The Swimmer. October 2017.

Dear Rowley,

As we enter my birth month I do increasingly think there’s credence to all this star sign malarky. I am a textbook Scorpio: determined, complex, secretive, lustful, resourceful, vindictive, fatal when provoked and with an inclination to kill itself rather than be killed. My favourite Scorpio trait is the power of regeneration. When chopped-off, the tail grows back don’t you know.

Scorpio is a water sign and if there’s a number one water baby in Bloomsbury it’s a yes from me Simon. I’ve said it a million times but water is nature’s tranquilliser. It is not coincidental that I begin every possible day with a swim. My very best thinking is done ploughing through laps in tight Speedos (pass the sal volatile Maud) working out how I’m going to win at life.

As you know, I have not always won at life but which of us have? I sometimes look at those Slim Aarons photographs of the billionaire belt in the US poolside in the 1950s and 1960s and wonder. The picture is beyond perfect. The subjects are immaculately groomed. The sun is always shining. Little do they know that Fate and Nemesis are waiting off-stage to strike.

I do consider a year when I don’t swim in the Mediterranean sea a wasted one. The sheer tranquility of swimming underwater in a calm sea does for me what Quaaludes or Valium did for all those Dolls in the Slim Aarons pictures. I am most at peace underwater feeling weightless and careless. Perhaps in a past life I was a guppy.

Birthday months do tend to bring out the reflective mood in me. It’s a bit like marking the score at the end of a rubber of Bridge. Well, I celebrated my last birthday less than a month after talking myself out of a madhouse in Toronto so I’m already significantly up the leader board in 2017. The head and heart have been well looked after in the past year. The next year is going to be all about the wallet.

In the bigger picture, I am fortunate to be celebrating a decade in Bloomsbury Towers and twenty-five years in ‘the business’ as Danny La Rue would say. Then again, there’s nothing quite so irritating when you’re going through lean times than to have some do-gooder reminding you there are starving children in Africa.

Admittedly I’ve made a few bucks in my time. But I’ve spent a few on booze, boys, swanky dinners and suits. I squandered the rest. I would describe my career in London with a song title. ‘They just keep moving the line’. Before I got my trophy, the race began again. And again. I always thought that money was the applause for a good performance. I know now that this is not the case.

So what to do apart from pull off a big one? I am of course referring to a bank job. Sadly I don’t think Scorpios are cut out to be master criminals. But I do think we can apply our inquiring minds to the challenge of cashing-in on our talent. As a fashion journalist, my job was to criticise and praise. As an author it is to lionise. But as CEO of Jewellery for Gentlemen Ltd it will be to test my eye for small, sparkly treasures that sell.

We all sell ourselves on a daily basis but I have never tested my ability to sell something solid such as men’s jewellery. I have sold my mind and my ability to string pretty, hopefully intelligent sentences together. But I have never yet tested whether people will buy something tangible of my choice.

I do believe writing is a talent that can be nurtured and developed and I am grateful that people want to purchase what I write. But I do daydream about having a singing voice that could carry me through life like the wings of a dove. Singing is the talent I most envy. I believe it is God-given compared to dancing. You may have rhythm in your soul  but dancing demands sweat and tears for a short career. A truly exceptional singing voice lasts forever if you take care of it.

Sadly, I don’t sing like Streisand. I don’t even sing like Dorothy Squires on a bad night in the Wheel Tappers & Shunters Social Club. But I do still daydream that one day I will find a voice that people will pay to listen to. Perhaps that is a euphemism for wanting more attention and applause. I don’t know.

Well this is turning into a very navel-gazing letter isn’t it? Let’s get back to the burning issues of the day such as Strictly Come Dancing. You know I adore that show. It is the panacea for all the ills of the British winter when your optimism/sense of humour/sex drive take a dive. But will somebody please put Tess Daley out of our misery?

The woman speaks to the celebrity dancers as if they are kindergarten pupils who have peed themselves and she’s trying to mop up and console. Patronising isn’t even in it. Neither is any discernible sense of humour. Tess is an autocue android. By contrast Claudia ‘the walking mascara wand’ Winkleman is a loose canon.

I like Claudia’s schtick but is she really good enough to be the BBC’s highest paid female talent? The sight gags are truly execrable and I can’t help but think of the Peggy Lee dog in The Lady and the Tramp whenever she peeps out of that damned fringe. I can’t call who will win Strictly at this early stage but I suspect it might be one of the pop singers who have sung and danced since they were knee high to a grasshopper. Chizzy didn’t have a chance. Until next time…

 

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Black Magic. September 2017.

Dear Rowley,

Well, Alexander Skarsgard is swiftly becoming the poster boy for Jewellery for Gentlemen and the picture in my locket. Not only did he win the Emmy for Big Little Lies, he also accepted it wearing a Deco diamond Cartier dress clip dated 1929.

With the rakish moustache and sharp tuxedo, Skarsgard channelled golden age Clark Gable who I noticed wore onyx buttons on his dinner jacket vest. Once you get your eye in for gentlemen’s jewellery there is such a precedent in the past f0r small treasures worn discreetly.

All roads seem to lead to jewellery at the moment. The other day, Tracey Llewellyn my delectable editor on Revolution asked me to write a piece about the relationship between Fabergé watches and the Imperial Easter Eggs that inspired the designs. My favourite is the gem-set Compliquée Peacock watch that tells the minutes as the bird’s bejewelled tail fans.

The fifty Fabergé Imperial Easter Eggs are to me the pinnacle of the jewellers’ art. The most ingenious egg  is the Mosaic egg now in possession of HM The Queen. The egg is constructed from a platinum trelliswork worked entirely by hand and set with a mosaic of multicoloured gemstones in floral motifs. The design was inspired by needlepoint.

The Mosaic egg is semi-transparent and contains a surprise as do each of the other fifty eggs: in this case a cameo portrait of Tsar Nicholas II’s five children. The portraits were some of the more conventional fancies. Other eggs concealed automaton jewelled peacocks, miniature renderings of palaces and royal carriages, sprays of flowers carved from hard stones and miniature diamond Imperial crowns.

The Imperial Easter Eggs were private gifts first from Tsar Alexander III to his wife Marie Feodorovna and then from Tsar Nicholas II to his wife the Empress Alexandra and his mother the Dowager Empress. Nobody bar the Imperial family and the Fabergé workshop knew of their existence before the Revolution.

I believe the Dowager Empress escaped Russia with one Imperial Egg. The rest were scattered to the four winds or kept in the Kremlin until the Soviet regime sold them. That so many survived is a miracle and the Fabergé eggs will forever be a symbol of Romanov decadence.

The Fabergré eggs are, in effect, deeply sentimental Eater gifts that took over a year each to make using materials and techniques that only maser craftsmen could handle. My only question is why, when they rarely come up for sale, do the Fabergé eggs not leave 20th century artists such as Rothko, Pollock, De Koonig and Bacon in the shade?

The world’s most expensive painting is thought to be Gaugin’s Two Tahitian Girls which sold to the gentleman in the kaffiyeh for $300 million. The most expensive Fabergé egg was the Third Imperial Egg made in 1887 and lost after the Revolution until it was discovered in an American flea market a couple of years ago. The egg was identified by Wartski and sold for a rumoured $33 million.

It does seem bizarre that a Pollock consisting of demented paint splatters can exceed $100 million at auction while a Fabergé egg so exquisitely crafted using precious metals, gemstones and the minds of masters to concoct the surprises within doesn’t even come close. One would imagine that if an unique egg such as the Mosaic came to auction, it might be more highly prized than a Picasso canvas of which there are thousands.

Jewellery was particularly prominent at this season’s LAPADA antiques fair in Berkeley Square. Lucas Rarities took the prize for a funfair-themed stand in pole position complete with trick mirrors, neon signs and circus games. There were two corking Suzanne Belperron cabochon sapphire brooches that pleased the eye and a very cute 1913 Cartier diamond stick pin that I coveted.

While researching a piece about stick pins for Country Life, I had the opportunity to re-visit Mr Omar at Bentley & Skinner and Thomas at Wartski. At the former I met the most divine Art Nouveau 18ct yellow gold serpent stick pin with an emerald eye and at the later re-acquainted myself with a peacock feather Cartier stick pin we shot for Jewellery for Gentlemen. 

My own Jewellery for Gentlemen venture for The Wedding Gallery is gaining momentum. I’m still waiting on a decision from Virgin Startup about investment but have everything ready for the green flag should it come. The more pieces of antique men’s jewellery I buy, the more I believe that Mr Skarsgard is an early adopter and Jewellery for Gentlemen is ready for a major comeback.

What else is new on the Rialto? Well, we went to see Victoria & Abdul; Judi Dench’s second outing as Queen Victoria this time concentrating on the old lady’s relationship with her Muslim ‘Munshi’ or teacher. To my knowledge, the real Munshi was not India’s answer to Bambi: all doe-eyes and dazzling teeth. Nor was the old queen in love with him.

The court – and in particular the future King Edward VII – are portrayed as bathetic colonialists sucking their teeth and twirling their moustaches that an Indian servant could become John Brown the Second. Most of the Royal Family surrounding Queen Victoria were removed presumably to keep the story simple and allow Dame Judi to display her chops as the cantankerous, stubborn old lady.

There was a lot of playing for laughs at the expense of the Royal Household suggesting that the Munshi was in some way a heroic hand across the sea from India to its Empress. In reality, he appeared to me like Mr Sloane in the eponymous Joe Orton play. Then again, the fact that he was the last to see The Queen before she was sealed in her coffin does suggest that even King Edward VII acknowledged the bond between them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Vivien Leigh. September 2017.

Dear Rowley,

I recall many years ago filming a documentary about Vivien Leigh for Channel 4 in which I commented that her life and her art on screen were in total harmony: from the skittish, delicious, courageous minx Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind (1939) to what screenwriter Gavin Lambert described as the ‘deceitful frayed elegance’ of Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951).

Vivien only made nine movies after Gone With the Wind not least because she became the first lady of the stage often co-starring with husband Laurence Olivier. The films she did make are courageous considering the lady’s well-documented and hugely destructive manic depression. Vivien was one of the 20th century’s greatest beauties but accepted roles in later life that underlined the inevitability of ageing.

To me Streetcar is painful to watch as is Vivien’s other Tennessee Williams eponymous fading lady in The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone (1961). The latter film in which Mrs Stone becomes embroiled with a Contessa who provides young Italian gigolos for willing older ladies is merciless and Vivien breaks your heart in it. How must it have felt to watch Marilyn Monroe walk off with the role of Elsie Marina in the 1957 film version of The Sleeping Prince: a role Vivien created on stage opposite Olivier?

Needless to say back in the days of manic depression rather than the more cuddly ‘bi-polar’, sufferers of the condition were misunderstood. People saw a voracious, Martini-happy dame living on the edge of her nerves when really this was a symptom not a cause of Vivien Leigh’s troubles. And yet in public Vivien maintained her dignity and consistently produced superb work on stage and screen that must often have forced her to confront some less than glamorous realities.

Vivien Leigh was blessed with beauty, intellect, visceral talent and by all accounts a brittle sense of humour that allowed her to finesse the curse of manic depression. For all who share the condition, Vivien Leigh is something of an inspiration and for that the applause continues long after her death in 1967. For all the gossip mongers who rake over Vivien’s misfortunes I have this to say. Had she only made Gone With the Wind and never worked again, Vivien Leigh achieved immortality and so much more than the allegedly ‘sane’ people who bore us all by leading long, uneventful lives.

It was with no little fascination that I chanced upon a small exhibition of Vivien Leigh’s estate to be sold by Sotheby’s London on the 26th of September with a larger preview on the 22nd. Treasures on sale include Vivien’s copy of Gone With the Wind signed by Margaret Mitchell and her annoted script. There are personal and professional photographs, a painting given by Sir Winston Churchill, furniture and gowns. But it was the contents of Vivien’s jewellery box that caught my eye.

Unlike the Duchess of Windsor and Elizabeth Taylor whose legendary collections of jewels have broken auction records, Vivien’s pieces are not led by masterpieces by the historic Parisian jewel houses. Like the lady herself, they are much more understated, sophisticated and personal pieces of jewellery that reflect a woman of great taste. In addition to Renaissance revival pieces there’s a darling diamond Art Deco Longines dress watch, several graphic mid-century show-stoppers and sentimental jewels such as charm bracelets and inscribed rings.

The star piece is a garland style tasselled diamond bow brooch with an estimate of £25,000-£35,000 in a style worn by the Empress Eugenie of the French. Vivien would wear it against black gowns giving the piece the attention that it deserved. But apart from the bow brooch, the estimates are incredibly low. How did the experts arrive at a low estimate of £800 for a natural pearl and diamond necklace … and that’s before you add the Vivien Leigh magic?

I have my eye on two brooches – a polo mallet and a riding crop – that could be marvellous additions to the inventory of Jewellery for Gentlemen - but fear the £150-£200 estimates will be left far behind on the day. Still, I will register and hopefully attend the sale. I also have to have the catalogue. Sotheby’s are absolutely terrific at researching both facts and pictures to support the pieces in an estate sale of this stature. One of my favourite books bar none are the boxed set of S0theby’s catalogues of the 1987 Duke and Duchess of Windsor sale.

I do hope the Vivien Leigh sale at Sotheby’s inspires the programmers at the BFI to plan a season of Vivien’s films to introduce her to a new generation of fans. Now that mental health is such a hot topic amongst Millennials I would have thought Vivien’s life reflected through her film work would be as relevant today as it was in the 20th century.

Speaking of Millennials, can we have a mini-rant about vocabulary? When did the habit of finishing every sentence with a dopey smile and ‘if that makes sense’ begin? I feel like saying ‘of course it bleedin makes sense. You’re not speaking Swahili and I’m not a fecking idiot’. Another pet peeve is somebody qualifying a fact in their lives that’s a complete mystery to you with ‘obviously’ as in ‘obviously we’re serving prawn fancies at Shona’s wedding’. Obvious to you and the caterer perhaps but news to me…

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Return to Splendour. September 2017.

Dear Rowley,

While recording a short interview for a film about Savile Row the other day I was asked what made me throw so much energy behind British bespoke tailoring? I believe the epiphany came at the Paris menswear shows when what I saw on show was not reflecting a bigger picture: the relentless drive towards individuality in dress, a rejection of global brands and a desire to reconnect with a slower, more considered and responsible approach to dress.

Savile Row met all those requirements. The suits had longevity, individuality and light carbon footprints. The process involved human skill, connection and a commitment of that most precious commodity time. One could ask the same question as to why I chose to write Jewellery for Gentlemen with Thames & Hudson at this precise moment in time.

Over recent decades I had seen man’s innate desire for adornment play itself out in Hip Hop bling and Rock ‘n Roll biker silver. Surely, I thought, taste would evolve and become more sophisticated. The epidemic of tattoos proved to me that men were not shy of inking permanent decoration on their flesh … a much bigger commitment than buying a precious piece of jewellery that can be removed.

Reaching back into history, I was fascinated to see how jewellery migrates around the male body. One only has to walk the halls of the National Portrait Gallery to see how tastes in men’s jewellery evolves. The Whitehall cartoon of King Henry VIII shows one of several parures (sets) of ruby and yellow gold jewels that the king wore on his fingers, in his caps and as buttons and dress studs.

King James I reset many of the jewels he inherited from Queen Elizabeth I to wear as vast hat embellishments including the lost ‘Three Brothers’ ruby, diamond and pearl plaque. King Charles I favoured a substantial single pearl earring as large as Mary Tudor’s Peregrina and jewelled shoe buckles. The three King Georges grew increasingly parsimonious in dress until King George VI profligately spent re-setting Crown and borrowed diamonds.

It isn’t widely known that the diamond diadem with a single yellow diamond accent seen on every stamp and banknote worn by Queen Elizabeth II was made for King George IV. It was a jewel for gentlemen. The British royal males never regained the louche splendour of King George IV as far as jewellery is concerned bar Coronation Day.

But well into the 20th century, India’s Maharajas were still commissioning suites of magnificent jewels from Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels and Boucheron that constituted Indian Art Deco Crown Jewels. A case in point is the magnificent Patiala necklace set by Cartier in the 1920s: a platinum festoon set with diamonds, rubies and a the vast yellow De Beers diamond.

What fascinates me about the Indian Maharajas’ jewels is how masculine these adornments appear despite the fact that no woman in that era wore more bar Britain’s Queen Mary in her pomp. The last Maharaja of Patiala was photographed wearing the necklace in the early 1940s after which it disappeared presumably broken-up. Remembering this was less than a century ago, who can doubt that the desire for lavish jewels is not still latent in Indian culture.

Such is life that the young revere movie stars so much more than royalty today. I began to notice that important antique jewellery was appearing on men’s lapels on red carpets worldwide. Cartier led the field with a 1950s sapphire and diamond brooch worn as a collar pin by Jared Leto at the Met Gala and an 18ct yellow gold Juste un Clou nail pin worn in Alexander Skarsgard’s lapel.

The influencers are ahead of the industry in this respect although we are seeing the international jewel houses beginning to ramp up their collections marketed to men. Even ten years ago who would have thought a large solitaire diamond earring would have migrated to the high street thanks to the influence of Lewis Hamilton, David Beckham and Will Smith? I go to Waitrose now and so many of the boys are wearing single ear studs the size of a dice.

Questions about what constitutes masculine or feminine fashion is the hottest topic at present. I’m not even going to go there about John Lewis selling gender neutral children’s clothes. But what I will say is that this fluidity can only add fuel to the fire for Jewellery for Gentlemen. Men have worn significant precious jewels since the dawn of civilisation. Victorian modesty and austerity for men is merely a blip.

The global brands that have successfully conquered emerging markets worldwide did not, I think, take into account the patina of taste in fashion and jewellery that has evolved over hundreds of years. Who is to say that China will not return to the splendour of the age of its Emperors or that Russia will not yearn for the glories of the 300-year old Romanov dynasty?

I don’t think for a moment that we will see tech billionaires smothered in jewels like an Indian Maharaja. But it is already clear that the super rich in Hong Kong both male and female covet pieces of antique Imperial jade and that Russian oligarchs get a kick out of owning a set of the last Tsar’s jewelled Fabergé cufflinks.

In an era of virtual money (Bitcoin), contactless payments, instant debits and online banking there is something very reassuring about solid assets such as an antique Cartier pin or a coloured diamond set of cufflinks. Portable property was the saviour of the wealth of the Maharajas and the exiled Romanovs. So I will make a prediction. Men will increasingly trust precious metals and stones in this uncertain world. Perhaps in the 21st century diamonds will be a boy’s best friend.

 

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Falling Stars. September 2017.

Dear Rowley,

The sadness of watching Nick Broomfield’s documentary about the late Whitney Houston last night. You might disagree but I think the single greatest gift a person can be born with is a voice. Voices like Whitney’s come once in a generation. You wish, like Streisand, that she had taken care of it so much better.

There was much I didn’t know about Whitney Houston’s career. Like Garland, she was a child prodigy. Like Diana Princess of Wales, she was world famous by the age of nineteen. Whitney was a construct of poor but ambitious parents and a record industry that saw in her a recording artist who could break out of R&B and be a pop superstar.

Looking at early footage of Whitney, she appears to be the sweetest, most wholesome and happy young girl. I remember one of the few genuinely carefree moments in my life prancing to I Wanna Dance With Somebody in a Minorcan nightclub as a teenager. Whitney sang about fun, love and optimism.

What we didn’t know was that the Houston family was as controlling as the Jacksons and that Whitney’s relationship with her right hand woman Robyn Crawford was probably intimate which concerned her church-going family. I didn’t know how much criticism came from the black community that Whitney had somehow sold out and forgotten her roots.

The tragedy was, of course, that she never did. It seems conclusive that Whitney Houston became addicted to notorious rapper Bobby Brown to give her credibility that she’d actually earned long before she fell for a very bad and manipulative man. What transpired after the marriage was a fight for Whitney Houston’s soul between Brown and Robyn Crawford.

The sadness in the documentary was seeing Whitney decline so sharply after her marriage to Brown. They seemed to be living in squalor in hotel bedrooms while on tour or totally manic pre and post show. Brown is invariably swaggering and basking in Whitney’s light while she appears slow, confused and seeing life in soft focus. The physical deterioration of Whitney’s looks and her voice are heartbreaking.

When Whitney made The Bodyguard and sang the best selling soundtrack of all time topped by I Will Always Love You the industry could comfortably have predicted a great career in movies. Instead her world tours with Brown in tow destroyed that precious gift. Her real bodyguard was fired for writing a report demanding that her family break the cycle of self-destruction and get her into rehab.

A lot of the footage for the documentary was taken for a backstage movie of a Whitney world tour in 1999. She’d bobbed her hair and made a comeback record prophetically called It’s Not Right But It’s Okay. There is endless film of Brown and Whitney falling out of nightclubs or she slumped in a dressing room sweating and shaking after giving her all onstage.

It was after this tour that Robyn walked away from Whitney Houston. To her credit, she’s never written a book and the same can’t be said of Whitney’s mother and Bobby Brown. With Robyn’s exit, the drugs sent Whitney into the downward spiral from which she would never recover.

Having been replaced to sing at the Academy Awards, Whitney appeared on a disastrous tribute to Michael Jackson looking skeletal. When asked on live television which drug was the biggest devil in her life,  she replied ‘no, that’ll be me’. Her father died saying Whitney owed him money.

Whitney semi-retired and went into rehab. By now she was looking like Billie Holiday in the last months of her life. Still married to Brown, they had a daughter Bobbi. There was a godawful scene when she brought the child on stage during a stadium tour and the little kid was bewildered to say the least as her mother jumped around her fist pumping to the crowds.

There’s a poignant recording that Judy Garland made towards the end of her life saying bitterly that her fortune had been consumed by supporting everyone around her with n increasingly failing voice. Whitney tore through $250 million before her death in 2012. She’d been divorced from Brown since 2007 and had sought solace in drugs again.

Whitney Houston’s life ended on the night of the Grammy Awards where she was slated to appear. In a truly horrible postscript, her daughter was found dead like her mother in the bath aged twenty-two.

Whitney wasn’t the first and she won’t be the last talent to be extinguished by bad men and bad drugs. But did nobody see it coming in the earliest stages or intervene when it was obvious Whitney’s life was in danger?

Of the current crop of superstar lady singers, Madonna appears to be indestructible, Britney Spears crashed the car but survived and Gaga has her head screwed-on. You’d hope the people surrounding Katy Perry, Taylor Swift and Beyonce will protect their assets as long as money is being made. But, then again, you’d have thought the same about Whitney Houston.

 

 

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