Published March/April 1999Smoking in Style Jewelry Designer Barry Kieselstein-Cord is Far From a Household Name, Which is Just the Way He Likes It
By Nancy Wolfson
Manhattan jewelry designer Barry Kieselstein-Cord breezes into a large light-filled studio in his townhouse on New York's Upper East Side. Wearing black jeans, a black wool pullover and red-tipped black cowboy boots, Kieselstein-Cord heads straight for the fireplace and warms his hands. "I'm just waking up," he says, as he stretches and yawns, his wavy gray hair in wild disarray. "Need to get warmed up."
On this gray December morning, Kieselstein-Cord is talking enthusiastically about his design career and his five-story mansion, which he calls Crocodile Hall in honor of one of his favorite motifs. From the outside, the stucco townhouse seems rather nondescript, but upon closer inspection, it is anything but. After entering the Gothic vaulted-ceiling vestibule, and viewing the eight fireplaces, two kitchens, two terraces and walk-in humidor, it becomes apparent that the house is opulent.
"It's very much my style: plain Jane on the outside," Kieselstein-Cord says, in his New-York-meets-Texas twang. Like his home, the jewelry, belt buckles, handbags and other objects he designs appear understated at first glance. On careful examination, one sees his trademark handcrafted, often whimsical details, which may be located on the inside of a bag, the back of a brooch or the underside of a belt buckle.
One example of Kieselstein-Cord's trademark style is his Vladimir The Bear sterling silver belt buckle from his 1997 collection (he has designed more than 350 buckles and adds about four new styles each year). It depicts a bear who has been foraging for berries and is ready to hibernate--or is he just waking up? The bear's face appears sleepy and satiated. The intricate grillwork on the back of the buckle shows a maze of raspberry bushes replete with the tiny fruit. The palpably prickly vines and veiny leaves are typical of Kieselstein-Cord's meticulous attention to detail. Visible only when it is not worn, the buckle's underside shows how the bear feeds himself.
Kieselstein-Cord, nicknamed "the bear" in high school, is constantly "feeding" himself. "Eye food" is his term for the objects that inspire him. His eye food ranges from outboard motors to insects to old locks and keys. "Even a dumb utilitarian product like a rat trap can be beautiful if it's done properly," he says. A voracious collector, Kieselstein-Cord surrounds himself with such objects, and a visit to his house is a feast for the eyes.
"It's a great backdrop for my mind," he says of his newest home. (He also has residences in Dallas, Santa Fe and Millbrook, New York.) "Everything around me is an extension of my aesthetic." His designs are extensions of the environment in which they are created.
When Kieselstein-Cord designed Vladimir the Bear in 1997, he, too, was in hibernation mode. "I've been asleep for years and now I'm just [waking up]," he explains, sitting in one of six Le Corbusier black leather and chrome chairs surrounding a glass coffee table in his studio. In an uncharacteristically messy, well-publicized split, he divorced Cece, his wife of 23 years, in 1997 ("It was a bit like marrying into a Tennessee Williams family," he once told a W reporter), and bought the townhouse.
The townhouse had been in hibernation, too. Built in the 1920s, the former home of realist painter and architect J. Stewart Barney had been vacant since 1962. Kieselstein-Cord has restored the house, emphasizing its architecture rather than its glitz.
"One can enjoy minimalism and the world of rococo," he points out. His home illustrates this. Flanking the studio's elaborately carved marble fireplace are two nearly life-size bronze nudes. In contrast, the Le Corbusier chairs and tables are products of the bare-bones Bauhaus movement.
Kieselstein-Cord is a man of many contradictions. He is "a slave to antiquity" yet is "wild about technology." He collects old cameras yet shoots with the newest state-of-the-art equipment. (He does most of his advertising and promotional photography himself.) He has an antique automobile collection, but loves to drive the latest cars and owns a fleet of race cars, Team Kieselstein-Cord. "Even though I work in the material [realm], my interests are much more in a spiritual direction," he says. "The vibrations that things give off are much more interesting than the things themselves."
On a small table next to his bed, leather editions by nineteenth-century French author Alexandre Dumas lie next to a copy of 3001: The Final Odyssey by Arthur C. Clark.
While he has a warm-and-cuddly bear-like nature, at five foot seven and a half inches he moves weightlessly, like a gazelle. Well-established at 54 years old, he still has the gee-whiz curiosity of a boy. Although the frown and laugh lines etched into his face are evidence that he has lived, there remains a childlike wonder in his expression.
Kieselstein-Cord grew up in New York City and Long Island, and vacationed in Key Biscayne, Florida, where his parents had a home. His mother, now 77, was an illustrator. Always highly creative and a bit eccentric, she nurtured the artist in him. He adored his father, who was trained as an architect but ended up "a tough guy in the real-estate business." He died while Kieselstein-Cord was in his 20s and working as an art director in advertising (a career he pursued for seven years).
Although his father was the only man in his family who didn't smoke, Kieselstein-Cord associates cigars with his side of the family. "When I was a boy in the 1950s, my grandfather and uncles would send me next door to the Blarney Stone at 32nd Street and Sixth Avenue [in Manhattan] to buy one-dollar cigars, which were pricey at that time. Talk about intimidation! They figured if I was tough enough to go into an Irish bar during lunch or rush hour, I could do anything."
In addition to the challenge of acquiring Garcia y Vegas, he loved the smell of the glass-tubed cigars. "I like fresh tastes. It has to be the right-smelling cigar and I have to be in the right mood to smoke," he says. "I like long, thin cigars. You have to be big to smoke a big cigar. Schwarzenegger can pull it off--I can't."
Schwarzenegger would have to duck to fit his large frame through the five-foot-nine-inch doorway that leads into Kieselstein-Cord's walk-in humidor at Crocodile Hall. He converted a walk-in safe--the original 1920s mahogany door has a built-in combination lock--into his cigar vault. Five wraparound shelves are stacked with boxes of Partagas, Dunhill, Punch and Pleiades Pluton cigars. A portable humidifier maintains the moisture level.
The humidor is located in a small alcove off the Buffalo Room, a dark, wood-paneled clubby chamber punctuated by an oversized wooden fireplace flanked by two hand-carved winged lions. Above the fireplace is a stuffed buffalo head. In one corner of the room, an airplane propeller is mounted on a stand. ("I think anything aviation-wise is very pretty," he says.) It might be a Brancusi sculpture. And the room might be a hunting lodge, were it not in the middle of Manhattan.
Geographically, his home is not too far from the walk-up apartment where he started his business 27 years ago. What began on a table in his bedroom is now a company that estimates its annual revenues at $50 million. Kieselstein-Cord has 150 full-time employees, a designstudio occupying a floor of a building in the center of the garment district, a showroom in Dallas, and boutiques in Aspen, Palm Beach, Berlin, Düsseldorf and Zurich, with more to come (two Las Vegas stores in the spring and one each in Milan, Paris and Moscow in the fall).
Aside from the jewelry, handbags, luggage and belt buckles, Kieselstein-Cord designs home furnishings--lamps, tabletop accessories, a limited-edition humidor and furniture--and licenses scarves, ties and eyewear. His creations are part of the collections of the Louvre in Paris, Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and The Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. He has received the CFDA (Council of Fashion Designers of America) Award and has twice won the Coty American Fashion Critics Award. Steven Speilberg, Wayne Gretzky, Elton John, Oprah Winfrey and Giorgio Armani are among those who collect his work.
"Everybody loves to belong to the club," says Wendy Nirenberg, who manages the Kieselstein-Cord fine jewelry boutique at Bergdorf Goodman in New York. Kieselstein-Cord is said to bring in more revenue per square foot than any other brand at Bergdorf's. This is not surprising, considering a simple gold link bracelet starts at $5,500. A classic link necklace in gold with diamonds costs approximately $50,000. Each piece is hand-crafted, signed, dated and copyrighted.
"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.
"He's my best friend," she gushes. "He was a very strict father when I was growing up but he's really open-minded." When asked what his greatest gift to her was, she replies, "He taught me how to draw and he taught me how to listen."
"She's the apple of his eye, the queen bee," Pam Eldrege, Kieselstein-Cord's former media coordinator, says of Elisabeth, who has starred in her father's advertising campaigns since she was in diapers. Now Elisabeth is BKC's spokeswoman for its collection of sport jewelry.
What's next for this man who built a veritable empire from a table in his bedroom? "I'd like to go back to painting and devote myself to some archaeological digging. I've always wanted to hunt for pirate treasure," he says. "When I was a kid I used to look up to Zorro. With a cape, a mask and a sword, he acted independently against crime and misdeed. He was well mannered, well spoken, very whimsical. I liked the idea of signing my name with a big Z. What more could you want?"
Nancy Wolfson is a freelance writer based in New York.