In the mid 1930s, in the workroom of the famous Parisian jeweler Boivin, a young jewelry designer named Juliette Moutard created one of the most coveted pieces of jewelry in the worldthe famous starfish pinstill sought after today by aficionados of fine jewelry.
The starfish, created out of gold and encrusted with 71 cabochon rubies and 241 small amethysts, was distinctive because its five rays were articulated, meaning that they could curl and conform to the bustline or shoulder of the women who wore it. The House of Boivin made three of them. Two of the women who bought and wore the starfish were Claudette Colbert and Millicent Rogers.
Obsessed with the pin after she saw it in the private showroom of a Manhattan jewelry merchant, Cherie Burns set off on a journey to find out all she could about the elusive pins and the women who owned them. Her search took her around the world to Paris, London, New York, and Hollywood. Diving for Starfish is the story of these marvelous pieces of jewelry and the equally dazzling women who loved them.
|Publisher:||St. Martin''s Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.70(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.10(d)|
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As I imagine it, a pearlescent moon rose over the mansard rooftops of Paris in the soft dusk as the streets of the First Arrondissement emptied below. Upstairs, inside a building festooned with wrought-iron balconies, sat a frail plain-faced woman sketching at her desk in a cramped atelier. Beside her sketchpad was a small collection of seashells. Some still held bits of dried seaweed and a few grains of sand in their bleached creases. Improbably (remember, I am imagining) a pungent whiff of salt spray, evoking the far-off beaches of Brittany, puffed through a window above her desk and swirled around the room. Filled with a sudden inspiration, Juliette Moutard drew a piece of jewelry in the form of a hand-sized starfish. It was a lush and throbbing likeness, rich and yet natural; an evocation of the primal sea bottom. With her paint set she colored in red rubies and purple amethysts along the ripples of its features. In my mind's eye the rays undulated and the stones flung sparks into the moonlight.
* * *
Moments of real inspiration are hard to know and often more pedestrian than we imagine, but this starfish deserves a fairy-tale introduction. I can't bear thinking it had been drawn on a cocktail napkin. The unembellished fact is that in one electrifying stroke, a design that would haunt and charm jewelry aficionados for the next eighty years took shape on Moutard's sketchpad. Her employer, the exacting Paris jewelry salon owner Jeanne Boivin, had urged Moutard to consider sea creatures in her designs. Europe was full of rich women, many of them Americans with newfound fortunes, flaunting their wealth and looking for innovative jewelry that would make a bold statement. Madame Boivin often brought seashells and crustaceans from the beaches of Brittany, which she knew from her childhood, and left them in the workshop of the Boivin salon.
* * *
One of the most captivating and enduring pieces of jewelry would emerge from Moutard's drawing and crawl into the world of collectors and jewelers to enchant and confound them for the next eighty years. The untraditional pairing of lush purple and red stones, the miraculous articulation that mimicked life, and the legend of the Paris salon where it took form were part of its intrigue. That étoile de mer, with its 71 cabochon rubies and 241 small amethysts, had five rays, two of them flipped slightly at the ends, flowing out from a center mound adorned with one large ruby. Astonishingly, its rays were articulated so they could curl and conform to the bustline or shoulders of the women who wore it. It moved. A sigh, a breath, a burst of laughter would cause small shifts of its bejeweled form.
Moutard, and Boivin, as well as the movie star and the beautiful heiress who bought the first two versions of Juliette's creation have long since vanished into eternity. But the Boivin starfish live on, casting their red and purple glow on a string of rarefied owners. The older they become, the more they are sought after. Moutard could not have known how long these brooches would continue to bewitch jewelry aficionados in Europe and America, or how many hands they would pass through from 1936 until the present. She could not have known the lives and stories they would intersect or the drama, intrigue, and deception that would sometimes surround them. All that was for me to discover.
I knew none of this, and wouldn't have cared much if I had, when I strolled down Fifth Avenue one gentle September evening eight decades later. The leaves on the trees in Central Park hadn't fallen yet and the buzz of Fashion Week, ongoing in the city, filled the streets. Fall, when the dusk drags on until the lights in the hotels and department store windows begin to glow, is always my favorite season in Manhattan. I walked slowly in high heels in the twilight, savoring the moment.
I was headed to a party for a book I had written, hosted by the exclusive jeweler Verdura. The guest list was an impressive mix of social and celebrated names. I entered the airy marble lobby of the building on Fifth Avenue off the corner of Fifty-sixth Street and walked past the black grand piano in front of the reception desk. On the eleventh floor a silver-carpeted hallway led toward Verdura's door. I had been there before while reporting on my subject, the heiress Millicent Rogers. She had bought jewels from Verdura.
* * *
That night the salon was even more magical than usual. I had never been in Verdura after dark. The showrooms fill a corner looking down into Central Park. The lights of Bergdorf Goodman across the street had begun to sparkle. Large photos of Coco Chanel and the elegant Italian Count Fulco di Verdura, the salon's founder and namesake, hung in their places on the espresso-brown reception room walls. Other photos, of Liz Taylor and Richard Burton, Greta Garbo, and Babe Paley, all Verdura clients, were arranged around the rooms, enveloped in a golden glow as the sun finally set.
Verdura is one of those jewelry salons too exclusive to have an entrance on the street, as Tiffany and Cartier do down below. It does not cater to "passing trade." Rather, its clientele shops mostly by appointment. That night a refined calm filled the minutes before the party began. The plush off-white carpet muffled most sounds and two small but opulent front salons stood nearly empty, patrolled by two square-jawed men in tweed sports jackets. In my party mood, I spoke cheerily to them, thinking they were early guests or Verdura staff until I realized from their awkward reserve and reluctance to take their eyes off the doorway that they were security, there to protect the jewelry that was displayed in glass showcases. Diamond cluster ear clips, curb-link gold bracelets, Verdura's signature Maltese crosses, hinged stone cuffs, and an array of original designs once sported by Diana Vreeland, Marlene Dietrich, and Greta Garbo, to name a few — they all needed watching during the party.
Ward Landrigan, the owner of Verdura, greeted me. He is a well-dressed man of medium height with a shock of silver hair and an open smile. Associates who admire his sales skills say he can talk a suicide jumper off a ledge. His assured hand gestures give him an air of insouciance when he is speaking. On an earlier visit he had told me how in his salad days in the jewelry business he had been required by an insurer to keep Richard Burton, and the Krupp diamond he was delivering to him for Elizabeth Taylor, in sight until Burton's insurance coverage went into effect. For nearly a week he stayed in the Dorchester Hotel in London where Burton and Taylor slept while Burton was filming Where Eagles Dare. He'd had many tales to tell and a fine appreciation for people and jewelry. Now, he enthusiastically steered me toward the back salon, where a treat was in store.
I'd been told that I, along with Verdura's female staff and the party's cohostess, would be dressed in Verdura jewels for the evening. "Look around and pick out what you like," Ward told me. With a wave of his hand, much like a fairy godmother with a magic wand (or Merlin in this instance), he indicated the jewelry exhibited in the cases around the salon's showrooms. Instantly, I was a kid in the candy store. Choosing was difficult. Ward's elegant assistant, Betty, jumped in to make me feel at ease. We surveyed several options. "Here, try these," she said, handing me a smashing pair of turquoise and diamond earrings the size of chestnuts with a matching ring and bracelet. I tried them on a bit dutifully, then looked at myself in the mirror and saw how well they went with my tan and my navy blue dress. I decided to wear them for the party, which was about to begin.
A server brought me a glass of champagne. Ward appeared again and took my elbow. He was excited. "Come, let me show you something," he said, leading me to a large glass showcase sitting in the middle of the salon's gallery. There, prominently displayed on a gray velvet pillowed pedestal, was a golden starfish the size of my palm, with rubies and amethysts cascading down its ridged rays. Its articulated arms were fully extended, and under the showroom lighting it seemed not just to sparkle, but also to effervesce as if it were visibly radioactive.
The starfish looked real enough to climb out of the case and march up my arm. I was off balance for a moment. I understood that I should know something about it. What was its importance? There was something familiar about it but I couldn't remember what. Proudly, Ward explained it had belonged to Millicent Rogers, the subject of my biography. He unlocked the glass case. "Would you like to hold it?" he asked.
I hesitated, my eyes locked on the brooch. It was intimidating and gorgeous. The etiquette of touching such a valuable, large piece of jewelry seemed unclear to me. Would my fingers smudge it? Its purple and red stones throbbed under the bright showroom lights. I almost wondered if it would feel hot. As a reporter I had experienced this kind of moment before, brushing up against glamorous and wealthy worlds and the people who inhabit them, briefly sharing in that universe, playing along. But this opulent work of art upset my game.
When I came back to myself, I made a mistake, one I would regret many times over. Without clearly knowing why, I demurred. It was enough to see the brooch. I didn't need to hold it, I explained almost apologetically. Frankly, I was distracted by the excitement and anticipation of being the center of attention, along with my book, at this party. It was about to begin. Guests were coming through the doorway. We moved on and greeted them in the entry salon.
For the next several hours I was in the swirl of a dizzying array of people. It was my Author's Moment, which I had found are rare and to be savored. I watched the Russian model Tatiana Surroko write a six-figure check for a Maltese-cross bracelet. The old friends I had invited arrived. I posed with the star of a TV series, with Ward, and later with my adult children. I signed books and smiled, chatted with the few reporters covering the event, and then the party was over. There had been no chance to revisit the brooch. A bit like Cinderella, I turned in my Verdura jewelry and replaced it with my own. Then I changed my shoes and walked out into the night for dinner with family and friends. Only recently have I realized that I must have been trailed out the door by a faint whiff of pungent sea spray.
The next day I returned to thank the Verdura staff for the party. It was business as usual in the salon, and Ward, summoned from the office in back, came out to see me. I asked if I could look again at the starfish. It was gone, he told me. Gone? My first thought was that someone at the party the night before had bought it. "Where did it come from?" I asked. "Oh, I don't know," Ward said breezily, brushing the question aside. I thought he mumbled that his son and partner Nico had gotten it, but in the same beat he directed me to the front salon, where there was some excitement about a new eye-catching piece from the estate of Liz Taylor that he thought I might want to see. For the moment I forgot about the starfish, but before leaving I asked again, a little wistfully, where it had gone. "A jeweler in London, I think," he said before he waved good-bye and jauntily retreated down the hall to his office.
I was startled that the starfish had disappeared so quickly. Obviously, it had arrived as an honored guest just for the party. I didn't know then that fine jewelry like the brooch can move at lightning speed in the hands of dealers who want to expose it as widely as possible. And I was only beginning to suspect that for the next several years I would look back with real regret that I had missed the chance to hold one of Juliette Moutard's ruby and amethyst starfish.
* * *
Soon after the Verdura party I was invited to the salon of another jeweler in New York, Siegelson. I had never heard of Siegelson, which will suggest to jewelry aficionados how little I knew about the fine-jewelry business. I wasn't even sure why Sarah Davis, the staffer who invited me to visit the office on Forty-ninth and Fifth, wanted to see me, except that it had something to do with Millicent Rogers's jewelry collection. She told me that she had Rogers's ruby heart brooch that had been created by the designer Paul Flato, probably the most famous American jeweler in history. They'd love to show it to me. She said that she and Lee Siegelson liked my book. I was flattered.
On my way to Siegelson I marveled that although I had lived in Manhattan for over twenty-five years and peeked into various worlds as a reporter, I'd never brushed up against this hidden world of fine jewelry, salons tucked into high floors above Fifth Avenue. I had shopped for a diamond pendant for our daughter in the diamond district, had looked for a pearl necklace at Mikimoto and Fortunoff, and trafficked in and out of Tiffany for presents and a punch bowl over the years, but I had never stepped behind the curtain of the new world that was inviting me in now.
* * *
Siegelson's waiting room was a notch less posh and a touch more corporate than Verdura's chocolate-brown salon up the avenue, but the muted gray walls and sculpted bronze busts that decorated the waiting room created an equally rarefied air. Sarah Davis greeted me warmly. I noticed that my book with its pale turquoise cover was positioned centrally on a bookshelf at the end of the hallway to the spacious office where I was led.
Lee Siegelson, the forty-six-year-old principal in the business, soon appeared. He was an open-faced, somewhat ruggedly handsome ruddy- haired man who sported a sparse beard and a moustache. Self-assured and well dressed, he was unerringly gracious. As promised, he and Sarah Davis brought out the Flato heart brooch, encrusted with tightly set rubies. Millicent Rogers had helped to design it and I had seen a photo of her wearing it with a tweed suit in 1937. Now it was presented to me in a small rectangular display tray. Sarah and Lee urged me to pin it on. It was strangely inappropriate on my own heather tweed jacket, but I was learning not to turn down chances to share a moment with great jewelry. I posed awkwardly while Sarah snapped a photo with my cell phone.
Soon we got down to business. Lee wondered if I could help him get in touch with the Rogers family. He said he was curious to know if there was more jewelry from Millicent's stellar collection for sale now, sixty-odd years after her death.
He was quick to mention the quid pro quo. If I could help him out a little, perhaps put him in touch with some people, he could probably be of help to me. I didn't know of any way I could use his help at that time, but I admired his candor and energy. Lee is an operator. I liked him for not beating around the bush. I would learn later, from others in his business, that he is considered to be a total natural, a third-generation figure in the jewelry trade. He has an outgoing personality, is well liked by his colleagues and even by his competitors. His father worked in New York's diamond district for years, and Lee is a refinement on the hustling world of the diamond exchange; I would often hear from jewelers in the months ahead, "If I had the money and taste Lee Siegelson does," or, "Lee Siegelson would ..." Now, he wanted to know where Millicent Rogers's jewelry had gone after her death and if I could put him in touch with the family.
I could not help him. I had to admit, I just hadn't focused that directly on Millicent's jewelry. She had an extensive collection of Native American silver, and she had made jewelry herself out of eighteen-karat gold that she often gave to her friends and lovers. But none of that was what Lee and other New York jewelers were interested in. He mentioned a rumor about a secret safe. I was clueless, and skeptical.
Lee would tell me later of a story he was trying to make sense of. He had heard that a former boyfriend of one of Millicent Rogers's granddaughters had managed to acquire Rogers's ruby and amethyst starfish and some other pieces for several hundred thousand dollars. "Something like that," he said, typically vague when it came to the cost of pieces, but he continued with the story. The fellow had turned around and sold the starfish for at least twice what he had paid for it. Lee had heard of the starfish before, he said. He had taken note when another one, possibly two, had passed through the hands of his friends at Stephen Russell, fine jewelers on Madison Avenue, in previous years. I quickly registered that comment: possibly two? So there was more than one of these exotic pieces? Lee had even been in on one of those deals, I would learn later, although he didn't mention that. I assumed he knew Millicent's starfish had been at Verdura the night of the book party.
Excerpted from "Diving For Starfish"
Copyright © 2018 Cherie Burns.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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