This is not so much a review as it is a public service announcement for anyone who appreciates fine jewelry: Verdura is celebrating its 75th anniversary with a gorgeous exhibition of over 200 privately owned pieces that is on view for just two more weeks in New York City. I am sorry that I am only telling you about it now, but better late than never. Tickets are free and can be booked in advance here.
Verdura, founded by Duke Fulco di Verdura, opened on Fifth Avenue in New York City on September 1, 1939 – the same day that Germany invaded Poland, the event that began World War II. While it may not have been an auspicious time to launch a luxury brand in the United States (or anywhere), Verdura thrived.
Already famous for his collaborations with Coco Chanel in Paris, Verdura opened the New York showroom with the backing of friends Cole Porter and Vincent Astor and a full roster of society and Hollywood clientele. Pictured above are Chanel’s famous Maltese Cross cuffs (1930) which she wears in the Man Ray portrait on the right. Chanel commissioned one-of-a-kind fine jewelry from Verdura which she then used as inspiration for costume jewelry for her own line.
The show, The Power of Style: Verdura at 75, is displayed across five small galleries that highlight Verdura’s creative drive and inventive design aesthetic. Here’s what stands out about Verdura for me:
A modern design aesthetic
Verdura’s designs are total departure from the platinum-and-diamond Art Deco aesthetic in vogue in the early twentieth century. His pieces exude warmth, whimsy, and fun, and celebrate the natural world with designs for flora and fauna, among other motifs.
Openness to new materials, shapes, and techniques
Vedura’s designs were brought life by an inventive use of materials. The materials – gemstones and precious metals – served the design, which is very different from a material-driven design, where a piece might be designed simply to showcase the gems. He worked with gold (not platinum), integrating it into designs appropriate for both day and night, and introduced colored stones while other jewelers were still working almost exclusively with diamonds.
Verdura’s brand of luxury was not austere or serious, meant for special occasions only. He created custom pieces that were mini-spectacles – fun to wear, fun to see, and fun to talk about – that could be worn day or night. This seems very modern to me; Verdura designed personal adornments and objects for a world that was becoming less formal and more public, two trends that remain with us today in the beginning of the twenty-first century.
The Verdura archive holds approximately 10,000 original designs, of which only one-third have been produced thus far. What makes this massive holding even more extraordinary is that Verdura, who did not sell multiples of his designs, would apparently “throw away designs once his creations were complete.” The designs pictured here were saved from the trash by a former employee.
This emerald necklace was originally designed in 1941 for Dorothy Hearst Paley Hirshon, who had purchased emeralds in Russia while traveling. She asked Verdura to turn them into a necklace appropriate for day wear (sans diamonds). The resulting “Scarf” Necklace alone is worth visiting this show. I love the play here; the fluid, draping form of a necklace mimics the liquid-y form of a scarf, but is made of solid stones! Seen here it looks sculptural, but imagine how each stone would have shifted slightly when the necklace was worn, catching the light and reflecting the wearer’s movement.
Apparently Verdura, “never chose his materials for their value or fashion, he chose them for the colors and shapes that complemented his designs” and I think these shell brooches exemplify that philosophy. He would buy the shells inexpensively at the Museum of Natural History and then adorn them in his studio; the mix of high and low delighted him.
Verdura was probably not daunted by the milk teeth; he was an innovator, open to inspiration and collaboration where he found it. In 1941 he launched a surrealist-inspired jewelery collection with Salvador Dali which included the Medusa Brooch pictured above.
This tiara was designed in 1957 for Betsey Cushing Whitney. Her husband, John Hay Whitney, was the newly appointed Ambassador to the Court of St. James, and protocol dictated that he and his wife be formally presented to Queen Elizabeth II. Verdura designed the tiara with the event and context in mind, drawing on Native American motifs to create this elegant piece.
Many pictures exist of Verdura at work or hobnobbing with famous clients, but I wanted to include this relaxed one of the jeweler chatting with a cute Scottie poolside at Kiluna Farm, the Paley estate on Long Island. Just below are a selection of the miniature paintings Verdura painted throughout his life. Subjects include land and seascapes, still lives, animals and interior scenes. Creatives need to create, and Verdura’s creative drive was clearly present in his leisure pursuits as well.
In honor of its 75th Anniversary, Verdura has re-issued select designs (including the emerald scarf necklace and the lion’s paw brooches) and debuted some new ones based on the firm’s extensive design archive. I can think of exactly no one who wouldn’t enjoy receiving this Cabochon Cluster bracelet:
Too small? Perhaps the Tiara Feather Bracelet, based on the design for the Whitney Tiara, would suit instead:
Alas, you probably cannot have this wonderful Pinecone Brooch, designed on the occasion of Verdura’s 70th Anniversary in 2009. Just one was made and “it took two years to research and eight months to make the brooch. A team of jewelers assembled 39 pieces of gold and platinum, and 10.27 carats of round-cut diamonds to create a pinecone slightly smaller than the original. To make the scales, artisans used tools coated on the inside with soft copper to protect the surface.”
I know that having read this post you feel as if you’ve seen the show, but trust me you have not. Unlike many of the shows I cover, this exhibition is almost entirely made up of jewelry and objects that are privately owned which means most of these pieces will disappear from view once the show concludes on December 23, 2014. Book your tickets here and enjoy the show!
Update: the exhibition was showcased recently on CBS Sunday morning. Watch the six-minute video segment here.