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The Story Behind Tony Duquette’s Extraordinary Jewelry

Tony Duquette and Hutton Wilkinson. Courtesy Tony Duquette

“When we started our jewelry line in 1995 at Bergdorf Goodman, Vogue wrote, and I paraphrase, ‘After a maximum of minimalism, all of fashion is turning towards Tony Duquette for inspiration,’” recalls Hutton Wilkinson. The longtime collaborator of one of Hollywood’s greatest costume, set, interior, and jewelry designers is today the owner and creative director of Tony Duquette, fortifying the house with perpetual energy and eye-popping design.

The grandson of the late Bolivian president Don José Luis Tejada-Sorzano Conde de Alscaya, Wilkinson was introduced to jewels by manner of his family’s extensive collection, which consisted mostly of classic Victorian and Edwardian styles. One day, the young boy came across the Byzantine and baroque jewelry of Tony Duquette in a magazine. They were “bold, theatrical, and extravagant, even barbaric,” he recalls. The dice was thrown. Their paths would cross some 10 years later.

The legendary Duquette was discovered by perhaps the earliest interior designer, Elsie de Wolfe, whose clients included American socialite Amy Vanderbilt and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. Entrenched in Hollywood’s Golden Age, Duquette created movie sets for the likes of Fred Astaire. He, along with his wife Elizabeth, moved in a world entirely dedicated to personal style, and did so in Bentleys and Rolls-Royces. Couture and high jewelry were worn on the daily, and dinners served with white gloves in a decor of satin curtains and silk tablecloths.

Elsie de Wolfe, who discovered Tony Duquette in the pages of Vogue.

“I had an art teacher in school and the two of us used to play ‘Tony Duquette.’ She would ask me, ‘If you were Tony Duquette, how would you do this project?’ recounts Wilkinson. “I had only been at that school for a couple of weeks before she put a note in my locker that read, ‘Tony Duquette is looking for volunteers.’” And so began Wilkinson’s journey down the rabbit hole of luxury and extravagance. The 17-year-old quit school and his job and went to work for Duquette, for free. After several years, he branched out on his own as an interior decorator. Meanwhile, the two men invested in property together and when Duquette started receiving commissions for decorating projects that he did not wish to do, Wilkinson took the jobs while Duquette “did the billing.” At night, they would socialize with their clients and friends – among them Dodie Rosekrans, who never wore fewer than two necklaces and often more.

Wilkinson recalls how one night she couldn’t find the hidden clasp and called the fire department to come and “saw it off her neck. She was a riot!” he hoots. “Tony Duquette was a gentleman in every way,” remembers Wilkinson of his former partner. “He had wonderful manners, was beautifully dressed, well read, and extremely funny. Everyone wanted to sit next to him at dinner because he was an exceptional raconteur. He also understood business and knew his worth – along with the value of everything.” It is therefore no surprise that along with interior design projects, Duquette and Wilkinson made jewelry as well. With some 1,500 pieces under the Tony Duquette name, today, the house makes on average 60 pieces a year – all one-of-a-kind, in 18ct gold, and set with precious and semiprecious stones like coral and signature malachite. Of the many gifts Duquette would give his wife of 46 years, one necklace in particular had a large malachite disc mounted with an antique enamel and diamond ower clasp with carved amethyst bumblebees – a reference to her nickname, “Beegle.” Duquette also made jewelry with tigereye, wood, resin, and seashells. In his world, beauty always preceded luxury.

Tony Duquette’s wife, “Beegle.” Courtesy Tony Duquette

Describing the Tony Duquette maximalist jewelry style, Wilkinson comments, “The stones tell us what they want to be.” Where another jeweler may make a drawing of a buttery and have each stone carved or cut to to size, at Tony Duquette, they work with a collection of existing stones, most of which are not calibrated. “If the stones want to be a necklace, bracelet, earring, or ring, that is what we will make. You have to hear what the stones want; you have to listen,” he says.

One fantastical piece still stands out in Wilkinson’s mind – a necklace Duquette made for the Duchess of Windsor in 1951. The collar of flowers, leaves, and vines, with citrine, peridot, and pearls started a trend for women to wear yellow gold after 5pm, when previously, they only wore platinum. Wilkinson has had the opportunity to repurchase the necklace twice; both times it has gone “sky high” at auction, most recently selling for US $250 000. Its original price? US $800.

The Duchess of Windsor.

Wilkinson considers that the best place for a woman to wear jewelry is around the neck. “As Tony would say, ‘It’s more important,’ and it lights up the face,” he comments. The designer is also “crazy” for a bracelet or a ring. “You can use these for seduction, while smoking a cigarette,” he offers, adding that he is referred to as the ‘king of the bracelet’ for his fondness of wide, sparkling cuffs. Over the years, he has become close with many of his clients and the anecdotes abound. He recalls one occasion in Houston, showcasing jewelry, when a woman appeared and asked how he liked her purse. “I said, ‘It looks like it could hold a lot of money.’” She replied that it cost US $110 000 and featured 10ct worth of diamonds in the clasp. “I offered to show her something with 40ct of diamonds, and put my pearl and diamond collar, bracelet, and earrings on her. She wouldn’t take them off. When I asked her if I should return the suite, worth US $500 000, back to its case, she answered, ‘No, I’m taking it.’ And she did.”

Most of his clients buy full suites and Wilkinson considers it important to have matching pieces at hand when getting dressed. Even if they are only worn on special occasions, sets can offer a particular kind of satisfaction simply by being there. “I think customers who say they don’t like matchy-matchy only say so because they can’t afford the suite. Our mothers and grandmothers always purchased ‘en suite’ sets of jewelry – it just makes sense!” Tony Duquette jewelry is rarely bought by men for women. “My clients are self-made women who don’t have to ask permission,” Wilkinson comments. “They already have a big diamond ring and a strand of pearls, and are ready to have some fun with their jewelry. The minute a husband gets involved, he wants to know about carat weight – and that’s not what we’re selling. Tony Duquette sells design and style, which is in the grand tradition of the great American jewelers Paul Flato, Verdura, David Webb, and Seaman Schepps.” It takes a very secure woman to wear Tony Duquette – jewelry for those who wish to express their creativity and individuality through their choice of accessories.

The Duquette and Wilkinson home, Dawnridge. Courtesy Tony Duquette

At his beloved Dawnridge estate in Beverly Hills, which once served as the rich backdrop for Gucci ads during the Tom Ford era, Wilkinson comments that he always looks forward. Upon moving into the home that first belonged to the Duquettes, and which he bought to “save its life,” he began redecorating. Walls are covered with leftover coquille party decorations made for an undersea ball in the Sixties. The drawing room now features three-panel iron “sunburst” screens, with each sunburst centered with a chrome hubcap. Every so often he enjoys an old black-and-white film to relive the Golden Age of Hollywood that his jewelry conjures. He muses that he and Tony Duquette are the fathers and founders of the new maximalist movement in design. “We are on the cutting-edge of what is happening, and a lot of that is based on a glamorous past.”

Originally printed in the May 2018 issue of Vogue Arabia.

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