“Fulco’s references to nature, culture and religion keep his work classic. But without question he was a revolutionary, the one who changed everything. Fulco made it all modern.”
This according to Babs Simpson former Vogue editor, is what makes Fulco di Verdura’s jewellery so exceptional. Infused with colour from bold multi-hued gems of all shapes and sizes and a marked preference for yellow gold, his pieces exude a joie de vivre and bold glamour that drew the attention and admiration of a wide and varied clientele.
Fulco Santostefano della Cerda, Duke of Verdura was born in Palermo, Sicily in 1898 into an aristocratic and somewhat eccentric family whose artistic sensibilities would later reveal themselves in his creative designs. His autobiography ‘The Happy Summer Days’ describes in wonderfully vivid detail the exuberance of his early years growing up in the extravagant surroundings the family’s 18th century estate, Villa Niscemi. A love of art and nature was perhaps inevitable given his upbringing and they would become key inspirations in his work.
After he left school, Fulco joined the army in 1916 and was quickly promoted however this career was short lived as he sustained a serious shoulder injury and was sent home to recuperate. The years that followed were largely spent indulging in seemingly endless socialising with a post-war Palermo once again a hub for high society, European Royalty and American glitterati. He travelled frequently, making good use of his extensive network of well placed family and friends, and it was whilst staying in Venice that he was introduced to Coco Chanel by his friends Cole and Linda Porter. Their rapport was instant and by 1927 Fulco found himself in Paris working with Chanel firstly as a textile designer and then as a jewellery designer. He also helped her rework much of her own personal jewellery, some of which was then copied to sell in the Rue Cambon atelier.
In 1934 he left Paris for New York where he worked for the jeweller Paul Flato before setting up his own boutique, with the backing of friends Cole Porter and Vincent Astor, at 712 Fifth Avenue in 1939. This new independence coupled with his lack of regard for the formal rules of design left him free to create pieces as original and exuberant as he was himself and success came quickly. Darkly attractive with a quick wit and easy charm he assimilated smoothly into both Hollywood and New York society. Once described by Cecil Beaton as having a “heart of gold and a tongue of quicksilver” he was every bit as stylish as his wealthy and glamourous clients, many of whom became good friends and with whom he socialised regularly.
In 1941 he collaborated with Salvador Dali on a collection of pieces including a brooch with the figures of Apollo and Daphne and a gold cigarette case inlaid with a miniature painting and applied with an opal beetle. He designed many compacts and cigarette cases over the years although he never carried one himself, preferring his pack of Camels to sit in his pocket “with no weight”. The vibrant café society of New York during the 40’s and 50’s suited both his personal and professional lives which were, more often than not, one and the same. His bold personality filled jewels were worn by everyone who was anyone and if you weren’t in the market for new pieces, Verdura was more than happy to re-make your own existing pieces, as he had done with Chanel. This was relatively unusual in America at the time and the style bible Vogue Magazine recommended this service saying that “Any jewel that Verdura touches becomes a more interesting jewel.”
From European Royalty to Hollywood royalty, it seemed every style icon of the period wanted a piece of Verdura. Some of his most memorable designs include the emerald ‘scarf’ necklace made for Dorothy Paley Hirshon and the yellow gold and diamond Indian Headdress Tiara for Betsy Cushing Whitney. Amongst his most iconic and instantly recognisable pieces are the bold Byzantine inspired Maltese Cross cuff bangles he originally designed for Coco Chanel but which went on to become one of Diana Vreeland’s favourites as well. For the Duchess of Windsor he designed many pieces including a brooch in the shape of a thistle, gem studded shell ear-clips and bejewelled compacts. Marlene Dietrich, Joan Crawford and Greta Garbo were all devotees along with the socialite Babe Paley who would become a close friend and something of a muse for Fulco.
His success continued through the 1960’s and he was courted by Cartier who were eager to collaborate with well known designers but whilst flattered, he declined their offer. As the decade drew to a close he was spending more time painting and travelling and in 1972 he sold his business and retired to London. Here Fulco worked on his autobiography, published in 1976, and pursued his social life as enthusiastically as ever until, after a year of poor health, he passed away in 1978.
Few jewellers of the 20th Century could be seen as embodying the vibrant, colourful and glamourous life style of the jet-set in the way that Fulco di Verdura did. His jewellery was never produced on a large scale, most pieces were commissions for specific clients and he readily embraced the notion of bespoke, personal designs made to flatter the wearer. His pieces are highly sought after by today’s collectors and discerning jewellery lovers, as keen now as ever to adorn themselves with a piece of Verdura magic.