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Seaman Schepps

Seaman Schepps (1881 – 1972) In the 1950s, Maxine Cheshire, the longtime Washington Post society columnist, dubbed Seaman Schepps, “America’s Court Jeweler.” To those in the jewelry field and among Schepps’ cultivated clients, this was probably no surprise. The firm Schepps established in 1912 – and that became known as one of America’s most avant-garde jewelry companies – had been serving powerful and influential individuals for many years.

The company’s reputation peaked in the 1940s and 1950s when bold animal-themed designs graced the wardrobes of multiple celebrities and high society figures. From the patronage of the Rockefellers and the British Royal Family to the wearable endorsements by Marlene Dietrich and Andy Warhol, Seaman Schepps’ dazzling jewels made frequent appearances on the covers of popular magazines such as Town & Country, Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue.

According to the firm’s official website, “Seaman Schepps was born in 1881 on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Legend has it that the Seaman’s Bank for Savings, visible from his mother’s hospital window, was the inspiration for his name.”

The son of immigrants, Schepps worked his way up from traveling salesman; work that began at age fourteen when he dropped out of school. He traveled across the country from New York to California around the turn of the century and opened a store in Los Angeles that sold antiques, jewelry, and precious objects.

By 1921, he was back in Manhattan. Over the next thirty years, opened and ended multiple businesses and gained experience in the jewelry trade. When the stock market crashed in 1929, Schepps lost everything including a newly built shop at 1066 6th Avenue. The shock of this loss led Seaman Schepps to re-think his business strategy: He decided to develop exclusive designs that mixed unique ideas, bold colors and sharp textures.

Inspired during trips to Paris where he saw the latest French fashions, including the work of Verdura at Chanel, Suzanne Belperron at Boivin, and Toussaint at Cartier, Schepps began designing his own jewelry instead of selling the work of others.

On a trip around the world, Schepps became so enthralled with Hong Kong that he delayed the rest of his trip and stayed for three months. During this time, he discovered unlimited resources which he realized could be adapted into extraordinary jewelry creations. From rough branch coral to lawn ornaments to elegantly carved ivory chess pieces, Schepps was inspired by nearly everything that crossed his path.

This insight led to his boutique in New York City offering one-of-a-kind original creations that became important elements of the Arts & Crafts Movement. Schepps soon designed wearable works of art that featured unusual materials, such as shell, ivory, turquoise, wood, coral, and rock crystal as well as found materials such as glass.

Admittedly, his ideas were not new as jewelry of similar scale and form had been around since the twenties. However, Schepps’ designs were noteworthy for the haphazard placement of gemstones and his eclectic color combinations. Schepps favored irregularly cut, en-cabochon, or carved gemstones. Diamonds were generally ignored in favor of softly colored gemstones: light blue sapphires and emeralds, hazy yellow topazes and citrines and pale pink quartz. Hard stones like jade, turquoise, and lapis were also incorporated into his pieces.

From Verdura, he borrowed the idea for Maltese cross brooches and shell earrings wrapped in wire. Following Boivin, he created large cuff bracelets. Schepps also produced whimsical sculptural brooches that depicted sea life and animals plus cluster earrings that featured varied collections of colored gemstones. In his boldly scaled curb-link bracelets, Schepps combined hand-carved links in ebony, coral and turquoise. Pleasing color combinations and unusually cut gemstones made his pieces alluring and beautifully executed.

In a 2012 article by Jill Gerston that appeared in Elle Décor, his granddaughter Amanda Vaill, who, with Janet Zapata, wrote the 2004 book “Seaman Schepps: A Century of New York Jewelry Design,” recalled her grandfather as, “a colorful, paradoxical, rough-edged character with an amazing eye.”

Vaill goes on to say, “He could see the potential of something that could be made beautiful… He mixed humble with haute—pink tourmalines and diamonds, sandalwood and gold, seashells and sapphires—and used flawed stones whose imperfections captured his imagination.”

“He really was a magician with materials,” said David Revere McFadden, chief curator of the Museum of Arts and Design in New York, which mounted an exhibition of Schepps’s work in 2004. “His designs are not about diamonds, rubies, and emeralds, although he certainly used them, but rather about transforming the unexpected into something of extraordinary visual power and beauty.”

Gerston’s article further states, “Schepps rose to fame in the 1930s when his Madison Avenue boutique became a favorite haunt of café society. His unconventional jewelry exuded cosmopolitan style and joie de vivre, not stuffy, old-moneyed refinement. Fashionable, independent women couldn’t get enough of his chunky bracelets and brooches made of semiprecious stones and 14-karat gold, which were more affordable than diamond and platinum bijoux from Cartier.

“Schepps’s designs were featured in fashion magazines and graced the wrists and earlobes of Coco Chanel, Katharine Hepburn, and the Duchess of Windsor. For heiress Doris Duke he designed a grape-cluster brooch of sapphires accented with diamond-and-emerald leaves. His Mousetrap bracelets, made of large gold links held together by ruby-and-diamond “springs,” were favorites of Blanche Knopf, wife of the publisher, who wore them three at a time on her wrist.

“Fashion hounds weren’t his only fans. Fidel Castro bought a bracelet for his sister (with traveler’s checks), and Andy Warhol amassed a collection, including a bracelet of emeralds, rock crystal, and diamonds from the 1940s.”

In 1931, Schepps started his most successful venture, a shop on Madison Avenue in New York. Furthering his skills at designing jewelry, Schepps rose to fame in the early 1930s designing jewelry for an illustrious clientele.

In 1934, he opened his doors on Madison Avenue and was well on his way to being known as the most innovative American jeweler of his time. Among those who came calling were fashion trendsetters such as Elsa Schiaparelli, Coco Chanel, and the Duchess of Windsor as well as Hollywood’s leading ladies like Katharine Hepburn and Rosalind Russell.

The company’s official website states, “In the late 40s, the powerful, novel designs of Seaman Schepps came into their own. America, with a new sense of wealth and style, craved the splendid, sensational sophistication that became synonymous with the Schepps name. Broad shoulder pads were the distinctive mark of the times, and haute couture begged for bold new designs to display the extravagance of the era.

“With a visionary sense of distinction, Schepps blended the unexpected — marrying diamonds, precious metals and man-made materials, choosing his media brilliantly to create a palette of tone and hue. Through this unparalleled experimentation, Schepps pioneered a unique style of jewelry whose sense of splendor offered a new perspective to the world of fine jewelry.

“Often clients wanted a one-of-a-kind bauble and commissioned Schepps to incorporate their old jewelry into a fresh new design. Frequently this led to landmark decisions that helped distinguish Schepps as an extraordinary talent. For example, a well-known client brought him a necklace of beautiful turbo shells from the Indian Ocean, to be fashioned into earrings. Schepps immediately envisioned them with cabochon turquoise and coral set on the points and mounted with gold wire. In delighting his client, Schepps created one of the most popular trends in twentieth century jewelry.

“His client list included President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and members of the Du Pont and Mellon families. This service to these powerful and influential individuals led to Schepps being dubbed, ‘America’s Court Jeweler’.”

His shell jewelry is highly prized and distinctive and was regularly photographed. His brilliant colors and sophisticated designs transformed baby conch shells into extravagant jewels, wrapped in golden wire, topped with gleaming cabochons, or set with a glint of a sapphire or ruby.

After Schepps’s death in 1972 at age 91, his daughter Patricia Schepps Vaill continued to make jewelry until 1992 when she sold the business. Although the company is no longer family-owned (Patricia sold it in 1992 to Jay Bauer and Anthony Hopenhajm), the new owners operate the company’s flagship location at 58th Street and Park Avenue. The company also has branches in Palm Beach and Nantucket.

Seaman Schepps still produces the characteristic Schepps look thanks to a treasure trove of inspirational Schepps designs that include nearly 5,000 comprehensive jewelry renderings and 650 molds giving the company the ability to reissue and update Schepps’s designs as well as to create original pieces in his style.

“[Schepps’s] jewelry looks like no one else’s,” says co-owner Jay Bauer. “People see it and they know immediately that it’s Seaman Schepps.”

Vintage pieces remain brisk sellers. Recently, Sotheby’s sold a circa-1950 black-opal-and-diamond necklace and bracelet for $47,500 and a suite of turquoise jewelry from 1950 for $26,250.

“Schepps had a less-precious flair than Verdura, who used much better stones,” says Robin Wright, a jewelry specialist for Sotheby’s. “But Schepps’s jewelry isn’t so astronomically expensive that you are afraid to wear it every day.”

Seaman Schepps carries reissued and new pieces. Major auction houses, such as Sotheby’s, also feature his pieces in their jewelry sales.

Seaman Schepps is synonymous with vibrant, original design and brilliant craftsmanship. With museum exhibitions in the United States and Europe celebrating the firm’s storied legacy, Seaman Schepps is poised to mark its place in the 21st Century as one of the world’s greatest jewelers.

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