Verdura (Est. 1939 – ) Jewelry experts and historians suggest that if Fulco Santostefano della Cerda, Duke of Verdura (1899-1978) had not been raised in a privileged and somewhat eccentric environment, he would not have become one of the most original and versatile jewelry designers of the 20th century. Most often called, “Fulco” during his life, today he is known today simply as ‘Verdura.’
Born into an aristocratic family in Palermo, Italy, he spent most of his youth in Sicily, then later in Venice, leading a pampered life in historic splendor. His childhood included a zoo with baboons, a camel and barnyard animals along with domesticated cats and dogs. Elaborate costume parties, lush surroundings including English gardens and the allure of Renaissance art all contributed to Verdura’s eye for color and design.
During his early childhood, Verdura was pampered by his very wealthy grandmother. Her death resulted in family squabbles and young Fulco lost most of his inheritance. In 1916, Fulco became one of the Boys of ’99. These were seventeen year-olds called up to fight in World War I.
After he was wounded, he was sent back to Sicily until the end of the war where he returned to what remained of his privileged life. As European society emerged from war constraints, Fulco who was short, dark, sexy, witty, and multilingual found entrée into all strata of society.
While staying in Palermo in 1919, he met Broadway composer/lyricist Cole Porter and his wife Linda. They became Verdura’s lifelong fans and among his earliest backers. As Verdura’s fame grew, he was commissioned to make a unique cigarette case for every Cole Porter show or movie that opened.
In 1923 Fulco gained the title “Duke of Verdura” upon his father’s death and enthusiastically participated in the indulgent lifestyle enjoyed by 1920’s Sicilian nobility. Verdura’s charm and wit made him a darling of the social scene and he gained many lasting friendships that proved beneficial later.
After a brief stay in Venice, Fulco left Sicily in 1925 and moved to Paris where he embraced a lifestyle that soon left him with dwindling financial resources. By then he’d met Coco Chanel through the Porters. Other acquaintances included English lords and French princesses, American writers (Hemingway and Fitzgerald), Spanish Surrealists (Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali), and White Russian émigré nobility.
In 1926, he began designing textiles for Chanel who recognized his innovative nature and invited him to design jewelry for her private and boutique jewelry lines. He did this for eight years.
From the collaboration came some of Verdura’s most recognizable pieces that combined precious and semi-precious gemstones in asymmetrical patterns with different colors of gold. He began by remaking some of the jewelry Chanel had received from her lovers.
Later, Verdura designed pieces for Chanel’s company, most famously Maltese Cross bracelets. Chanel wanted different, accessible pieces that would combine the real and the fake. Verdura obliged.
Chanel taught Fulco to mold components in soft putty and to play with stones until he reached the right balance of color and form. His earliest designs were made with wood, paste diamonds and Murano glass. The Maltese cross eventually became a regular Verdura motif. An exhibition of Byzantine art at the Musee des Art Decoratifs also influenced Fulco who, following the exhibition, designed large brooches and pectoral ornaments influenced by Sixth century design.
During the Great Depression of the 1930s, work slowed down and in his newfound spare time, Fulco often went antiquing with his socialite friends and took drawing classes to improve his technical skills. Verdura was an exceptional visual artist and his drawings were remarkably accurate and detailed. At times, he seems to have been influenced by Faberge.
A rule-breaker by nature, he was one of the first designers to make it fashionable for diamonds to be worn both during the day and evening. He is also known as one of the first major designers of the 20th century to set colored stones in yellow gold when diamonds set in platinum was the safe choice.
The result was many exceptional designs such as a series of brooches made of seashells, encrusted with precious stones. Other enduring influences were Greek mythology, Christian iconography, medieval themes and most notably Byzantine patterns which resulted in the Maltese cross cuffs.
By 1934, Fulco was recognized as the main Chanel Jewelry designer but he felt hidden in her shadow despite the respect he received. Verdura now felt ready to leave the company and head to the United States. He traveled with his friend, Baron Nicholas de Gunzberg, and. at the invitation of Cole Porter, went across country to see Hollywood.
Tinseltown society embraced Verdura’s bold and brash new jewelry styles. Fulco’s introduction to the “Jeweler to the Stars,” Paul Flato, led to a collaboration and “Verdura for Flato” swept the U.S.
Verdura for Flato was inspired by classical patterns and natural forms mixing trademark semi-precious and precious stones into bowknots, embellished seashells, and winged hearts. Soon the fashion world in addition to the Hollywood elite were clamoring for Verdura’s Mediterranean inspired designs. Clients included Joan Crawford, Katharine Hepburn, and Greta Garbo.
In the mid-30s, financed by the Porters and Vincent Astor, Verdura opened a jewelry boutique at 712 Fifth Avenue, a location that Cartier had inhabited thirty years earlier. Verdura hired Joseph Byrd Mann as Head of Sales to organize all business aspects of the new venture including arranging the premises and ateliers. The boutique opened selling bow knots, eagle’s wings jewels, and shells in a mix of colors from precious and semi-precious stones.
Di Verdura, as Fulco was now known, began a collaborative project with surrealist artist Salvador Dali which they launched at the Julian Levy Gallery. Verdura contributed his touch to many pieces including a cabochon ruby and diamond pavé ‘Amoeba’ brooch and some darker pieces described by The New Yorker as “Freudian Jewels.” During the early years of World War II, Verdura produced the Victory Knot Brooch which became his most widely sold jewel.
Riding a wave of growing success, Verdura became a darling of New York café society and established himself as a jeweler of great importance, not only for his innovative designs but also for his understanding of the female form and his ability to craft flattering designs. Astor and Vanderbilt women, the Duchess of Marlborough, Barbara Hutton, Marlene Dietrich, and Orson Welles became friends and regular clients.
Later, Jackie Kennedy, Princess Grace of Monaco and the Duchess of Windsor often wore Verdura pieces. Verdura was already known for creating intricate vanity cases, some of which were designed specifically for films including “The Man Who Came To Dinner” (1939) and “You’ll Never Get Rich” (1940). Whimsical sculptural pieces were also a prominent part of his inventory.
Verdura is also credited for being among the first to use themes and design elements that were later adopted by other well-known jewelry artists and designers. These styles and techniques include gold twisted into ropes, caning, tassels, coins, angels and mythological figures. Verdura’s imagination seems limitless and a glimpse at his jewel sketches reveals an impressive and wide taste in his sources of inspiration.
One of Verdura’s most important contributions to jewelry design was his use of shells – actual shells that he purchased at the Museum of Natural History – and encrusted with gold and stones. These were wildly popular and the Verdura name became associated with them. He also created exquisite small bowls, and marble ash trays carved as scallop shells with gold mounting.
The idea of using actual shells was soon copied by other jewelers, e.g. Cartier and David Webb also made jewelry using shells and Tiffany produced many pieces with shells cast in gold. Jewelry designers borrowed liberally from Verdura. In describing their first meeting, David Webb told Fulco how much he admired his work, and Verdura’s reply was a trenchant, “Yes – so I have noticed.”
Verdura’s jewelry was not only beautiful and original, it was also superbly crafted with great 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.
Verdura’s intricate vanity cases were highly sought after. Verdura’s whimsical sculptural pieces included an intoxicated snowman in gold, enamel, and sapphire; a set of Indian chessman; a series of medieval knights on horses complete with chainmail armor; intricately-detailed Blackamoors; a Pleiades brooch; a diamond-encrusted swan whose body consisted primarily of a baroque pearl; an enameled and bejeweled elephant carrying a hulking old-mine cut diamond; a bouquet of multi-colored violets inspired by the Victorians; curvaceous Italian putti; and lush, multi-color, leaf-motif brooches.
The 1940’s and 50’s were Verdura’s prime years. During this period, he created his most celebrated designs including voluminous bow and knot motif pieces, puffed heart brooches featuring plush cabochon-cut gemstones wrapped delicately in gold, and massive colored-stone parures. This was also the period in which Verdura introduced his iconic shell-motif jewelry that often featured actual mollusks embellished with diamonds and wrapped in wire.
“What I get a kick out of,” he told the New Yorker, “is to buy a shell for five dollars, use half of it, and sell it for twenty-five hundred.”
For obscure reasons, Verdura’s popularity 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.
In 1973, Verdura sold his business and retired at the age 75. He died five years later in New York.
In 1985, Ward Landrigan, formerly the head of Sotheby’s USA Jewelry Division and a longtime admirer of Fulco di Verdura’s jewelry, purchased the company including over 9,000 of Fulco’s original sketches. The New York salon opened at its current location overlooking Central Park and today the glamour and vibrancy of the Verdura boutique and its offerings remain as inspirational as the man himself.
In October 2014, a well-received exhibition of Verdura’s work opened in New York. “The Power of Style: Verdura at 75,” celebrated the 75th anniversary of the Verdura brand and served as a retrospective of the brand’s founder whose work spanned five decades. The exhibition included 216 pieces of jewelry by Fulco di Verdura in a museum quality space adjacent to the company’s 745 Fifth Avenue location.
The exhibition ran until December and became one of the most important jewelry exhibits of the year.
Along with the jewelry pieces were jewelry sketches, photographs of Verdura, miniature paintings by Verdura, and photographs of the many celebrities, aristocrats, politicians and business people who wore his jewelry or collected his art objects.
All business transactions, no matter how noteworthy the client, were recorded on ledgers. One ledger and photographs of others were also on display, revealing some of Fulco’s famous clientele. Some pieces came from Landrigan’s personal collection while others were loaned by celebrities that included Brooke Shields, Sofia Coppola, Whoopi Goldberg, and philanthropist Mercedes Bass. None of the pieces were for sale.
Almost any piece of Verdura jewelry invites a vague sense of familiarity. It could be a pavé curb link, a Byzantine-style Maltese cross, or a tassel necklace on a mouse chain. It feels familiar because so many other designers adopted Verdura’s innovations. In a true Verdura piece, however, it is generally the original design.
Duke Fulco di Verdura brought European and then American jewelry design into the 20th century, and in the process established many of the motifs, styles, and techniques that designers still use today.