Written by Valerie Paley, Vice President and Chief Historian, New-York Historical Society; Director, Center for Women’s History
On September 1, 1939, in New York City, the World’s Fair was in its opening months of presenting an imponderable “world of tomorrow” to the wonder of the exposition’s visitors. At the same time in Europe, Hitler was setting in motion events that would constitute the very real underpinnings of a modern epoch. Standing then on the precipice of world war, it would remain to be seen how in due course the 20th century might unfold. But the year 1939 also marked a different sort of auspicious beginning for one Fulco Santostefano della Cerda, Duke of Verdura, who was not new to New York, or to the United States.
The man who would come to be known as “America’s Crown Jeweler” was born into European aristocracy but spent a good portion of his adult life in the company of a distinctively American one. He had sailed from Europe in fall 1934 with his friends Baron Nicolas de Gunzburg and Princess Natalia Pavlovna Paley in tow and wended his way across the country in a Packard convertible, traveling from Palm Beach to Hollywood. There, he encountered a different sort of royalty—the stars of the silver screen—who were purveyors of the illusion of glamorous elegance that talented designers were called upon to accessorize.
While the duke had hoped to parlay his extensive knowledge of art, culture, manners, and society into a job as an advisor for costume dramas, he quickly learned that Hollywood and the worlds it depicted on film were “desperately remote” from the reality of his patrician existence in the Old World.
Having worked for Coco Chanel in Paris, Fulco had gained a reputation for extravagant jewelry designs rendered with an artistic sensibility and bold imagination. But tastes still favored the blander, hard-edged abstraction of the Art Deco jewelry style—of diamonds set in platinum—over Verdura’s exuberantly avant-garde mixes of shapes, size, and color, unconventionally framed in gold.
Given the uncertain political climate in Europe, along with his observation that movie people liked to wear things from New York, he ultimately returned to the city, where he joined the firm of the creative genius Paul Flato. With that team, while perfecting his craft and establishing professional contacts, Verdura designed photogenic pieces that dazzled in the movies, garnering for the Flato name more screen credits than any other jeweler of the time.
Capital from his old friends Cole and Linda Porter and other investors provided Fulco with the impetus to strike out on his own with Flato colleagues Joseph Mann and Joseph Alfano. It was a momentous decision: bonafide gentlemen never went into “trade.” Social elites were not yet in the habit of fraternizing with designers, whether they were tastemakers or not.
Yet he also was part of a new, rich, glittering “café society” that was emerging in New York City—a somewhat idle and sometimes decadent cohort that dined, drank, and danced at places like the Colony, ‘21’, and El Morocco. A heady mix of socialites, artists, businessmen, and celebrities—the forebears of a modern “upper class”—were costumed for daily life no less fancifully than
actors in film or attendees of soigné fancy-dress balls. It was Verdura who embellished their couture uniforms with everything from rings to broaches to compacts to cigarette cases, facilitating a process that for some women was nothing short of self-creation.
Unlike the work of other famous jewelers who produced styles in multiple, Verdura’s commissions were unique, and took into account the owner and the occasion. Echoing the eclectic characteristics of Fulco’s varied collectors, the sophisticated designs showcased an eccentric combination of materials: natural elements like shells, semiprecious stones, enamel, and diamonds. Their “throwaway chic” quality was simultaneously Old World aristocratic and New World unpretentious, broadcasting taste but not dollar value, in some respects representative of the “democratic” America of mid-century. Indeed, the one mention of Verdura in a Cole Porter lyric—in “Farming,” a name-dropping patter song peppered with the gossip of a long conga line of illustrious personages and Verdura friends and clients—situates “Liz Whitney” on a farm, humbly lounging on a bin of manure while decked out in a clip of “the Duke’s” design.
A comparable social history can be found in the surviving company ledgers, preserved by Alfano with an archivist’s attention to detail. Artfully recorded, the inventory of sales and commissions is sometimes accompanied by refined sketches on tracing paper, along with the names and addresses of the customers and those who signed for the purchases, and the dates of when. Keepsake objets from husband to wife take on new meaning when, later in the log book, the husband might order two different things—reading between the lines, one item for his wife and something else perhaps for another woman: a harbinger, it would seem, of impending divorce. Even as clients switched spouses and took on new names, they stayed true to Fulco. In time, the accounting suggests increasingly self-reliant women in independent transactions: making their own purchases, repurposing old trinkets, or throwing open bags of loose stones for their crown jeweler to fabricate into a bespoke new creation.
Columnist and hostess Elsa Maxwell notably lauded Fulco’s flawless social graces and manifold knowledge: “All history, both of Europe and of America, all poets, from Dante to Auden, are open books to him, as well as every artist, from Botticelli to Picasso and Peter Arno,” she wrote. Indeed, history was supposedly his favorite subject, and allusions to the past permeated his life and his work. Special commissions, like his cigarette cases, commemorated events with one eye towards posterity and another fixed on clever visual or literary references—all captured in a functional and artistic thing of elegant beauty. In a famous example, Verdura took what would otherwise be an anachronism—a tiara for the American Betsey Whitney, the wife of John Hay Whitney, the United States ambassador to the United Kingdom—and expressed her homeland through a tour-de-force wrought of diamond and gold etched as feathers to recall the headdress of the “Amerique” allegorical figure that decorated 18th-century maps.
By the time he retired in the 1970s, Fulco di Verdura was well on his way to becoming a modern classic himself—an embodiment of another time and place, perhaps closer to a 19th-century gentleman than a 20th-century shop owner, but an American original just the same. Today, his legacy endures in the great body of his work. Indeed, owning a piece by Verdura is like owning a piece of history.
See the tiara and a circa 1840 Amerique statue on display at the New-York Historical Society’s Center for Women’s History on our new fourth floor.