Duke Fulco di Verdura (1899-1978) began his career in the arts and fashion in Paris during the 1920s. The son of a duke and princess, Verdura was raised in splendour at his family 18th century estate, Villa Niscemi near Palermo, Sicily, surrounded by lush semi-tropical gardens and lavishly decorated rooms with bold fabrics and upholstery, artworks, chandeliers, and gilt. It was the site of extravagant costume parties and was frequented by European and American high society. These experiences shaped Verdura’s aesthetic. At the passing of his father, he inherited his title, but the family fortune was left to a cousin, leaving him to forge a new path for himself.
It was in Paris that he was introduced to Coco Chanel with whom he formed a lifelong friendship. Originally assisting her in designing textiles, he later branched into designing jewellery for her personal collection. Together they travelled to see the mosaic of the Byzantine Empress Theodora in the Chapel of Ravenna in 1930. The jewel-toned tiles and lustrous gold inspired them to create the now iconic Maltese cross designs. They countered the recognisably ‘Art Deco’ use of platinum and diamonds, masterfully combining bold, colourful, semi-precious jewels set in gold. The Maltese cross cuffs were a personal favourite of Coco Chanel’s and she wore them regularly.
After eight years with Chanel, in the 1930s, Verdura emigrated to New York. Diana Vreeland introduced him to Paul Flato, “Jeweller to the Stars”, who hired him as head designer. Verdura would then go on to design pieces for Hollywood’s elite including Greta Garbo, Elsa Schiaparelli, and Katharine Hepburn. Perhaps the most enduring design of this time was the large curb-link bracelet and watch created for Garbo, who was regularly photographed wearing the pieces throughout her life.
As fate would have it, Verdura opened his Fifth Avenue salon in New York on the same day as war was declared in Europe. His first collection was received to great acclaim, as Americans accustomed to buying their fine jewellery internationally now had to look closer to home. It was during this period that Verdura’s most recognizable and beloved designs were created. The Wrapped Heart brooch dates to 1941 when Tyrone Power commissioned a cabochon ruby tied up in gold bow as a Christmas present for his wife, Annabella. 81 years later, Verdura’s iconic motif is still one of the jeweller’s most romantic creations.
He retired in 1973, selling his business to long-time associate Joseph Alfano. It was acquired in 1985 by Ward Landrigan, former head of the Sotheby’s U.S. jewellery division. Today, Verdura’s legacy continues through the combing of his rich archives of nearly 10,000 original sketches, less than half of which have ever been realised.
LAUREN BOUSTRIDGE / Senior Jewels Specialist, Sydney
Banner Image: Verdura pink spinel and diamond ‘Wrapped Heart’ pendant/brooch | $85,000-125,000