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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Diving for Starfish

The Jeweler, the Actress, the Heiress, and One of the World's Most Alluring Pieces of Jewelry

Cherie Burns

St. Martin's Press


Chapter One

As I imagine it, a pearlescent moon rose over the mansard rooftops of Paris in the soft dusk as the streets of the First Arrondissement emptied below. Upstairs, inside a building festooned with wrought-iron balconies, sat a frail plain-faced woman sketching at her desk in a cramped atelier. Beside her sketchpad was a small collection of seashells. Some still held bits of dried seaweed and a few grains of sand in their bleached creases. Improbably (remember, I am imagining) a pungent whiff of salt spray, evoking the far-off beaches of Brittany, puffed through a window above her desk and swirled around the room. Filled with a sudden inspiration, Juliette Moutard drew a piece of jewelry in the form of a hand-sized starfish. It was a lush and throbbing likeness, rich and yet natural; an evocation of the primal sea bottom. With her paint set she colored in red rubies and purple amethysts along the ripples of its features. In my mind’s eye the rays undulated and the stones flung sparks into the moonlight.

* * *

Moments of real inspiration are hard to know and often more pedestrian than we imagine, but this starfish deserves a fairy-tale introduction. I can’t bear thinking it had been drawn on a cocktail napkin. The unembellished fact is that in one electrifying stroke, a design that would haunt and charm jewelry aficionados for the next eighty years took shape on Moutard’s sketchpad. Her employer, the exacting Paris jewelry salon owner Jeanne Boivin, had urged Moutard to consider sea creatures in her designs. Europe was full of rich women, many of them Americans with newfound fortunes, flaunting their wealth and looking for innovative jewelry that would make a bold statement. Madame Boivin often brought seashells and crustaceans from the beaches of Brittany, which she knew from her childhood, and left them in the workshop of the Boivin salon.

* * *

One of the most captivating and enduring pieces of jewelry would emerge from Moutard’s drawing and crawl into the world of collectors and jewelers to enchant and confound them for the next eighty years. The untraditional pairing of lush purple and red stones, the miraculous articulation that mimicked life, and the legend of the Paris salon where it took form were part of its intrigue. That étoile de mer, with its 71 cabochon rubies and 241 small amethysts, had five rays, two of them flipped slightly at the ends, flowing out from a center mound adorned with one large ruby. Astonishingly, its rays were articulated so they could curl and conform to the bustline or shoulders of the women who wore it. It moved. A sigh, a breath, a burst of laughter would cause small shifts of its bejeweled form.

Moutard, and Boivin, as well as the movie star and the beautiful heiress who bought the first two versions of Juliette’s creation have long since vanished into eternity. But the Boivin starfish live on, casting their red and purple glow on a string of rarefied owners. The older they become, the more they are sought after. Moutard could not have known how long these brooches would continue to bewitch jewelry aficionados in Europe and America, or how many hands they would pass through from 1936 until the present. She could not have known the lives and stories they would intersect or the drama, intrigue, and deception that would sometimes surround them. All that was for me to discover.

Chapter Two

I knew none of this, and wouldn’t have cared much if I had, when I strolled down Fifth Avenue one gentle September evening eight decades later. The leaves on the trees in Central Park hadn’t fallen yet and the buzz of Fashion Week, ongoing in the city, filled the streets. Fall, when the dusk drags on until the lights in the hotels and department store windows begin to glow, is always my favorite season in Manhattan. I walked slowly in high heels in the twilight, savoring the moment.

I was headed to a party for a book I had written, hosted by the exclusive jeweler Verdura. The guest list was an impressive mix of social and celebrated names. I entered the airy marble lobby of the building on Fifth Avenue off the corner of Fifty-sixth Street and walked past the black grand piano in front of the reception desk. On the eleventh floor a silver-carpeted hallway led toward Verdura’s door. I had been there before while reporting on my subject, the heiress Millicent Rogers. She had bought jewels from Verdura.

* * *

That night the salon was even more magical than usual. I had never been in Verdura after dark. The showrooms fill a corner looking down into Central Park. The lights of Bergdorf Goodman across the street had begun to sparkle. Large photos of Coco Chanel and the elegant Italian Count Fulco di Verdura, the salon’s founder and namesake, hung in their places on the espresso-brown reception room walls. Other photos, of Liz Taylor and Richard Burton, Greta Garbo, and Babe Paley, all Verdura clients, were arranged around the rooms, enveloped in a golden glow as the sun finally set.

Verdura is one of those jewelry salons too exclusive to have an entrance on the street, as Tiffany and Cartier do down below. It does not cater to “passing trade.” Rather, its clientele shops mostly by appointment. That night a refined calm filled the minutes before the party began. The plush off-white carpet muffled most sounds and two small but opulent front salons stood nearly empty, patrolled by two square-jawed men in tweed sports jackets. In my party mood, I spoke cheerily to them, thinking they were early guests or Verdura staff until I realized from their awkward reserve and reluctance to take their eyes off the doorway that they were security, there to protect the jewelry that was displayed in glass showcases. Diamond cluster ear clips, curb-link gold bracelets, Verdura’s signature Maltese crosses, hinged stone cuffs, and an array of original designs once sported by Diana Vreeland, Marlene Dietrich, and Greta Garbo, to name a few—they all needed watching during the party.

Ward Landrigan, the owner of Verdura, greeted me. He is a well-dressed man of medium height with a shock of silver hair and an open smile. Associates who admire his sales skills say he can talk a suicide jumper off a ledge. His assured hand gestures give him an air of insouciance when he is speaking. On an earlier visit he had told me how in his salad days in the jewelry business he had been required by an insurer to keep Richard Burton, and the Krupp diamond he was delivering to him for Elizabeth Taylor, in sight until Burton’s insurance coverage went into effect. For nearly a week he stayed in the Dorchester Hotel in London where Burton and Taylor slept while Burton was filming Where Eagles Dare. He’d had many tales to tell and a fine appreciation for people and jewelry. Now, he enthusiastically steered me toward the back salon, where a treat was in store.

I’d been told that I, along with Verdura’s female staff and the party’s cohostess, would be dressed in Verdura jewels for the evening. “Look around and pick out what you like,” Ward told me. With a wave of his hand, much like a fairy godmother with a magic wand (or Merlin in this instance), he indicated the jewelry exhibited in the cases around the salon’s showrooms. Instantly, I was a kid in the candy store. Choosing was difficult. Ward’s elegant assistant, Betty, jumped in to make me feel at ease. We surveyed several options. “Here, try these,” she said, handing me a smashing pair of turquoise and diamond earrings the size of chestnuts with a matching ring and bracelet. I tried them on a bit dutifully, then looked at myself in the mirror and saw how well they went with my tan and my navy blue dress. I decided to wear them for the party, which was about to begin.

A server brought me a glass of champagne. Ward appeared again and took my elbow. He was excited. “Come, let me show you something,” he said, leading me to a large glass showcase sitting in the middle of the salon’s gallery. There, prominently displayed on a gray velvet pillowed pedestal, was a golden starfish the size of my palm, with rubies and amethysts cascading down its ridged rays. Its articulated arms were fully extended, and under the showroom lighting it seemed not just to sparkle, but also to effervesce as if it were visibly radioactive.

The starfish looked real enough to climb out of the case and march up my arm. I was off balance for a moment. I understood that I should know something about it. What was its importance? There was something familiar about it but I couldn’t remember what. Proudly, Ward explained it had belonged to Millicent Rogers, the subject of my biography. He unlocked the glass case. “Would you like to hold it?” he asked.

I hesitated, my eyes locked on the brooch. It was intimidating and gorgeous. The etiquette of touching such a valuable, large piece of jewelry seemed unclear to me. Would my fingers smudge it? Its purple and red stones throbbed under the bright showroom lights. I almost wondered if it would feel hot. As a reporter I had experienced this kind of moment before, brushing up against glamorous and wealthy worlds and the people who inhabit them, briefly sharing in that universe, playing along. But this opulent work of art upset my game.

When I came back to myself, I made a mistake, one I would regret many times over. Without clearly knowing why, I demurred. It was enough to see the brooch. I didn’t need to hold it, I explained almost apologetically. Frankly, I was distracted by the excitement and anticipation of being the center of attention, along with my book, at this party. It was about to begin. Guests were coming through the doorway. We moved on and greeted them in the entry salon.

For the next several hours I was in the swirl of a dizzying array of people. It was my Author’s Moment, which I had found are rare and to be savored. I watched the Russian model Tatiana Surroko write a six-figure check for a Maltese-cross bracelet. The old friends I had invited arrived. I posed with the star of a TV series, with Ward, and later with my adult children. I signed books and smiled, chatted with the few reporters covering the event, and then the party was over. There had been no chance to revisit the brooch. A bit like Cinderella, I turned in my Verdura jewelry and replaced it with my own. Then I changed my shoes and walked out into the night for dinner with family and friends. Only recently have I realized that I must have been trailed out the door by a faint whiff of pungent sea spray.

Copyright © 2018 by Cherie Burns