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Smoking in Style

Jewelry Designer Barry Kieselstein-Cord is Far From a Household Name, Which is Just the Way He Likes It
Nancy Wolfson
From the Print Edition:
Orlando Hernandez, Mar/Apr 99

(continued from page 2)

"He's a big deal," says Mollie Burns, one of the jewelry specialists at Christies East in New York, where several BKC pieces have been auctioned. "People, especially New Yorkers, love his pieces because they are very wearable. They don't have a huge amount of precious gemstones; they're more subtle, and beautifully made. It's not the intrinsic value that makes them valuable; it's the craftsmanship and cult aspect."

The craftsmanship is in the details and the cult aspect is the cachet. Unlike some of the other big-name jewelry designers, BKC is known to insiders only. Even the editor of one of the industry's trade magazines didn't know the BKC name. It is safe to say that Kieselstein-Cord has avoided overexposure.

Kieselstein-Cord is reluctant to give out information about himself, his company and his designs, perhaps because so many of the designs have been stolen. In 1980 he won a precedent-setting copyright infringement case against a jewelry firm that had reproduced one of his belt buckles. The decision was significant because it determined that his belt buckle was considered art rather than a functional design, and therefore protected by copyright.

Like his home, the office in New York's garment center that serves as Kieselstein-Cord's company headquarters and design studio is nondescript on the outside. His name isn't even on the building marquis, but the concierge knows what floor he's on. Even on his floor, there's no indication of the company other than a mallard green door. Kieselstein-Cord likes hunting and birding, thus the shade of the door.

"Green was the color our family used a lot: my father always had green cars. It's the color of growing things--it's organic and understated," he says. "I like a celadon shade, and also one that's not really hunter green, but more like dollar-bill green."

On a cold January morning Kieselstein-Cord, wearing the same plain jane garb from weeks before, is seated at his desk in his glassed-off corner office. The windows on three sides afford him views of the Hudson and East rivers, where he can watch passing boats. "You keep your eyes working all the time," he says.

A large rectangular table serves as a backdrop for eye food such as a limestone rock from La Sagrada Familia (Antoni Gaudí's unfinished cathedral in Barcelona) and a pair of heavy metal cuffs from India. "I collect really anything at all," he says. "But I will never collect liquor decanters with presidents' portraits or clowns or memorabilia plates--that's beyond me."

Beyond his private space, some 100 artisans carve, cast, file, solder, granulate, clean, finish and polish Kieselstein-Cord's creations. Walking through a room filled with craftsmen diligently producing designs, Kieselstein-Cord carefully inspects each work in progress. "This is a complete abortion," he says to a young Russian polishing a commissioned wedding ring. "Recast it," he instructs, fully aware that this means throwing away about 15 hours of hand labor.

Kieselstein-Cord is known for his unique finishes: matte, black and green gold, in particular. Among his favorite figurative motifs are ducks, alligators, toads, frogs, bats and lions. The large staff of artisans affords Kieselstein-Cord the luxury to explore any and all design possibilities. "We do products that go nowhere. We make everything but cars and boats!" he says, only half-joking. "This design studio is like a wonderful garden. It's a realization of all my dreams."

He fulfilled his 21-year-old daughter's dream of having a bathtub in the middle of her tangerine-colored bedroom at Crocodile Hall. "The tub is my conversation piece of the moment. It's so nice to roll out of bed into a warm bath," Elisabeth Kieselstein-Cord says in her New-York-preppie-meets-Louisiana lilt. "My father says [my tangerine room] is like living in a can of salmon, but I can wake up in the morning with a hangover and look marvelous in my peach-colored room," the model-actress coos.

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