After almost five decades in the jewelry business, Ward Landrigan has a lot of anecdotes, which he likes to share with a chuckle.
A conversation with this former Sotheby’s expert is like a trip down a labyrinth of stories, with many sudden and unrelated turns. Unexpected vacation with a Hollywood couple, an acquisition of a company that used to make jewelry for Coco Chanel, and a change in the décor of his office that helped to resurrect his business – it’s a big mash up that, when put together, creates an incredible story of a hardworking and highly likeable man.
In The Power Issue, we create a short timeline of how it all happened.
The girl who had everything
Ward Landrigan was 25 years old when he met Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton for the first time.
The two were staying in London, at The Dorchester hotel, and Landrigan – who was the head of the jewelry department at Sotheby’s – had to personally deliver “a really important piece” to them. It was purchased by Burton for USD$305,000, a record sale at the time. The piece in question was the renowned Krupp Diamond (later renamed to The Elizabeth Taylor Diamond), with a 33.19 carat stone. The actor had bought it for his wife as a present.
It was 1968. Burton answered the door in his bathrobe, barefoot. “His hair looked pretty messy,” Landrigan remembers. “Obviously, he had just woken up.”
The conversation sounded like a scene from a film noir.
“Where’s the diamond?”
“In my pocket.”
“Can I see it?”
The young jeweler handed it over. Burton looked over his shoulder and called, “Elizabeth!”
The Academy Award-winning actress came running out of the bedroom. She was wearing a white terry cloth bathrobe.
“I was surprised how short she was,” says Landrigan. “She was very short. And she was quite amazing-looking because she had no make-up on. He handed her the ring and she said: ‘Look at my short, fat, little fingers. They look great!”
“She did have short, fat, little fingers,” he adds. “And she was actually very funny. She was very self-effacing.”
Landrigan ended up spending a week with the couple, because they couldn’t get insurance for the diamond, and the existing insurance was in his name. They said he can’t leave.
“I spent a lot of time talking to Elizabeth throughout the week,” he remembers. “She would say: ‘Yeah, people say I have a trashy taste. I don’t care. I buy what pleases me.”
One of Landrigan’s observations was that she liked white carpets and white leather sofas. “Her taste wasn’t something you’d necessarily put on the cover of Architectural Digest but, you know, she had a pretty good life,” he chuckles.
“I had never met a movie star before,” he adds. “I mean, your first impression is – they’re human. I was a kid from New Jersey, staying with movie stars – I thought this was cool.”
That wasn’t the only time he stayed with them. In fact, he did it two more times: once at their house in Switzerland, where he stayed for another week, “which was crazy and fun, and by that time [he] knew them pretty well,” and then again at the Caesars Palace Las Vegas Hotel and Casino.
Quite quickly, Landrigan realized the burden of fame that the couple had to deal with on a regular basis. “They were never left alone. It would drive me bananas. Once you’ve got it, you can’t undo it. It’s all or nothing. But it was quite an experience for a young guy [like me]. And then I came home and everybody said: ‘Oh my God, what was it like?’ It was hard to explain.”
It’s one memory that Landrigan treasures to this day.
The era of Chanel and a new business venture
Fast forward several decades and Landrigan is still heavily involved in the same industry. Today, he is the Chairman and CEO of Verdura. The company was created in 1939 by Fulco di Verdura, a Sicilian duke who began his career as the head jewelry designer for none other than the quintessential fashion icon – Coco Chanel.
After eight years of working with her and, most notably, designing the Maltese Cross brooches and cuffs, Verdura embarked on a trip to the United States. With a Hollywood connection through his close friend Cole Porter, he designed colourful jewels for stars of that era, such as Greta Garbo, Rita Hayworth and Katharine Hepburn. Eventually, he decided to settle in New York on Fifth Avenue. With financial backing from Porter and Vincent Astor, Verdura immediately gained following with the fashion’s best-dressed list. For example, Babe Paley was his muse and one of his big clients. Over the years, he was called “America’s Crown Jeweler” by the New York Times, and widely recognized as one of the premier jewelry designers of the 20th century.
In 1985, New York-based Landrigan purchased the duke’s company, which continues to carry his name. To this day, many designs are based on the nearly 10,000 sketches Verdura made in his lifetime.
After almost 20 years under Landrigan’s leadership, his son Nico joined the company in 2003 and the venture became a joint family business. Today, Verdura’s celebrity fans include Sarah Jessica Parker, Brooke Shields, Anne Hathaway and Cameron Diaz.
This year will celebrate Verdura’s 75th anniversary. Landrigan says they have a special collection in the works to mark the big milestone.
From yesterday to today
Over the years, the target demographic of Verdura has significantly changed and Landrigan is acutely aware of why he has to run the business accordingly.
“When I bought the company in 1985, we were serving a lot of ‘the real old-money of New York’ and basically the rest of America,” he recalls. “But it was a small clientele and my goal was to open it up. I wanted to hit a younger demographic. Luckily, my son is now running the company, and he is 34 while I’m 73. Younger people look at business differently.”
Nico has helped to grow the company, which the jeweler was considering to sell 12 years ago. Landrigan still laughs when he remembers his son’s first step as Verdura’s president.
“Do you know what was the first thing he said? ‘I don’t like the décor of your office.’ And I was like: ‘Well, I’ll have you know, I spent a lot of money on it.’ It was the typical ‘old-man’ answer.
“And he said, ‘Yes, but it looks old-fashioned and that’s not what this company should be. I said, ‘What should it be?’ He answered, “Think 1935, Waldorf Astoria, Cole Porter’s apartment.’ That was the era this company became famous, and that’s the image we want to project. So we did it and, frankly, it looks a lot better.”
As the company continues to grow, the Landrigans also noticed an interesting change in the market.
“Now, by the time you get into your 30s, you sort of know what’s what,” says Landrigan. “You may not have made as much money as you like, but you pretty much know what’s good, you’ve been around and you’re not naïve anymore. We’re seeing young people who are very successful here in New York, particularly women. This is the big change: women buy jewelry for themselves now. In the past, women used to wait for a guy to buy something. And very often, if he bought something he would buy the wrong thing!”
Expansion to Canada
In fall 2013, the family brought Verdura to Canada, by collaborating with Toronto’s Mindham Fine Jewellery, which now sells select pieces from the brand. This is the first time in 25 years that the company has branched outside the U.S.
So why Canada? Landrigan was approached by Myles Mindham (the owner of Mindham Fine Jewellery) through a German dealer. They ended up doing several trunk shows together, which “were very successful.” But Landrigan was also happy to expand north, partly due to personal history: his mother’s family was Canadian and he has many childhood memories of his grandmother’s farm.
He enjoyed his trip to Toronto last fall and “was totally blown away” by the city. Unlike many people in the Big Apple, he enjoys to travel.
“Have you ever seen that New Yorker cartoon about what New Yorkers think of the rest of North America?” he asks. “They think it pretty much ends at the Hudson River. I mean, in a funny way, New Yorkers are provincial. The fact is though: the borders almost don’t matter anymore. I went to see a David Bowie exhibit when I was in Toronto. I mean, I was in London last June and I couldn’t get into the [same] Bowie show.”
Down the memory lane
Landrigan meets thousands of people every year, but there are always memorable encounters that he looks back on with a smile. A recent highlight was in November 2013, when he had two women in their 80s visit his Fifth Avenue store.
One of them was a past customer, who remembered him from 22 years ago. Landrigan recalls that she and her friend had their own beautiful jewelry and just came in to admire the pieces on display.
“They were having the best time. Yes, it may not put any money in my pocket but it does give me great pleasure. Sharing beauty is a wonderful thing.”