Jeweller Par Excellence and a Trail Blazer in so many ways
It is rare to come across a fine jewellery designer whose design repertoire is as panoramic as that of Christopher Walling. From very modern, contemporary and edgy pieces all the way to jewellery designs evoking the romance of bygone times, Christopher’s fine jewellery pieces are breathtaking in every sense of the word.
His influence on modern jewellery is undeniable. Described by Sotheby’s as “undoubtedly one of the most exciting jewelry designers on the scene today,” Christopher has changed the crafting of modern, very fine jewellery in many innovative ways. Known for his brilliant use of rare natural as well as baroque pearls and his bezel-set gemstone inlays in pearls, Christopher’s jewellery pieces bring together very unique and trendy elements of design to create a marvellous symphony of colour, shapes and textures. His list of clients includes among many, international royalty, A-list celebrities and leading philanthropists of our time-a testament to the wide appeal of Christopher’s jewellery design aesthetic. While there have been many jewellery designers who have found inspiration from his work, none, in my opinion, have ever come close to his creative genius.
Christopher is warm, very insightful and has an almost encyclopaedic knowledge on a vast number of subjects. He is also a natural story teller and his arsenal of anecdotes are as interesting as they are entertaining. Outside of jewellery, Christopher is a reader who is interested in world politics, history (which in his case is definitely intersectional with jewellery), travelling and catching up with his thousands of friends. However, in his more quiet moments, you can find him training his ivy and taking care of his orchids, the pride of his lovely conservatory.
In my interview, I asked Christopher about his journey to becoming a jewellery designer, his creative process and also some memorable pieces of jewellery he has designed over the years.
You studied Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia University but then chose to become a jewellery designer. Could you tell us why you chose jewellery design as your career and about your journey to becoming a jewellery designer?
Easy: I was passionate about archaeology and realized I was not about to dig up another King Tutankhamun’s tomb…on Cape Cod! And trying to culture pearls in my aquarium had been a bust! I was studying Political Science in the hope of following the path of a number of my relatives and ancestors but came to realize that – in the age telephones, etc. – diplomats had become mere ciphers of Presidents and Secretaries of State, much less fun. I did however enjoy traveling on a Diplomatic Passport the first years of my life!
And when the RMS Lusitania sank (1915), one of our very first women architects and art collectors Theodate Pope Riddle was on it. When she saw 1157 men give up their lives so that women and children could get into the lifeboats, she made a vow that she would design, build and endow a boarding school for boys, if she survived. She did. Theodate Pope Riddle (a cousin of the great architect Philip Johnson) built Avon Old Farms at a personal cost of $ 7 million of that day. It was stuffy, but she insisted that each of the boys also pick a craft to learn, and my beloved father chose to learn jewelry making as a craft at that school and when I was eight, he taught me; so I guess jewelry chose ME!
It also didn’t “hurt” that – hours after I was born (in Paris) – Dad went out, bought a suite of jewelry and laid it over my sleeping mother so it would be the first thing she would see when she woke. As Diana Vreeland wrote, “If you can arrange to be born in Paris, the rest of your life will turn out just fine.” Not to generalize! My mother would periodically open her jewel case in later years to show them to me and this became one of my definitions of love. She was also a much- decorated French Catholic WW2 hero – who survived torture in three prisons as well as a year in Ravensbrück Concentration Camp at the end of that horror and carried the resultant PTSD with her. Giving her jewelry became a way for me to try to make her happy, too…
Nor that I rarely ever saw my father’s Russian-born mother – even on the beach – without the tasteful, unobtrusive diamond necklace her in-laws had given her for her wedding; however her choker had originally been an upscale chain…which reached to the floor and which as a prominent socialist she politely returned to them asking if she could keep just fifteen inches of it!
Can you describe your process of jewellery creation? Where do you draw your inspiration from?
As I’m one of the few designers who KNOWS how to make jewelry from A-Z: I am surely just about the only jeweler alive who learned how to solder by blowing through a pipette across an alcohol flame and focusing the point of the flame on the object to be soldered- no? Or learned how to use the hair-thin-bladed jeweler’s saws by cutting the Indian out of Indian Head Nickels; hard, very hard indeed…it was totally a hands-on thing for me until I was in my early 30s…and first had co-workers. When I did have co-workers, they’d occasionally collapse in laughter when they’d see the unnecessarily convoluted methods I’d developed, working in isolation…to achieve my desired effects… AFTER I was established, I did take courses in enameling, granulation and lapidary – at Kulicke-Starke, in NYC. BUT I am NONETHELESS very much mainly self-taught… I wasn’t doing what teachers might have wanted me to do nor was my work influenced by their work. A serious danger in art schools! Ditto the commercial jewelry world.
Architecture, paintings, museums, the gems themselves, color and four thousand years of jewelry inspire me. That said, I would be remiss not to mention the great workshops with which I have been privileged to work. First and foremost, the Dean of NY Jewelers (and then some) jewelers: Maître André Chervin – at Carvin French. The late Carlos Holub – who had been an essential part of David Webb’s team, was a great treasure I stumbled across, too. Max and Irina Semyonov, Ian Ionescu and others have been crucial to my work as well. Their impeccable natures and humor is an additional gift; for example, André Chervin jokingly said to me in the early 80s – well before the advent of Mr. Trump’s friends going to jail constantly – when other people one knew of were occasionally going to jail, “you know, Christopher, people go to jail for all sorts of reasons these days: for a vacation, to work-out in the gyms, to study in their libraries…” As a book-end to that, a dear British journalist friend said to me: “I never met anyone who had been to jail before I moved to Palm Beach…”
Also, Museums; I have tried to visit every museum (and collection of Royal gems) that I possibly could. Topkapi twelve times; The Hermitage many times – even in 1992, during the utter political and economic chaos there, before 1994 when I became a founding member of The American Friends of the Hermitage Museum – speaking Russian helped; the Poldi Pezzoli in 1980 (the home of one of the few surviving jewels by Benvenuto Cellini); Museums in mainland China and Japan in 1983; Dresden’s fabled Green Vaults (3,500 jewels and jeweled objects), Munich’s and Berlin’s in 1985; India’s, Nepal’s and Thailand’s in 1993; Vienna’s (home of Benvenuto Cellini’s exquisite “Salt-cellar,” currently valued at more than $40 million); Prague’s and Budapest’s in 1994; Madrid in 2007 to see Benvenuto Cellini’s EXTRAORDINARY “Christ;” Egypt’s in 2014, Denmark’s and Sweden’s in 2017; France and England’s: constantly; and so forth.
We are long generations in my family so – in effect – my grandfathers (whom I never knew; but I did know my grandmothers and many more of similar ages) could have as well been my great-great grandfathers; this to explain why parts of my aesthetic – and mores – are more of the 1800s than of the 21st century…
One thing which humbles me and gives me great pleasure is that I often buy gems and realize when I get to my office that they “go” perfectly with stones I bought ten, twenty, thirty years ago…had put in the back of my safe and…forgotten!
Some of your most iconic jewellery pieces feature the Biwa X pearl. What attracted you to these pearls in the first place?
Renaissance jewelry. I’d always been intrigued by and very much aware of the baroque pearls which largely figured in it – usually as bodies of mermaids, heroes, boats and swans; when I discovered a parcel of X-shaped baroque pearls in one of the hundreds of dealer’s offices high up in 47th Street’s towers which I visited early on, I promptly started buying every one I could lay my hand on and they became my “signature!” Well before Tiffany started producing “abstract X” earrings.
Have you ever experienced a creativity block, something like a writer’s block? If so, what did you do to overcome it?
Of course. Usually and sadly it has come to me when I didn’t feel I had the funds to make this or that new piece…I get deflated, unfortunately. While clients whose creative input is great do exist, they are rare and with all due respect many people actually cannot visualize at all…so…ironically…even the precise watercolor renderings we use, followed perfectly, have occasionally led to clients saying the finished piece is not what they had in mind. But more to the point, their infrequent creative input can lead me to feel that I’m being asked to make a piece NOT of my design…and I, from time to time, cramp. Plus, as I can design a jewel from $5,000 to millions of dollars, a client who is not willing to share some parameters about their budget is frustrating as well as time-wasting…which also blocks me as I approach a project. Often, I find their budget is actually more than they’ve said – preferably before I finish the commission!
What is the most memorable piece of jewellery you have designed and why is it so special to you?
Hmmm…tough question. My pink diamond “Quince Blossoms” earrings are one of the finest pieces I’ve made…Elizabeth Taylor visited them five times and then had her administrative assistant suggest that I should give them to her. Cora Diamonds financed that piece and the Argyle Diamond Mines in Australia financed a separate pink diamond Cw collection!
I have a client who loves the color blue and who has a simply astonishing eye. She owns several of my very best pieces (including my 50 ct. Sugarloaf Cabochon Sapphire Trellis ring and my Paraiba Tourmaline Pavé and Aquamarine “Aspen Leaf” pin) and the carte blanche in terms of design and expense that I was given for the pieces in this sentence, always, luckily ensured that they turned out pretty spectacularly. But carte blanche is unusual. Another client has donated most of her vast Cw collection to a museum she and her husband founded…very flattering indeed…as are the many generous and frankly fascinating collectors-USUALLY ALSO COLLECTORS OF PAINTINGS & SCULPTURE AND ALSO MUSEUM BOARD MEMBERS- who support my work!
Another interesting anecdote relates to my Pink Carved Sapphire Lion, Diamond Pavé and Tourmaline Briolette Drop Necklace. Shortly after this necklace appeared in “W” I received a phone call from someone’s social secretary asking the price – but also saying “My employer is so famous that I can’t tell WHO she is.” I laughed and said “Please don’t think I’m laughing at you – I know you have been told to say that…when she feels free to tell me her name, please feel free to call me back.” And I hung up. She called back minutes later to share Ivana Trump’s name. (The Trumps had just hit Manhattan – from Queens, already legends in their minds, No.)
Tell us something about the spectacular Abalone pearl named the “Christopher Walling Pearl”, after you? How did this come about?
It is a 187 ct. iridescent green Abalone pearl which was exhibited at the Smithsonian in the same gallery as the Hope Diamond – a huge thrill! I found it at the Tucson Gem show – where I always find one piece that a dealer has had to buy in a lot and for which they have no particular empathy. That was the case with the abalone pearl; in my defense, I did immediately go to the phone, call my office and say: “I can’t possibly buy this pearl, knowing that it is worth at least 100 times what they are asking for it.” My office replied: “Get OFF the phone, go straight to the dealer AND BUY IT!” Nick Paspaley – the King of Australian Pearl “Farmers” – traded it with me for a parcel of his own pearls AND asked ME what I wished it to be named – an extraordinarily generous friend and wonderful guy! (BY the way, one of my great-great grandfathers was one of the first Regents of the Smithsonian.)
What, if anything, has been the most challenging aspect of being a jewellery designer and maker?
Funding. Selling to stores as opposed to clients and – believe it or not – getting beautiful women to try on a jewel! I, after 62 years of my own experience, often know what will look fantastic on them. A factor is that most jewelry looks better on than in flat cases and that some women feel wedded to the ditsy jewelry their father or mother gave them (or their husbands in the earlier years of married life). Alas, it is sometimes just the desire to say “no,” which I find incomprehensible. Sadly, many times it is because they don’t realize how beautiful they themselves are. I have had clients who refused pieces their husbands wanted to gift them with – and some who lived to “rue the day” they’d turned down such a gift when they ended up divorcing…and have told me so, themselves.
You are one of the few Jewellery designers to call Madame Belperron as well as Paul Flato, your friend. How did you strike up these friendships? What are your most cherished memories from them?
It’s hard to believe, but – in the early 1980s both Mme. Belperron AND Paul Flato were virtually forgotten except by a handful of elderly clients and manufacturers. Terrified that their work would indeed pass into obscurity I wrote both of them asking if I could come visit them – in Paris and Mexico City, respectively – go over their archives, their jewels and interview them in the hopes of having something meaningful to continue their great legacies by having notes to hand over to some future author/s or companies. They both instantly agreed, and I promptly spent a week with Mme. Belperron and ten days with Paul Flato. Memories? Mme. Belperron saying to my mother – whom I had taken with me the first day I visited, as she was French and my French is good but not perfect – deflecting a compliment by saying: “What exquisite French you speak, Madame,” the story behind the ring she made for her husband and – when I asked if her Legion d’Honneur was for her art or for work in the Resistance – replying : “It is for my jewelry but I hope you don’t think I was on the side of cowards during the war?” In fact, I worshipped her so much that – on the way to first meet her – I did something I had never done before nor have done since: I threw up in the street from nervousness. Flato: greeting me with “I’m sure you’ve heard all sorts of terrible things about me and… they are all true!”
I will say, as an aside, that before I went to Mexico City, I spent time in the sub-sub-sub basements of New York’s Federal Court Building (with rats, spiders etc.) researching through cartons and cartons of ancient papers and printing endless microfiche (!) about Flato – myself – minutes before they were thrown out. Re Paul Flato’s fall from grace and conviction to prison…my findings were quite different from some of the things I see written about him. Likewise, most of the things I learned about Mme. Belperron and Paul Flato came straight from their lips.
I also had the extraordinary luck to be invited by Nick Paspaley onto his pearling fleets, with him, off the north coast of Australia, during their annual pearl harvest – which included some of the best days of my life! He later asked me to write an article for Paspaley Magazine, which I gladly did. Half of it had to be ditched because in writing about his techniques-which keep pearling oysters happier than at any pearl farm, hence his spectacular pearls – I hadn’t realized I was writing about proprietary material! and his responses to why I was NOT going to be diving from his yacht-like ships were truly hysterical: I felt like I was in our (formerly) wild, wild West. where the final stage of his pearl culture takes place is an area of RED islands and CELADON seas with which those White “yachts” and the WHITE “flying boats” (planes from the 1940s) combine to create unbelievable beauty…
If you were to write The Great American Novel today, what would it be about and what would you call it?
You have led a very interesting and storied life, starting with your childhood in Africa. Did moving around with your family in your formative years influence you as a jewellery designer and maker?
Yes, it did – and my childhood started in Paris, then Beirut, then the depths of the West African jungle…as my father was an administrator in the first ten years of the United Nations. The staggering poise of – as well as the amazing colors of the clothes worn by – the African women I lived amongst from when I was three all the way to five years old, have never left me. Other “travels” exposed me, additionally, to family and friends of my parents – American, French, especially Russian, German and so on, who themselves or their ancestors had had extraordinary jewelry and with the changing of the world had had to sell their “important” pieces. What they had kept were the small pieces by Faberge, Cartier, etc. which were then worthless (and which are worth a fortune now) but which display the highest excellence of design and work-person-ship. They became my “dictionary,” thank God, not the Harry Winston/Graff school of jewelry – of which Fulco di Verdura famously said “Jewelry is not Minerology.” In fact, whenever I have been able to, I have bought the very jewels which influenced me most from the estates of our late friends and relatives! What also informed me – folks may be surprised to hear – was working in construction – summers – on the beautiful houses my father designed and built in the second half of his life…himself. I thereby learned the value of money as well as many, many ways to feel capable in the physical world – to maneuver more freely through life. I find so many young people today don’t have the vaguest idea how to make anything – and I feel very sorry for them.
Your list of clients includes a veritable galaxy of stars and notable public figures. However, since you are a reader of history, who would be that one person from history whom you would love to design jewellery for and why?
Augustus the Strong, Elector of Saxony (who founded Dresden’s “Green Vaults!”). Had I known that The Berlin Wall was going to go down, I would have waited to go to Dresden- going to Dresden in EAST Germany before THE WALL came down was incredibly difficult . However, I started laughing out loud the minute I walked into the Green Vaults with a friend asked why; I replied “because one look is all I need to know that Augustus the Strong – who had brilliantly made his court jeweler and his court sculptor work TOGETHER – told them: “I don’t care how long it takes and I don’t care how much it costs…do your very BEST!” Definitely the 5th Marquess of Anglesey and Charles, Duke of Brunswick.
Pauline de Rothschild or Catherine the Great or Louis XV’s great mistress, Mme. de Pompadour (who – btw – carved gems in her spare time; a number of Royals of their days delighted in turning wood, amber and ivory on lathes – go figure!). In other words, women with the most exalted taste and standards imaginable. I have had the amazing fortune to work with several of our age’s chicest women…including the late great style-icon and philanthropist, New York’s own Lily Auchincloss ( who bought a pair of my X pearl earrings, wore them and…half of the ultra-fashionable, international world instantly beat a path to my door), the great late Parisian hostess Saõ Schlumberger, Ambassador the Honorable, late Ambassador Anne Cox Chambers and others who do not wish to be named. And we were all blessed to become great, great friends…of Saõ, two stories occur to me: I was in her Hotel Particulier next to the Luxembourg Palace and she asked me to go into the guest bathroom by the front doors. I went reluctantly – as it seemed an odd request – looked around, said to myself…”so it’s a nice shade of blue…” and did an immense double-take when I realized seconds later that the walls and the ceiling were of solid Lapis Lazuli! Saõ also threw a lunch for me as I was passing through Paris on my way to Russia for the first time-and invited “White Russian” friends of the most rarefied kind-incredibly thoughtful of her…
What is the next jewellery project you are working on?
Surviving the pandemic – and Donald Trump. As I survived extensive brain-surgery in 2008, perhaps I will…
What is your personal style? Tailored.
As a kid, what were you like? Enthusiastic and curious about everything. (Can’t understand the new generations – who aren’t…) My parents also never taught me the meaning of the word “no;” which allowed me to follow their intelligent and cultured suggestions more (and longer…) than most kids would have!
Favorite piece of jewellery to wear? My platinum ring with a Greek carving of Hercules fighting his lion – I bought the seal in Corfu and set it with a yellow sapphire touching my skin in the back (after several Ayurvedic doctors told me I must); I try to use it to remember that life can be very hard, and sadly am nevertheless surprised when it turns out to be. First version of the Rolex Explorer my mother gave me when I hit 21, now referred to in auction catalogs as an “antique…!”
Favorite vacation spot? Block Island, Paris, Capri, Big Sur, Kauai’s Napali Coast, Mill Reef. Love to swim…
Three words to describe you as a jewellery designer? Traditional marries modern.
Love to cook or Eat out/Take out? Love to cook WITH friends: Eat out/Take out – but not junk food!
Thank you so much Christopher for taking the time (and having the patience) to answer all my questions! It was a pleasure interviewing you and in the process learning such a lot about jewellery design, gemstones, books, history, and so much more 🙂
Featured Image: Biwa X Pearl and Ridged Yellow Gold Necklace, Christopher Walling Jewelry
You can find our more about Christopher Walling and his jewellery pieces at www.christopherwallingjewelry.com
You can also follow him on Instagram at @christopher_walling_jewelry
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