By Coralie Langston-Jones.
Every girl wants to be Federico de Vera’s best friend. Not just because he’s mischievous, thoughtful, and playful, but also because his abundant knowledge of the eclectic, the artful, and the beautiful is so intriguing. Federico is an arbiter of taste, as expressed in his work as a jewelry designer; a gallery owner of antique objects, curios, and jewelry; and more recently as the author of De Vera Objects and De Vera Jewelry. Federico seeks beauty in the most unlikely places.
When you walk into the de Vera gallery store on Crosby Street, Manhattan, you enter another world. Prepare to be dazzled. While your pulse starts to race ahead, a silent voice in your head quietly whispers, “Let the coveting begin!”
De Vera’s store has attracted clients such as Giorgio Armani, Jonathan Ive, and Karl Lagerfeld. Antique cabinets are brimming with dazzling fragments of beauty. A cornucopia of curious objects can be found, ranging from 18th century candlesticks, a ruby and diamond encrusted perfume flask from India, a 16th century St. Joseph gold figurine, and a pair of carved ivory saints’ hands. Not to mention vintage vitrines displaying row upon row of the most exquisite jewelry and baubles. You can be assured that every piece in de Vera’s store is one of a kind.
Tell me how you started collecting antique objects and curios. My mother’s passion for jewelry rubbed off on to me, I’d say, at an early age. When we were young, I would help my mother select her jewelry for special occasions. I would lay out all her pieces on her bed, and I would study each piece, admiring each and every one for its particular shape, color, and the way it sparkled. I was always drawn to the enigma of a gem, so mysterious and precious.
How did that lead to jewelry making? When I opened my first store in San Francisco, I was selling primarily antiques and objet d’arts. One day, I was browsing through a book and saw an illustration of a beautiful, 3rd century BC Greek gold necklace. The image sparked an idea for me to create something similar by own hands, using mother-of-pearl beads and seed pearls.
When I finished it, I realized that I could actually make jewelry myself, and that jewelry could be made out of non-traditional components. I started taking apart antique jewelry and re-assembling with other elements to create entirely new pieces.
What’s your process for designing jewelry? Do you start with uncut stones and other materials as a starting point? Or does it depend on what you happen to find on your travels? I usually start with wanting to express an idea, or a story I want to tell. I use precious materials in very unexpected ways, or I use odd materials in very refined forms. I feel beauty can be expressed in as much as the approach to the design and the underlying sensibility, as the materials themselves.
Where do you find your material components for jewelry? The best stone dealers are in the United States and the best antique jewelry dealers are in London. I have a network of dealers with whom I like working, who find interesting materials and who are not stuck in the classic 4C’s or GIA certificates. Flawless stones are beautiful, but I also find beauty in gems with inclusions, too. I keep an open mind towards all types of gems, and other materials.
We sat down to lunch at Zuni Café recently and you ordered their famous Virgin Bloody Mary. Your fascination for saintly artifacts seems a constant source of inspiration for you. For example, carved effigies, stone hands, and crucifixes etc. Is there something in your upbringing that sparked your interest initially in holy artifacts? I had a Catholic upbringing. My family went to church every Sunday. During church services, my mind would wander to pass the time. I became fascinated with the religious statues and paintings surrounding me. My imagination would run amok. The artifacts were portrayed so lifelike, as if they had a life of their own. I would study their expressions, imagining what they might have been thinking. The fact that they were sacred made them even more intriguing, possessing certain mystic powers.
Throughout your work, you are a storyteller. Can you share some stories behind some of your pieces? My pieces start with an idea, a story I want to tell from things I find. Along the way, I develop subplots, revealing new relationships between one component and another. By combining old pieces of jewelry together, the result is often surreal. An ivory hand holds a tiny diamond mimicking a drop of water. A tear falling from an eye is expressed from a little diamond briolette hanging from an oval-shaped piece of coral with a pearl in the middle.
You’re an avid recycler. Tell me about this process in your work. I find new lives for old things that have been disregarded. For instance, components of a damaged necklace can be repurposed to become earrings, creating a new incarnation from their original state. Ultimately, I try interpreting them from a different point of view.
Many of my components are derived from Greek, Medieval, Renaissance, Georgian, and Victorian jewelry. I am drawn to these eras. I combine new and old parts to make every single piece. I almost never sell a piece of antique jewelry in its original form.
Some of your pieces employ unusual materials and production methods. For instance, can you explain the origins of the Victorian human hair jewelry, how those pieces came about, and if such techniques are still alive today? Queen Victoria popularized mourning jewelry upon the death of her husband Albert in 1861, insisting on remaining in black mourning dress for the rest of her life. However, the practice of wearing mourning jewelry, as mementos commemorating a deceased loved one goes back further, to at least the 14th century.
Usually mourning jewelry bears inspirations regarding the deceased, and often incorporate crystal or glass covered bezels containing locks of hair. The lock of hair is sometimes woven, plaited, or embroidered. In the Victorian era, these sentimental pieces were fashioned from “Whitby Jet” (fossilized remains of a tree), dark-hued black glass (known as “French jet”), vulcanite, or darkened, oxidized silver. These jewels were sometimes set with tiny seed pearls, representing tears.
Very few hair artists exist today, but I met an artisan who has explored and developed the original hair weaving technique. It’s a very meticulous, intricate art.
Tell me about rosecut diamonds. Why is there a renewed interest in rosecut diamonds when they offer much less “bling” value and fire, compared to the popular brilliant cut diamond? India has long held diamonds in high esteem, for many thousands of years, where natural deposits occur. For generations, Indians believed that cutting a diamond would cause the magic held within the stone to escape. Hence, the stones were traditionally left uncut. By the Middle Ages, diamonds were carved into simple facets. The rosecut diamond is flat at the bottom or underside, and features a domed top, which is cut into triangular facets. These didn’t appear until around 1300. The popular brilliant cut, which brings out the stone’s high, fiery refraction, appeared in the 18th century.
Like anything in fashion, trends go through cycles. The rosecut diamond is enjoying a rebirth because there has been a revival in wearing vintage clothing and jewelry in general in the past decade. Hollywood stars have captured the vintage moment on the red carpet. Celebrities are seeking less fastidious looks, in favor of something more natural. Vintage rosecut diamonds are now commanding a premium, due to their popularity and short supply.
We spent an afternoon together visiting legendary enamel artist June Schwarz at her home in Sausalito recently. What is it that draws you to her work? June Schwarz is a true living legend, one of the pioneers of electroplating in gold, silver, and copper forms. If you visit her studio, you’ll see a dizzying array of production techniques at various stages in the process. For instance, electroplating baths and vessels, paper models carefully assembled atop work-benches, and scraps of pliable copper sheets or metal meshes are formed, ready for electroplating, and subsequently enameling. Her command of experimenting and controlling a lot of moving parts in the production process is remarkable in the way it spawns surreal-looking vessels exhibiting subtle colorations and patinas on the surface of the copper, and the way the quality of light is represented. It’s a play on delicate versus industrial, color versus light, a sort of rawness and honesty.
Why is Georgian paste jewelry held in such high esteem, when the stones are merely glass? Paste jewelry is made using hand-cut leaded glass, dating back to Georgian and Victorian periods. To most untrained eyes, Georgian paste jewelry looks like the real thing. Even aristocracy at the time, such as Marie Antoinette, Queen Elizabeth I, and later Coco Channel, wore paste jewelry, because they wanted the look.
Paste is rare to find today, mostly coming from England and France. What sets Georgian paste jewelry apart from other types of glass jewelry we see today is the craftsmanship in the setting. The setting is an important distinction. Modern paste jewelry will never possess high quality settings, whereas with Georgian paste jewelry, you will find the finest gem settings from that era. Like many things from past eras, more care was taken in how well personal items were made, how long it took them to make it, the pride that people had with their job. Craftsmanship and uniqueness are characteristics in Georgian paste jewelry that we won’t find in modern paste jewelry of today.
Do you have any exciting upcoming projects you’d like to share? I’m planning to create a book and show of “useless objects.” I will demonstrate pieces that I consider perfect or almost perfect, or perfect in their imperfection. I like things that most people don’t know about and haven’t seen before.
De Vera store locations:
1 Crosby Street, New York, NY. 212.625.0838.
26 East 81st Street, New York, NY. 212.288.2288.