On the 12th floor of a dull gray office building on Fifth Avenue is Verdura—part showroom, part shop, and part archive. Call it the candy store. Even with the elegant rooms and the ever-so-polite glass cases, there’s something intoxicating about Verdura’s jewels, something luscious, sensuous, yummy: The vintage bubble-gum-pink topaz bow brooch mounted in gold with diamond ribbons, the fat heart fashioned of cabochon emeralds the color of glazed fruit and wrapped up with strings of diamonds, the sapphire earclips that look just like ripe blueberries sprinkled with sugary diamonds.
There’s the necklace of faceted Burmese spinels looking like cherry sourballs, set in 18-karat yellow gold with diamonds. You want to touch them, play with them, the way you draped pairs of real cherries over your ears when you were a kid to make earrings. It’s not only the expensive baubles ($95,000 for that pink topaz brooch, $125,000 for those cherry stones) that lure customers to the 12th floor of 745 Fifth, but also delicious pieces like the Maltese Cross bracelets made of gold, enamel, colored stones, and diamonds ($18,000) that fit as if poured onto your wrist. Or the Candy rings and Flutes rings that cost about five to ten thousand and come in citrines the color of butter rum and amethysts resembling grape lollipops. Or the bead bracelet made of pink tourmalines ($9,500). Best of all is a drop-dead, multistrand necklace of cabochon aquamarines the color of the Caribbean ($5,500).
Fulco Santostefano della Cerda was Sicilian—the duke of Verdura—but everyone called him Fulco. I think of him as the candy man, a designer who took his work seriously but not himself, who made jewels to tempt, please, delight, flatter. According to Patricia Corbett’s upcoming book Verdura: The life and work of a master jeweler, he often took his cues from nature. He made leaf brooches from colored zircons, a pomegranate with ruby seeds, a gold corncob with black pearls as kernels, an emerald artichoke. Fulco di Verdura died in 1978, but seven years later the company was revived by Ward Landrigan, a former head of fine jewelry at Sotheby’s.
Though many consider Verdura the greatest jewelry designer of the 20th century, his work had been pretty much forgotten by all but a few passionate fans. When Landrigan purchased the company in 1985 he acquired the enormous Verdura archive and started making pieces from the original designs. He breathed new life into Verdura and made the company a vibrant, viable business that kept the art as well as the mystique alive. Call it Verdura redux. “What Ward has done in bringing back Verdura without Verdura is magical,” says James de Givenchy, one of America’s most inventive young jewelry designers.
The Verdura catalogue has wonderfully evocative period pictures—Verdura with his pals on the beach in 1935; and Fulco heavy-lidded, sensual, staring at an enamel bracelet. But there’s nothing dated about the current incarnation of Verdura. The jewels are wild, witty, and voluptuous, no simple white diamonds or refined strings of pearls. “As a friend of mine always says, ‘Heaven spare us sincere jewelry,’ ” says author and designer Carolyne Roehm, a lifelong Verdura fan. Verdura jewelry is sought after by media stars, mogulettes, and socialites. Money was never the point with Verdura. His creations might have been glittery, large, and showy, but they were always about design, not dollars. Verdura considered big stones “mineralogy, not jewelry.” The point was to flatter the wearer, not reveal the size of her bank account.
The same is true today. But since no one wants the world to know what goodies she owns, you have to pretty much divine the Verdura customer from photographs. Oprah has appeared on the cover of O wearing Verdura, and Jerry Hall has been seen with a ruby Wrapped Heart. Princess Diana wore the Double-Crescent bracelet. A new generation now has it, including Aerin Lauder, who wears her Verdura cocktail ring with her bathing suit. Carolyne Roehm recalls how, when she was just starting out, working for Oscar de la Renta, she spent $150 on a pair of Kenneth Jay Lane copies of Verdura cuffs. “It took me weeks to pay it off,” she says. “My life changed, and I was lucky enough to get a pair of real Verdura cuffs. I have a seashell brooch and lots of the earrings. I love Verdura.”
The name, the jewelry, the people who own it: Verdura has an inescapable air of exclusivity. You can buy it only at the Fifth Avenue showroom, the Palm Beach boutique, Bergdorf Goodman, and Obsidian in London. Nothing is mass-produced, there’s no “inexpensive” line for airport duty-frees. Despite all that, the shop on the 12th floor is eminently accessible. Landrigan long ago abolished the appointments-only rule. Up here no one hustles you or hassles you. This isn’t hyperbole, either. I’m not being had. It’s just that you feel totally at home, and no one looks you over with that contemptuous gaze nurtured at some of the major jewelry stores. Landrigan and his staff will show you around and let you try on anything you like, or leave you to your own devices; no kid ever had such free rein at the candy store. You can even bring in your old stones for resetting—something Verdura himself introduced in America, where it was virtually unheard of. (Those old Euros were always resetting the family rocks.)
Landrigan takes some pieces from a glass case and places them on a table. There’s the perfect navy-blue sapphire ring, the aquamarine and diamond Cornucopia earclips, the lime peridot beads, the seashell brooch. “Go on, try them on,” he says eagerly. “Ward’s customers are treated wonderfully,” says Lisa Hubbard, executive director of international jewelry at Sotheby’s. “It’s exactly the experience I would want to have if I were buying jewelry. It’s jewelry selling as it used to be: old-fashioned, discreet, but not intimidating.” I ask Hubbard about the difference between the period and new Verdura pieces. “Verdura is collectible,” Hubbard says. “Many people put a premium on designs made when Verdura was alive.” Tactfully, she adds, “But the current company has been up and running less than twenty years, so there hasn’t been much time for these pieces to come onto the auction market. Either way, Verdura is a name that is understood and distinctive.”
Fulco di Verdura was born in 1898 in Palermo. Over the centuries, Sicily had been colonized by everyone—Greeks, Romans, Arabs. By the end of the 19th century, Palermo was a European outpost of high culture known as the southern subsidiary of Paris. Wagner, Puccini, Jules Verne, Renoir, and Oscar Wilde—all of them showed up in Palermo. The extravagant world Verdura was born into was a world of art and opera, holidays by the sea, trips around Europe. There were other influences as well that later showed up in Verdura’s work: ancient mythology and Christian iconography and a kind of lush Mediterranean dreamscape. When Fulco was a boy, his father was mostly absent. (The parents didn’t like each other much and lived separate lives once the children were born.) Fulco grew up at the Villa Niscemi with his mother, sister, and grandmother, a domineering matriarch. The house itself was stuffed with books and pictures; there were vast salons in red and gold, formal gardens, servants, and stables. In 1916, Fulco became one of the Boys of ’99, the 17-year-olds called up to fight in World War I. After the war, though, he went back to his gilded life. At a time when European society was emerging from prewar constraints, Fulco, short, dark, sexy, witty, multilingual, could move up and down the social scale.
In Palermo in 1919 he met Cole Porter and his wife, Linda, who became Verdura’s biggest fans and among his earliest backers. (For every Cole Porter show that opened, Verdura was commissioned to make a fabulous cigarette case.) Verdura moved on to Paris. Between the wars, Paris was high style and low life, old money and new. It was English lords and French princesses, American writers (Hemingway and Fitzgerald), Spanish Surrealists (Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali), and White Russian émigré nobles—all tossed up in a decadent, artistically innovative, insouciant stew. Fulco, with his dazzling visual sense, fit in perfectly. Fulco was a hit. He also needed a job. In 1926, he started designing textiles for Coco Chanel, who eventually asked him to remake some of the jewelry she’d been given by her many lovers. Later, Verdura designed pieces for Chanel’s company, most famously the Maltese Cross bracelets.Chanel wanted something different, something accessible, she wanted to mix up the real and the fake; Verdura obliged.
In the years that followed, working for Chanel in Paris, then in America for the jeweler Paul Flato, and finally for himself, Verdura changed the nature of jewelry. He revived the art of pressing gems into a gold setting, and he used the natural world as inspiration in a way no one had. There were stylized bows and multipurpose pieces (a necklace with a clasp that became a brooch, for instance). Women wore his jewelry on cuffs, hats, lapels, and belts. He based designs on nautical ropes and mariners’ knots, on bamboo and seashells. Verdura created portraits of pets as jewels, including a diamond mutt. There were bumblebees and opal mice and pearl elephants. There were the famous 18th-century Indian ivory chess pieces he turned into a series of legendary brooches. For an American ambassador’s wife in London, he made a tiara in gold and diamonds based on an American Indian feather headdress. Many important jewelry designers were influenced one way or another by Verdura: David Webb, Seaman Schepps, Angela Cummings, and Paloma Picasso. Kenneth Jay Lane made many of Verdura’s designs as costume jewelry. In 1939, Verdura opened his own company in New York. As well as Cole Porter, he counted among his friends and clients Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo, Rita Hayworth, Liz Whitney, Noël Coward, Orson Welles, and Katharine Hepburn (who wore Verdura in The Philadelphia Story). All through the fifties and into the sixties, customers cherished and flaunted their Verduras.
But in 1973, five years before his death, Verdura retired and went to live in London. Then there was a hiatus. “For a while, in the seventies, before Ward took over, Verdura was barely known,” says Meredith Etherington-Smith, editor of the British ArtReview. “I remember going to Mortimer’s in New York when that restaurant was just becoming the place. I was wearing a Verdura ring, a lake of big rubies set in gold struts. An elegant woman next to me whipped out a compact made out of a seashell studded with jewels and said, ‘I can see that we both love Verdura!’ Verdura was such an original,” Etherington-Smith adds. “A secret for people with very good taste.” It still is. There are fans and collectors who want jewelry that was somehow “touched” by Verdura himself, who insist the old pieces are different, better. But Verdura was a designer, not a craftsman. He didn’t “make” the jewelry. It’s the designs that matter, and the designs are intact. One advantage to buying new is that you can get anything customized. You don’t want those Cornucopia earclips in blue? Skip the aquamarines and order rubies. The ambiance, the style, the ease at Verdura are today reflected in Landrigan. An elegant man with thick white hair, light-blue eyes, pinstripe suit, and Hermès tie, he is charming, unpretentious, and most important, in love with Verdura. He lights up when showing you the design books, turning over Verdura’s exquisite sketches for the original pieces. He is also the least snobbish guy I’ve ever met, making no bones about his own blue-collar background in Springfield, New Jersey, where he grew up. His mother was a nurse; his father, an electrician. It was an after-school job at a local jeweler’s that got him interested. “It was the first time I’d ever seen that jewelry was fun to look at, fun to watch people put on.”