Part of the appeal of signed pieces of fine jewelry is the aura cast by their designers, who were often leaders in aesthetic originality and technical innovations. That said, many collectors gravitate to designer-signed fine jewelry because of the famous clients who wore these creations. The allure is royalty, be it English monarchs or Hollywood stars.
Almost from the beginning, New York’s Tiffany & Co. was associated with fine jewelry for high-profile clients—the seed-pearl pieces the company designed for Mary Todd Lincoln to be worn at her husband’s 1861 inauguration come to mind. During the Art Nouveau era, Louis Comfort Tiffany, who took over his father’s company, bejeweled the leading ladies of New York society with intricate brooches resembling buzzing dragonflies and flowering Queen Anne’s lace.
Tiffany’s most influential designer was probably Jean Schlumberger, who started working for the firm in 1956. Among other achievements, Schlumberger created Tiffany’s classic bangles, which were such favorites of Jacqueline Kennedy that people called them "Jackie bracelets." It was also during Schlumberger’s tenure that Breakfast at Tiffany’s, with Audrey Hepburn as the window-shopping waif of indeterminate means, made the store itself a star.
Cartier of Paris was founded in 1847 and prospered during the reign of Napoleon III, whose spendthrift courtiers and hangers-on kept the young firm afloat. At first Cartier merely retailed the wares of other French designers, but by 1900, it was becoming one of the world’s premier jewelers.
The early 20th-century pieces were prime examples of the Edwardian garland style. In addition to necklaces, Cartier made sautoirs, whose tassels were laden with pearls and precious stones. Platinum was used extensively, in delicate brooches and diamond-crusted tiaras. No wonder monarchs from Czar Nicholas II of Russia to King Edward himself showered the firm with commissions.
Though generally a trendsetter (the unique diamond panthers designed by Jeanne Toussaint became the firm’s mascot), Cartier was not above bending to the winds of the times. When King Tut’s tomb was discovered in 1922, Cartier responded with jewels that incorporated scarabs and other Egyptian iconography into their design. And when Art Deco came into prominence, Cartier jumped on that bandwagon, too, particularly with its jeweled wristwatches.
Another region that captured the pre-World War II public’s imagination was India, the land of the Raj. Cartier hired Indian craftsmen to create its famous Fruit Salad necklaces, ...
Van Cleef & Arpels was founded in 1898. The two-family company grew steadily until 1925, when its Roaring Twenties bracelet—ruby and diamond roses, black onyx stems, emerald leaves—won the grand prize at the Exposition des Arts Décoratifs et Industriales Modernes in Paris. After that, Van Cleef & Arpels salons popped up in fashionable spots around the world, from Monte Carlo to Palm Beach.
In 1933, Van Cleef & Arpels filed a patent for an invisible setting, which made it appear that a stone in a piece of jewelry was simply floating in place. Cartier filed a patent for essentially the same technique the same year, but Van Cleef & Arpels developed it to a high art.
The ballerina brooches of the 1940s employed invisible settings to great advantage. Designed by Maurice Duvalet, these diamond-face confections, with ruby and emerald accents, were based on photographs of famous ballerinas of the day, including Maria Camargo and Anna Pavlova.
The ballerina brooches were widely copied, but the attention they brought to Van Cleef & Arpels raised further the profile of the firm. Eva Perón on Argentina wore a pin of her nation’s flag. Princess Grace also wore Van Cleef & Arpels, as did the likes of Marlene Dietrich, Elizabeth Taylor, and Sophia Lauren.
Another prominent European jeweler was the Italian firm of Bulgari, whose Greek patriarch, Sotirios, opened his first solely owned store in Rome in 1884. Sotirios started out selling antiques and revivalist jewelry. In the 20th century, Sotirios’s sons, Giorgio and Constantino, strove to move the company more in line with French and Art Deco fashion trends. Movie stars like Mary Pickford and socialites like Brooke Astor were customers, but the pieces were not yet what we think of as Bulgari.
It would take a third generation of Bulgaris to bring the company to international prominence. With a nudge from artist Andy Warhol, who put Bulgari’s bold bracelets and brightly colored necklaces on the cover of Interview, stars from Jessica Lange to Cher wore Bulgari. Big was better when it came to Bulgari’s bubbly baubles—you might say Bulgari was an early proponent of bling. Around the same time, Bulgari launched a line of gold necklaces anchored by ancient gold coins. That look is now synonymous with Bulgari.
If diamonds are a girl’s best friend, Harry Winston was arguably the diamond’s best friend. In 1934, he placed his 726-carat Jonker diamond around the young neck of child actress Shirley Temple for a publicity photograph. In 1949, he purchased a collection that included the "cursed" 44.5-carat Hope Diamond, which now rests in the Smithsonian. Marilyn Monroe sang Winston’s praises in the 1953 Howard Hawks classic, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. And in 1969, it was a 69.42-carat Winston diamond that was eventually purchased by Richard Burton for Elizabeth Taylor.
Paul Flato was another American jeweler who had the eye of Hollywood, at least briefly. In the 1930s, the list of stars who wore Flato read like a who’s who—Paulette Goddard (Mrs. Charlie Chaplin), Joan Crawford, Helen Hayes, and Katherine Hepburn are just the tip of the diamond-capped iceberg. Flato liked large pieces that made big statements. Unfortunately, Flato lived a bit too large and was found guilty of pawning jewels that had been consigned to him. By the 1940s, his star had fallen, and after serving 16 months in prison, he fled to Mexico to avoid further charges.
Around the same time period, in 1929, Italian jeweler Fulco di Verdura was doing some of his best work for Coco Chanel, for whom he designed a white enamel cuff with a gold, pearl, and semi-precious stone Maltesse cross at its center. Moving to New York in 1934, Verdura made pieces for fashion editor Diana Vreeland and worked for Paul Flato before opening his own shop in 1939. There, he created his bow-and-knot pieces (Tyrone Power purchased a heart made entirely of rubies that was tied with a ribbon of diamonds), as well as shell brooches, in which real shells were encased or clutched by clusters and tendrils of diamonds.
Two silversmiths proved that gold and diamonds were not necessarily required to produce jewelry of lasting value. Between the wars in Copenhagen, Georg Jensen followed his fondness for the organic embellishment of Art Nouveau to create stunning pieces that heralded a new tradition of silver craftsmanship. His jewelry featured flowers, bunches of grapes, birds, and other animals. Though he briefly flirted with gold and silvers of varying fineness, in 1933 sterling silver became the rule at Jensen, which gives collectors of his early work an easy way to date a vintage piece.
William Spratling was another silver acolyte. After spending summers in Mexico in the 1920s near the silver-mining center of Taxco, he worked with local artisans to produce silver necklaces, pins, bracelets, rings, and other objects in designs he borrowed from pre-Columbian times. By the 1940s he would design pieces that also used indigenous turquoise and amethyst.
David Webb brought a 1960s sensibility to fine jewelry. Most famous for his bejeweled frogs, tortoises, zebras, and other animals, Webb began in the 1950s as a supplier to Bergdorf Goodman and Bonwit Teller. In the 1960s, he had opened his own New York shop and it wasn’t long before Vogue was crowing about his updates of Jeanne Toussaint’s Cartier creatures. President Kennedy, no doubt prompted by his stylish wife, commissioned Webb to design a Freedom Medal; years later, President Nixon would turn to Webb for gifts for diplomats.
Another David, this one with the last name of Yurman, used a 1960s apprenticeship with cubist sculptor Jacques Lipchitz as the foundation for the jewelry he designed in the 1970s. He and his wife, Sybil, created twisted-cable gold, silver, or bronze bracelets, capped on each end by handsome combinations of precious stones set in gold. Not surprisingly, these elegant pieces became mainstays of Neiman-Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue.