (costing $4,5oo in 1948), she ordered a similar one from Harry Winston.
The indispensable accessory of the man-about-town was still the gold cigarette case. There was no better endorsement than the 1946 film Night and Day, in which a sequence showed Cole Porter (portrayed by Cary Grant) receiving Linda's traditional first-night gift, those unmatching spherical cufflinks mentioned earlier. That year Verdura designed a three-colored gold box to celebrate the premiere of the Orson Welles version of Around the World in 8o Days, for which Porter provided the songs; its engraved lid reproduces the frontispiece of the first edition of Jules Verne's book. In 1948, two more cases marked the opening nights of the movie The Pirate, starring Judy Garland and Gene Kelly, and of Porter's greatest hit, Kiss Me Kate. Two years later, a basket-weave case lined in black Morocco leather was produced to commemorate the far less successful Out of This World.
Cole's only rival in such matters of taste was the Duke of Windsor, whose approach was mercifully straightforward. The scenario never varied: the Duke would ask Fulco to show him all his sketches, and bring out all the stock, which generally consisted of several trays of brooches, a dozen substantial rings, seven to ten gold, diamond, and gemstone parures, an assortment of bracelets and earrings. After a brief pause, he would point with one finger, and utter the magic words: "That one." Two days later, the check would be delivered. The Duchess was another matter entirely. Although her exacting manner and penchant for wisecracks barred her from unconditional swan status, she was indisputably a woman "whose sole creation was her perishable self," as Capote put it. Fulco did not find dealing with the Duchess easy, and not just because, as a monarchist, he could not but secretly resent her role in the abdication. Her perfectionism, verging on indecisiveness, drove him to exasperation: she would happily spend two or three hours deliberating on a single choice, fondling the jewels like a child at play. But the Duchess shared Fulco's pleasure in unusual color combinations, such as the rich mix of amethysts and rubies used in the first piece the Windsors commissioned a heart brooch. The Duchess collected hearts as souvenirs of joyous events, just as she did crosses to symbolize the troubles that beset her.
Horst, who photographed the Duchess on countless occasions, noted that although she bought from several jewelers, it was Verdura who succeeded in transforming her: "he alone understood how to make her a duchess." Not long after the Duchess topped the Best Dressed List, a number of her jewels disappeared in a mysterious heist; it was not surprising that she turned to Verdura for suitable replacements. As a substitute for an aquamarine and diamond brooch, he suggested a spectacular platinum clip with one large aquamarine ringed by sapphire cabochons and diamonds. She also selected two pairs of mabe pearl earclips, one with a diamond-set wire border, the others crisscrossed with four strands of gold rope elegant jewels appropriate for all occasions, whether formal or informal. Verdura earrings were prized for what he called their "facelift effect": even button and pendant earclips were designed to cling to the lobe with a flattering, upward slant. To celebrate the publication of Ins autobiography A King's Story in March 1951, the Duke gave Wallis several pairs of earclips in styles synonymous with Verdura snail shells set with turquoise cabochons, mabe pearls with woven style mounts, plus a heart-shaped gold vanity topped with an aquamarine cabochon. At Sotheby's 1987 auction of the Windsor "love tokens," the case fetched the equivalent of $ 146,667 over 56 times its estimate and almost a hundredfold its original price.
Relations between Fulco and the Windsors, whom he referred to in private as the "Two Old Boobs," became slightly strained once he learned that the Duchess was passing off his pieces as her own inventions. She had no reason to expect a refusal when she came into the shop to exchange a diamond brooch in the form of a thistle which the Duke had given her several years before. A fashionable motif in jewelry well before the turn of the century, the thistle was also one of the historic emblems of British royalty. She wanted to trade it in for a delectable rosebud pin in pink topaz, emeralds, and diamonds, with gold-fringed emerald leaves, which Richard Avedon had just photographed for Harper's Bazaar. Fulco looked embarrassed. "I'd love to exchange it for you, but, alas, I cannot," he explained apologetically. "You see, everything here is designed by me, and I understand that this thistle is your design."
After the war, word of Verdura's success reached Europe before he did. Lady Abdy glided into Gabriella di Robilant's high fashion atelier in Rome, soon after the Liberation of Italy in 1945. As she tried one gown after another, she brought her old friend up to date, informing her that she had finally decided to embrace Communism. "So what about this?" Gabriella asked indignantly, gesturing towards a lavish cigarette case topped with a pink tourmaline wrapped in gold net that had slipped from her open handbag. It turned out to be a creation of Verdura's.
Fulco's long-awaited return to Italy the following year was heart-breaking. He disembarked as the country was preparing to vote in the referendum that was to abolish the monarchy. A group of Sicilian diehard royalists had hoped to interest the House of Savoy in founding an independent Kingdom of Sicily; predictably, their efforts failed. Fulco sat up with his old friend Umberto, who had become King after his father's abdication, on his last night on Italian soil. After 13 June 1946, the day Umberto II went into exile, Fulco never wore any tie but a black one in mourning for the monarchy.
Upon his arrival in Palermo, he discovered that Palazzo Verdura had taken two severe hits when 400 US flying fortresses bombarded the city in May 1943. Lampedusa's home had also been devastated, and he
would mourn the extent and irreversibility of the losses in The Leopard: "From the ceiling of the ballroom the Gods, reclining on gilded couches, gazed down smiling and inexorable as a summer sky. They thought themselves eternal; but a bomb manufactured in Pittsburgh, Penn., was to prove the contrary." As no money was available to restore Casa Verdura to anything approaching its original splendor, Mama`s existence continued as usual in the wings that remained intact. Even the magnificent Florios had lost all their wealth, except for the handful of jewels Donna Franca had succeeded in hiding from the Nazis and for which Fulco helped her find a rich American buyer. There was an oppressive sense that nothing would ever be the same again. Adapting Talleyrand's nostalgic quote about la douceur de la vie in pre-Revolutionary France, Fulco insisted that only those who had known pre-war Sicily had truly experienced the pleasure of life. Still delighted in introducing foreigners as well as mainland Italians to the island. His standard airport greeting was: "I want your first impact with Sicily to be a shock."
The jewels of this period reflect Verdura's renewed fascination with his heritage. For a few close friends, including Cecile de Rothschild, he devised pupo brooches, inspired by the traditional wooden marionettes that still today enact the adventures of the Crusaders on Palermo's street corners. Pupi were popular children's gifts on the Feast of All Souls, when an annual outdoor toy fair was held. Fulco remembered the air filled with vendors' cries. "Did the dead bring you any gifts?" would elicit the stock response: " A pupo with twisted hips!" Verdura's figures reproduce every last structural detail of the puppets: jointed limbs, retractable visors, and swords that can be drawn from their sheaths. Emerald plumes bob above pink tourmaline faces, nacre breastplates bear coats-of-arms picked out in olivine and gold. Gradasso, the "bravest of the Pagan knights" to challenge Charlemagne, wears armor encrusted with rubies, sapphires, diamonds and pearls; billowy pantaloons cut from paper-fine green silk add a distinctive dressmaker touch.
The mood in Paris soared before long to pre-war levels of gaiety. Baba and Jean-Louis de Faucigny-Lucinge held open house every evening, an informal gathering of friends that was part cocktail, part salon. Duff Cooper had been appointed British Ambassador, and Diana's petite bande congregated at their Faubourg St Honore residence. When Fulco was not staying with the Noailles, he could be found at the Hotel Lotti on the Rue de Castiglione, where his favorite room was hung with Italianate crimson damask. Eventually he found a fiat of his own near St-Germain des Pres at 5; rue Casimir Perier overlooking a small leafy square. He took his meals at fashionable Left Bank restaurants, such as the Mont Blanc in rue Las Cases and the Mediterranee opposite the Odeon. Normality was deemed to have returned definitively when Bricktop's nightclub reopened in May 1950. Janet Flanner and Art Buchwald reported that "the elegant international set" packed into the red, gold, and white damasked premises included Dali, Barbara Hutton Troubetzkoy, Schiaparelli, Marcel Achard, Simone Simon, Nicky de Gunzburg, and Verdura.
Summer invitations to the Pecci Blunt estate in Tuscany were highly coveted. French Vogue even advised on the proper dress for those so fortunate as to be invited to the Villa Marlia. No matter that the food was known to be bad, the drink scarce, and the fun strictly regimented by Mimi herself: the principle of exclusivity worked wonders. A huge collage at the pool house of portraits of guests was numbered according to the date of their visit, and great snobbish significance was attached to the low figures. At 62, Fulco was almost family. Each season a fancy dress dance was held at Mania. Mimi would announce the theme at a weekend lunch, commanding silence by rapping imperiously on her wineglass with a knife: "The theme for the ball is" suspenseful pause "Mad People" or Stars, Kings and Queens, Operas, Current Events, Drinks, the Olympic Games. Plays were performed in the topiary open-air theater; Fulco would invariably write his own piece, a monologue in which he shared center stage with a telephone. The opening line was always a querulous Pronto, PRONTU
In Venice the shutters of the great palazzi along the Grand Canal slowly began to creak open. The most desirable invitations were to Palazzo Labia, the home of Carlos de Beistegui, a mysterious figure whose wealth was attributed to bottomless South American tin mines. A discriminating art collector, he was also an unsurpassable snob, reputed to be so fastidious that he had never courted a woman below the rank of duchess. The ball he held on 3 September 1951 was universally recognized as a landmark in social history. "As you know," the aged Aga Khan repeated to all who would listen, "I have been too many parties starting in Queen Victoria's days, but I am certain that this was the best one of them all." The event was conceived as a living continuation of Giambattista Tiepolo's magnificent frescoes (1745-50) of the loves of Antony and Cleopatra decorating the halls of Palazzo Labia. The
settecento was all the rage in Venice, thanks to the premiere of Stravinsky's opera The Rake's Progress at the Fenice not to mention a major retrospective exhibition of Tiepolo's work. To famous Hollywood actors pleading abjectly for invitations, Charlie Beistegui's response except to Gene Tierney was a petulant: "La reponse est non, non et non." One day shortly before the ball, as Fulco sat at a cafe in Piazza San Marco, he espied Artemus, a friend of his housekeeper Lillian, who occasionally waited on him in New York. Artemus explained that he was spending the summer in the employ of an odious American couple. Fulco exulted as he recognized a marvelous opportunity to subvert Beistegui's intentions and crush the ambitions of two social climbers, while emancipating Artemus. He enquired solicitously: "Would you like to attend the ball?" It turned out that Artemus would, and so it was arranged that he would swell the numbers of the African entrée. The day of the ball, his employers chose to leave town rather than reveal they had been excluded from the fete of the century. Artemus settled them into their train compartment, then announced that he had an invitation to Palazzo Labia, seized his suitcase and disappeared into the crowd milling alongside the tracks.
The evening proved memorable. In a fine bit of typecasting Beistegui impersonated Count Alessandro Cagliostro, the society alchemist who had boasted of transmuting base metals into pure gold. Diana Cooper as Cleopatra was costumed by Schiaparelli, Mary de Rothschild attended as "Dior's idea of a Tiepolo peasant girl," Daisy Fellowes provided a rococo interpretation of America, Marie-Laure de Noailles was particularly "monstrous as the Lion of Saint Mark," Dali and his wife Gala portrayed the "ghosts of Venice," Horst tottered about in cothurnes as a bewigged procurator of the Venetian republic. Arturo Lopez-Willshaw, the Chilean tin magnate, led an Imperial Chinese entree, with a cast of fifty clad in eighteenth-century embroidered silk robes. Scantily disguised as Old Father Time, Fulco chaperoned the Four Seasons, delectably embodied by Princess Milagros Colonna as summer, Princess Domitilla Ruspoli as autumn, the American-born Countess Consuelo Crespi as spring, and 17-year-old Princess Laudomia Del Drago as winter. Domietta, as she is always known, had not yet made her society debut, and Fulco, who was struck by her beauty, had to use all his powers of persuasion with her mother for permission for her to appear. In what was hailed as the most sensational entrée of all, Fulco had introduced an entirely fresh cast of international trend-setters.
Writer – Thames & Hudson