by: Gini Alhadeff
JEWELS IN SPACE
There are a few planets next to each other, though not touching, on a pendant around Mahnaz Ispahani Bartos’s neck at a dinner in Manhattan that she and her husband, the artist photographer Adam Bartos, are giving in honor of their friends— architects, writers, bankers, editors, philosophers, artists, designers, poets, philanthropists, and dreamers. The necklace is by Giorgio Facchini, a sculptor and jeweler, and was designed in the 1970’s. Six orbs—sapphires and rubies, each framed by a gold semi-circle—face alternately to the right, and to the left, so that one’s glance begins to waver pleasantly between the direction of the curves and the reflections in the gold. Facchini was enamored of the space program and his kinetic designs are reminiscent of Sputniks and satellites. This futuristic object belongs to the collection of unusual jewelry Mahnaz first began to assemble some years ago.
The journey began, as she tells it, not long after she fell in love, and was proposed to, engagement ring in hand and in Central Park, by her future husband. A few short years into her marriage, at a board meeting in Boston, she noticed, to her utter dismay, that the diamond in her ring had fractured—a rare occurrence. It proved a lucky break, however, as it launched her on a veritable journey through the land of jewels—of the recent past especially—from which many women in search of an extraordinary ring, necklace, or bracelet might now benefit.
Mahnaz Collection has deep roots in South Asia and in the Persia of the 1800s. In these places, a newborn girl is showered with delicate jewels from friends and family. Mahnaz’s own first jewels—emeralds, turquoise, and gold—came from her parents, and especially from her grandmother. “My family has survived two revolutions,” she says, “one in Pakistan in 1971, and one in Iran in 1979, where we lived for a time, as we are of Persian heritage. It is in these places that my eye for turquoise, lapis, tiger-eye, malachite, peridot, and emeralds, and also for the colorful gem-like spherical domes of Persian architecture and the geometric flourishes of our calligraphic forms was first formed.”
Jewels have been a part of Mahnaz’s existence since her birth in Karachi. There is the diamond stud that embedded itself in one nostril when she absconded to the bazaar to have it pierced at the age of thirteen. Nose-piercing is a traditional practice in the subcontinent but Mahnaz’s early show of gem independence came as a bit of a shock to her parents, especially to her father. “For Pakistan especially, in the 1960s, my parents had very cosmopolitan tastes,” Mahnaz says. “My mother wore a Cartier wedding ring, our house was designed by an Italian modernist architect, and my father bought one of the first Mustangs to come off the assembly line, in 1964 and a half. The car came when we were living in East Pakistan, now Bangladesh.” (The way Mahnaz pronounces ‘Bangladesh,’ with an emphasis on the third syllable, and lingering on the ‘e,’ tips you off that she has kept in touch with her roots.)
She recalls early and formative experiences having to do with treasured gems: “My first jewel was a pair of emerald and seed-pearl drop earrings given to me by my grandmother—Victorian in style but done in 22 karat gold, the way the South Asians do it. I was ten years old and couldn’t really wear them yet so I put them on my doll. That doll was part of the shipment of our possessions that was sent from East Pakistan, around India, to West Pakistan during the civil war of 1971. The ship was shot down, apparently by the Indian navy, or sunk somehow anyway, and all our possessions were lost, including my little earrings—and my doll, of course.”
“The next year, possibly to make up for that loss, my mother made me a tiger-eye ring I still own. I remember that it once seemed absolutely huge. I wore the ring every single day, until I was in my late 30’s. I’ll never forget the time I was in Istanbul in the late 70’s, and lost it on the way to the airport. I was devastated—the ring was talismanic. I missed my plane and went back to look for it. Thank goodness I found it at the bottom of the back-seat of the car. Jewels can vanish and reappear that way.”
A THINKING WOMAN’S JEWELS
Some jewels call attention to themselves—not to their form alone but also to their conception. These are the jewels Mahnaz’s intensely cosmopolitan eye favors, poised as it is between East and West, between the modern and the archaic, the voluptuous and the fastidiously subtle, between the natural world and the highly technological. One ring looks as though a little brush, with long upright gold bristles, has mysteriously implanted itself at its summit. Mahnaz says it is by Pol Bury: oddity and asymmetrical dispositions abound in the intelligent jewel. Certainly, while Mahnaz likes refined small gems—one perfect, small, diamond ring was made to order by an Italian named Count Enrico Carimati di Carimati, who had a store on Madison and 66th in the early 1980s—she is no friend of the trinket. Some of her brilliant collars and fanciful forms will take over any collar bone, décolleté, or finger to which they are appended. One particular charming ring, a cabochon, looks like an early diver’s head gear, with lustruous green and purple stones protruding from its sides and top. The base is of orange enamel. It is an early example of Solange Azagury Partridge’s enamel work. Azagury-Partridge, Mahnaz says, was creative director at Boucheron, and at quite a young age had jewelry brought into the permanent collections of the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
Mahnaz’s unapologetically assertive jewels are these large pieces which play on the size and flash of costume jewelry, almost as though wanting to appear less precious than they actually are. What the women who wore those jewels, even inspired them, had was a bit of money, of course, but more than that, they had found their way to an independent life, a life outside the house and in the world at large. They could afford to own more than one ring, more than one necklace.
Be they by Van Cleef or Boucheron, one thing Mahnaz’s jewels have in common is a sense of having escaped from the stifling confines of well-born good taste to which jewelry had mostly been relegated. There was a moment in Italian history, for instance, in the 70’s, when no flaunting of any kind was advisable given the political situation. They were the years of ‘austerità.’ Yet some of the best and boldest jewels were designed in Italy, including by Bulgari, in those very years. Perhaps they were worn discreetly with the taupe men’s raincoats and pantsuits that were then coming into fashion.
The wearing of jewels as almost a secret between the wearer and the jewel itself is not something alien to Mahnaz, whose family lived in London in the late 70’s and 80’s, and recalls, “I was curious about what Arab women visiting London then might be wearing under their abayas and niqabs, as they huddled in front of Harrods like elegant shadows. Most likely it was Lalaounis,” she adds, referring to the Greek designer whose deep 22 karat gold paleolithic and neolithic collars surface in her collection.
It seems that perhaps the point to owning a jewel, aside from showing it off now and then, could be to deeply enjoy wearing one, or even, in a more Japanese vein, to just feel honored to own one, every now and then opening the box where it is kept to gaze at it.
Mahnaz talks persuasively of the tactile pleasures of jewels: “The volumes and contours of a piece attract me, whether it’s a giant Tiffany 18-karat undulating gold fish pendant, or a La Triomphe ring, whose lapis stones and gold ridges you can loop your fingers over and around. Like small sculptures, jewelry exists in several dimensions.”
Behind every piece Mahnaz chooses for her ‘by appointment’ collection, is a craftsman and a story. Jewels such as these are no longer made. A closer look at this select collection reveals that, as she says, “A rare vintage jewel displays a level of fine craftsmanship barely available today; it can be a uniquely designed piece, or require irreplaceable skills. Most of all, it is a gateway to another time and another imagination.”
Along with the jewels, she locates and saves the biographies and distinctions of those who made them—their story, how they went about their work, and the origin of their inspiration. The names alone are evocative—Kutchinsky, Cippullo, Verdura, Claflin, Illario, Jean Dinh Van, de Kolb, Burle Marx, King. There are emigrés, eccentrics, aristocrats among them but all are consummate artisans, though their names are often not well known outside the confines of the jewelry world. They made pieces for important houses—Claflin for Tiffany and also for Bulgari, VCA and David Webb; Carlo Ilario e Fratelli manufactured perhaps the greatest of all ‘serpenti’ watches for Bulgari, and Aldo Cipullo designed for Cartier where, in 1969, he created the famous ‘Love’ bracelet. He also worked for Tiffany and Webb. According to Mahnaz, several were Italians who influenced the trajectory of modern American jewelry history.
Mahnaz’s approach, in short, is scholarly as well as sensual. She has said that her many careers have always had a focus: encouraging a dialogue between the new and the old guard, and finding and raising up lesser known voices. In the field of mid to late twentieth century jewelry design, as she explores a universe of craftsmen and gems, she is doing something along the same lines for a certain overlooked, or unjustly forgotten, category of artisans—Italian, French, British, Brazilian, Navajo. Behind the dazzling face of beautifully wrought unique jewels is this shadowy host of artisans and craftsmen whose names are not as familiar as they should be. “Whose is the mind that imagined, then drew, and made this jewel?” Mahnaz asks. “And how fabulous it feels to wrap it around my wrist or collar!”
She says, “I am attracted to innovative techniques, such as Arthur’s King’s work with gold in the lost wax method.” Mahnaz, who becomes very animated when on the subject of jewelry makers and their artifacts, says that the jewelers she admires have taught her to respect the mixing of stones not by value but by color palette and juxtaposition. And she cannot get enough of yellow gold, “a vestigial South Asian thing perhaps?” she wonders. “Sometimes I fall in love with the ingenuity of a mechanism or a clasp. The Van Cleef and Arpels sautoirs of the swinging 1970s had such fantastic flair. I admire openness. Cartier and VCA have probably been the design houses most open to influences from around the world, including India and China.”
Mahnaz Collection carries jewelry mainly from the 1960s through the 1980s. The Italian celebrity magazines lying around the Chittagong hairdresser Mahnaz accompanied her mother to as a child, had something to do with this choice of era. In full-page black and white photographs, with just enough room at the bottom for a long caption, they showed Gina Lollobrigida or Claudia Cardinale in the late 60’s, wearing cat make-up, bombé hairdos, and splashy jewels. Mahnaz found those women beautiful and impossibly glamorous. The images returned with the jewels of the 60’s and 70’s she clearly loves. “As I looked at jewelry and acquired pieces, I saw that the 70’s designs had the same edge to them as the culture and politics of that time. They could be quite experimental, and the necklaces carried pendants full of astrological signs, and animal symbols. But possibly because of those old Italian magazines, I also find I can’t give up my feeling for the sensuality and ladylike sexiness of the 60’s.” Italy in the ‘60s, 70’s, and the ‘80s, is a place that interests Mahnaz, along with its brilliant artist jewelers, some being re-discovered now, poised between sculpture and jewelry, between architecture and design.
With a thirty-year professional and philanthropic career behind her, Mahnaz Collection is the result of Mahnaz’s passion, knowledge, and unique openness to the world. She makes it all right to be serious about jewelry. She traces the origin of a jewel with the precision of a scholar, because she is one, and proves that many planets can exist side by side, as in the orbs suspended next to each other in Facchini’s space-age pendant.
Gini Alhadeff is the author of a memoir, The Sun at Midday: Tales of a Mediterranean Family, and a novel, Diary of a Djinn. She was born in Alexandria, Egypt, of Italian parents. A regular contributor to Italian Elle and Travel + Leisure magazines, she is completing The Magic Horn, about a Swiss-American psychiatrist and her therapeutic sculpture garden at Bellevue Hospital in Manhattan.