Published: June 5, 2007
The name of Seaman Schepps (1881‱972) has long been synonymous with vibrant, highly original design. His bold, colorful jewelry entranced mid-Twentieth Century American society, and commissions from many White House families led The Washington Post to dub him “America’s Court Jeweler.”
In an exhibition organized by the Museum of Arts & Design, New York, “Seaman Schepps (1881‱972): America’s Court Jeweler,” brings together some 150 pieces of jewelry, designs and related material that trace the development of this innovative jeweler. The exhibitions opens June 9 at the Gilbert Collection, Somerset House, and will run until August 27, clearly illustrating his daughter Patricia Valli’s comment, “Daddy’s jewelry was something outrageous.”
Marlene Dietrich, Katharine Hepburn, Doris Duke, Wanda Toscanini Horowitz and the Duchess of Windsor, as well as members of the du Pont, Mellon and Roosevelt families, were among his clients. His eye-catching jewelry not only appealed to the modern independent Twentieth Century woman, who found his pieces visually striking and fun to wear, but also to Pop Art icon Andy Warhol, who was an avid collector.
Schepps’ life is a classic American success story. Born in 1881, he was one of nine children of Hungarian immigrants who lived on New York’s Lower East Side. His name was allegedly inspired by the Seamen’s Bank for Savings, visible from his mother’s room in the hospital in which he was born. At the turn-of-the-century he went to seek his fortune in California where he courted and married the beautiful daughter of a prominent Illinois family. In 1904 he opened his first antiques and jewelry shop in Los Angeles. After a stay in San Francisco, he returned to New York where he opened several stores, finally opening his grand shop at 399 Madison Avenue in 1933. Today, the store is at 485 Park Avenue, with others in Palm Beach, Fla., and Nantucket, Mass.
What makes the jewelry of Schepps so distinctive and memorable is the way he incorporated an astonishing diversity of natural materials such as seashells, sandalwood, walnut, Asian carvings and rock crystals along with traditional gem stones.
The exhibition will show the earliest known surviving pieces of jewelry by Schepps, a pair of bracelets in the Art Deco style composed of engraved emeralds and engraved ruby leaves with diamonds in white gold. They still have their original hand written receipt dated June 5, 1931, when the price was $2,250.
As with so many jewelers, nature played an important role in Schepps’ designs: flowers, animals, birds, butterflies, insects, grapes, fish, shellfish, seahorses, turtles and shells appear time and again in his own inimitable style. Schepps designed some jewels incorporating miniature sculptures; his innovative use of baroque pearls in jewelry rivaled the pieces made by Renaissance masters.
At the age of 88, Schepps was still creating stunning jewelry and among the later pieces in the exhibition is a large natural coral branch bracelet with yellow gold, emeralds and diamonds that he presented to one of his employees, Joyce Keigharn, on her 25th anniversary with the company in 1969.
After his death in 1972, his daughter Patricia Vaill continued making jewelry. The exhibition includes a few pieces made under her directions to show how the tradition he has established continued and was developed to appeal to a new generation.
For more information, 44 (0) 20 7420 9400 or www.gilbert-collection.org.uk .
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