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Jewelry: Shell Life

William Kissel

Seaman Schepps’ signature turbo shell earrings rank alongside Verdura’s 1930s Maltese cuff and Jean Schlumberger’s 1960s enamel bangle as one of a handful of iconic 20th-century jewelry designs. Originally created in the late 1930s, the embellished natural shell earrings transcend time and trends.

While the shells made Schepps famous, they also represented his imaginative use of materials and color, and his audacious style. His pieces combined exotic elements such as coral, wood, and shells with precious rubies, sapphires, and diamonds. This year, the late American designer’s creative spirit is being celebrated, as the eponymous company that he founded marks its 100th anniversary, with a museum exhibition, a book, and a collection of new designs.

Seaman Schepps: A Century of New York Jewelry Design, 1904-2004 will open in October at the Museum of Arts & Design (formerly the American Craft Museum) in New York, and an illustrated book bearing the same title will be published in the fall. The exhibition will chronicle the company’s designs and innovations and will display vintage pieces and original renderings.

“Over the years, Seaman Schepps attracted a varied group of collectors, from the Duke and Duchess of Windsor to several first ladies to artist Andy Warhol,” says Anthony Hopenhajm, who, with business partner Jay Bauer, purchased the jewelry house in 1992. “The house has been like a secret among an inner circle of loyal patrons in New York, Palm Beach, and Europe.”

Until recently, Seaman Schepps had been exclusively reproducing jewelry from its archives. But now the partners are revitalizing this sleepy jewel, which maintains its flagship store on Park Avenue and locations in Palm Beach and Nantucket. Using the same mix of unusual materials, they have created new jewelry designs and accessories that reflect the spirit of the house’s founder. Clocks, frames, and desk accessories, for instance, are carved in jasper or malachite and encrusted with colorful gemstones. And new jewelry designs, such as drop earrings and pendant necklaces, portray a modern sensibility while maintaining Schepps’ style.

Still, the tried-and-true classics command the most attention, and the jeweler’s best-seller remains its distinctive shell earrings. Over the years, they were worn by luminaries such as the Duchess of Windsor and Babe Paley, and like most iconic designs, they have been copied endlessly. The natural shell earrings continue to be scrupulously handmade in the same fashion as they were more than 70 years ago. Inside the company’s atelier, located in a nondescript office building in Midtown Manhattan, two lapidaries carefully inspect bins of African and South American turbo and exuvial shells, seeking ideal matches for earrings. Each delicate shell is then carefully trimmed, polished, and mounted with gold and gemstones.

Aside from the shell earrings, the house is known for its fashionable link bracelets, exemplified by a striking 1940s design made with ebony and pavé diamond links. Other timeless favorites include rosewood chess pieces embellished with precious stones and transformed into brooches.
“Seaman Schepps created jewelry for women who wanted to express their individuality,” says Hopenhajm. “It’s not for the kind of woman who wants to flaunt big diamonds.”

Seaman Schepps, 212.753.9520

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Photo by Agence Pustetto