Fulco de Verdura

Fulco de Verdura

(1898 – 1978)

Fulco Santostefano della Cerda, Duke of Verdura, was, without doubt, one of the most original and versitile jewelry designers of the 20th century. For reasons unknown, however, his popularity had waned by the late 1960’s, and up until around 25 years ago, he was much less well known than his contemporaries – David Webb and Jean Schlumberger. Now, however his jewels are among the most desirable in the world of fine jewelry.

Fulco had led a privileged life of the nobility in Sicily. He was a cousin of Prince Giuseppi de Lampedusa, who portrayed the world of Palermo aristocracy in his famed novel The Leopard.  Verdura was well educated, and was immersed in a  life-style where important jewelry played a part. Artistically talented, he studied to be a painter in Italy, but found his environment in Italy limited,  and went to Paris, as many aspiring artists did. It is reported that he spent the whole of his inheritance, rather meager at this point, on his fare-well party.

This was in 1926, when Coco Chanel was experimenting with costume jewelry. He went to work designing for Chanel. His first line included Byzantine influenced pieces featuring over-sized crosses, including the famous Maltese cross bracelets that Chanel wore constantly, as did Diana Vreeland – a motif that would become one of his iconic designs.

He also designed badges set with all manner of glass beads and semi-precious stones which, like Jean Schlumberger, he might have found at the Flea Market in Paris. This combination was not as odd as it may seem, as the stones were plentiful and inexpensive, and it was not unusual to combine them with paste. This line of jewelry is still popular today. Chanel was quick to realize that Verdura was very talented, and had the potential to do greater things. She soon made him her head designer.

While his work with Chanel was a great success , Fulco soon became restless again, and decided to give up Paris and head for the United States. He and his good friend, Baron Nicolas de Gunzberg, travelled to Palm Beach, Beverly Hills, and other locations favored by the rich and playful, and met many people who would later help him further his career.  Among his clients were many Society women, as well as movie stars.

In New York, Verdura met Paul Flato, another clever and inventive jeweler with a Society following, and became a free-lance designer for him. This gave Verdura access to precious materials. When Flato opened his shop in Los Angeles, Verdura became a full-time member of the design staff. It certainly did him no harm that his great buddy, De Gunzberg, had become a fashion reporter, and later, fashion editor at Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue, and then Editor in Chief of Town and Country.

It has been said that Verdura ran the operation in LA, but Flato later vehemently denied this claim, saying that “Fulco never ran anything, not even his own shop”. In any event, Verdura left when Flato was arrested for pawning stones given to him by wealthy clients for re-setting, and Verdura returned to New York.

In 1939, now back in New York, Verdura opened his own salon with two ex-salesmen from Flato – J. Byrd Mann and Joseph Alfano. They had the backing of Cole and Linda Porter, whom Verdura had met and befriended in Palermo in 1926. They had remained close friends, and the Porters did everything they could to help further his career. In return, he designed many pieces for them, including the wonderful series of cigarette cases that the Porters exchanged upon the opening of each of Cole’s shows. Verdura became quite known for these fabulous and very personal pieces.

The 1939 opening of Flato’s shop, however, could not have happened at a worse time – just on the eve of the out-break of WW2. Verdura, being European, was concerned for his beloved Paris, and also worried about his financial prospects in such an uncertain world.

Despite world events, Verdura’s designs proved to be a great success, and his reputation spread quickly by word-of-mouth. Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue featured his jewelry on their covers with regularity. In the words of one prominent fashion editor, “he really changed the look of jewelry”. This was a reference to his use of unusual  stones set in platinum. He was not impressed by large precious gems and big diamonds, and was often heard to comment that “mineralogy is not jewelry”, a philosophy that he shared with Schlumberger.

Verdura liked to combine precious and semi-precious stones to achieve an effect that was similar to the costume jewelry of his Paris days with Chanel. He was also enamored of natural themes – beasts, birds, feathers, wings, leaves, sea shells, animals with the body formed by a large baroque pearl – ideas that derived from the Renaissance, and other historical sources that reflected his European heritage, such as Heraldry, and the richly scrolled and ornamented furnishings that he grew up with.

He can probably be credited for being the first of use themes and design elements that we see becoming ubiquitous years later, such as gold twisted into ropes, which he was already using in the 1930’s. Also, we see caning, tassels, coins, angels and mythological figures. His imagination seemed limitless, and looking at his sketches for jewels, one cannot help but be amazed by the scope of his sources of inspiration.

One of his most important contributions to jewelry design was his use of shells – actual shells that he purchased at the Museum of Natural History, and then incrusted with gold and stones. They were wildly popular, and the name of Verdura became associated with them. He also created exquisite small bowls, possibly ash trays of marble carved as a scallop shell with a gold mounting.

The idea of using actual shells was also copied by other jewelers – Cartier and David Webb later also made jewelry using shells, and Tiffany produced many pieces with shells cast in gold. Other jewelry designers borrowed other ideas from him as well. David Webb, on first meeting Verdura, told him how much he admired his work, and Verdura’s reply  was a trenchant “yes – so I have noticed”.

One close friend summed it up when he said of Verdura”…he set style, he never followed it, but he has been completely overlooked. Johnny Schlumberger got all the recognition. It wasn’t Schlumberger who put women in gold – Fulco had already done it (as had David Webb).  This is a reference to the fact that most evening jewelry had been in platinum or white gold.

Verdura’s jewelry was not only beautiful and original, it was also superbly crafted with meticulous attention to detail. Most of the work was done by Charles Valliant, whose workshop was in New York’s jewelry district, and who also fabricated much of Salvador Dali’s jewelry. Other work was done by Carven French, who also executed many pieces for Tiffany, especially those that required enamel or stone carving.

In 1972, Verdura sold his business to Alfano, and retired to London, where he remained until his death in 1978. Also in 1978, his designs and rights to the Verdura name were purchased by Ward Landrigan, and most of Verdura’s designs are currently available, keeping Verdura’s name and great talent alive.

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