Intrigued by a small selection of chic period jewelry presented in the window of a Mexican dress shop on Madison Avenue in New York, between 64th and 65th streets, I walked in on a cold winter's day in February 1977 and started talking with the owner. It turned out that Fred Leighton, known as Murray, had just moved from Greenwich Village in downtown Manhattan, where he had a shop selling Mexican dresses and sandals. He also occasionally offered jewels left to him by clients in the hope that a future bride, or better, the bridegroom, might be tempted.
His engaging personality, good taste and enthusiasm made his store a regular stopover during my Saturday walks up Madison. There were more and more jewels each week and by 1978, the dresses had disappeared. The store was remodeled to present an increasingly large collection of fabulous jewels and objects. Indeed, Murray had discovered and understood the importance of period pieces, which until then were traded on 47th Street, one of the world's most active diamond centers. Not too many private collectors visited there, perhaps being intimidated or not used to the limited hours when the booths were open for business. Establishing close connections with important wholesalers, going to auctions, buying from private collections and estates, Fred Leighton gradually developed a reputation as one of the finest stores for period jewelry in America.
There are many reasons for Murray's success. First and foremost, his passion for jewelry, his eye and his constant search for quality objects, tirelessly traveling throughout Europe, Asia and America to purchase important jewels for his store. He also understood that there was an enormous potential outside New York. Indeed, he was the first American jeweler to cross the Atlantic and take a stand at the famous Monaco Biennale of Art during the summer. Going west, he inaugurated a shop in Las Vegas in 1998, which was open 18 hours a day. His name is synonymous with the Oscars, a privilege previously reserved to the "big" jewelers, and he became the advisor to some of the most important jewelry collectors of our time. In fact, there is virtually not a single issue of W, Vogue or Town & Country that does not feature his jewelry. I often felt that it was impossible for anyone entering Murray's shop seriously looking for a jewel not to purchase an item simply because the selection was so varied and, in a way, perfect. Antique pieces (over 100 years old), Art Nouveau, Art Deco, Retro (1950s), modern creations, natural or cultured pearls, ruby, sapphire, emerald and diamond brooches, rings, earrings, bracelets and necklaces of great quality, he had them all. You could (and still can) acquire a $1,000 pair of cufflinks, as well as the most stunning diamond ring.
Many of the most famous pieces went through his hands, such as The snake bracelet by Vever and Lalique that once belonged to Sarah Bernhardt, the historic pearl La Régente, numerous tiaras of royal provenance, gems from the Indian Maharajahs and jewelry belonging to the great social and cultural figures of the 20th century. His reputation was such that if you were searching for a jewel by a designer that was no longer active, such as Suzanne Belperron, René Boivin, Paul Flato, Marcus & Co. or Raymond Yard, a vintage Cartier piece from the 1920s, or an old creation by Bulgari or Winston, you would probably call Fred Leighton to see if he had something. But he was also looking to the future and organized exhibitions of jewels by Véronique Cartier, daughter of the late Claude Cartier, the last owner of Cartier New York, or Daniel Brush, a famous American painter who turned to jewelry in the 1990s.
This year, Murray celebrates his 72nd birthday and his 30 years in the jewelry business. He has decided to part with 29 jewels from his private collection, which we are very proud to offer at auction. The selection includes the famous Tudor Rose, a great 18th diamond corsage ornament from the French Crown Jewels, as well as stunning creations once the property of Lauren Bacall, Josephine Baker, Brigitte Bardot, Maria Callas, the couturier Madame Grhs, Gloria Swanson, Diana Vreeland, Orson Welles and the Duchess of Windsor, amongst others.
Many jewelry stores have come and gone before Fred Leighton and many will exist in the future. However, his vision and style are unique and his legacy to the jewelry industry will resonate for generations.