Before Fred Leighton was “Fred Leighton,” he was Murray Mondschein, an enthusiastic, Brooklyn-born entrepreneur who got his start in the 1960s selling bohemian-style wedding dresses in Greenwich Village. Soon, Mondschein began adding accessories to the store’s inventory—he began by stocking hand-crafted silver jewelry from Mexico, and later added vintage Victorian-era designs and estate jewels. His passion for gemstones and artful jewelry quickly found its footing—in 1971, he changed his name to match that of the store, Fred Leighton, went to school to become a gemologist, and began collecting, designing, and selling jewelry in earnest.
“The name Fred Leighton is so synonymous with glamor and design,” says Kendall Reed, jewelry specialist at Sotheby’s New York, which will bring the icon’s private collection of jewelry to auction on April 18. “He was able to create that for himself out of basically, nothing.”
Leighton’s love of gems was hard to contain—Reed recalls him excitedly dipping into his suit pocket at one of their first meetings to show her a new brooch he had acquired. “Fred Leighton was the consummate salesman,” Reed says. “It was great to meet him and put a person with the name, because to those of us who have followed the red carpet for years and walked down Madison Avenue, the name Fred Leighton looms large. Then you realize there actually was a person behind that name.”
The 230-lot collection was assembled with the help of Fred’s daughter, Mara Leighton, and includes furniture and decorative objects in addition to jewels. In advance of the sale, called The Jeweler’s Eye: The Personal Collection of Fred Leighton, we talked to Reed about its top lots and the key collecting cues we can take from Mr. Leighton.
What Will Get Top Dollar
“The pieces we’ve had the most interest in, thus far, are the pieces that are quintessentially Fred Leighton—the vintage jewels, the 19th century jewels, but also his modern interpretations of vintage jewels. A perfect example of that would be lot 324, which are these wonderful earrings that use old rose cut diamonds and rubies and are set in blackened gold. There is also a butterfly brooch that’s from the 19th century, and a beautiful corsage ornament by Alfonse Bouquet, which is circa 1890. Even though these earrings were made by him before he sold the business, so they are modern, they really evoke the vintage pieces. [Between these lots] is where I think we will see the most competition. There really is a jewel for everyone in this sale.”
The Most Surprising Designs
“I think the most surprising lot in the sale, for me, is lot 310, which is a suite of lapis and moonstone jewelry. When I was looking at it, it was kind of an outlier in this collection in terms of design—it looked almost Mexican inspired, and it also reminded me of the wedding dresses that he [used to sell], and the jewelry he probably sold along with those dresses. The great thing is, lot 310 is unsigned and very Southwest inspired, but in the catalog, it’s photographed next to a ring by Tiffany & Co., which is very similar in design. It’s interesting when you can get two jewels by totally different makers, with similar inspiration.”
Her Favorite Design
“I love 1940’s jewelry, and there are some beautiful retro pieces in this collection including, my favorite, lot 374, which is a suite of Cartier Paris jewels—a beautiful bracelet with a broach and earrings in gold, which is so in right now. I love how this piece also has platinum and onyx accents, and it’s accented by diamonds. It’s just so chic. The design of the bracelet is called tubogas, and it’s actually inspired by tubes on a gas mask. It’s an incredibly flexible and beautifully made. I’ve tried on this bracelet, and the whole suite, more than once. I think for something that was made in 1945 it’s incredibly modern.”
Fred Leighton’s Collecting Lessons
“Fred Leighton wanted us to buy what we love and not be constricted by [rules like] ‘I only wear gold jewelry’ or ‘I only wear vintage jewelry’. We should not to be so canonized about what we wear and try to appreciate jewelry as an art form. This jewelry, this collection—which was the last collection of jewelry that he ever personally curated—is representative of different cultures, different time periods, and all different types of stones.”