We the Family: The Benefits of Creating a Family Constitution

After beginning his career designing jewelry for Coco Chanel in the 1920s in Paris, Duke Fulco di Verdura opened shop in the United States in 1939 and soon became a favorite among celebrities, high-profile New Yorkers and the fashion world. On the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, Suzanne Belperron, who had championed a new look in fine jewelry in Europe, was dealing with the hardships of World War II, after which she would go on to reignite her partnership with Jean Herz for three more successful decades. Today, the legacy of Verdura and Belperron live on thanks to Ward and Nico Landrigan, the father-son duo dedicated to stewarding two iconic brands that continue to thrive for decades since they originally launched. We recently sat down with Ward, the chairman of Verdura, and Nico, the president of Verdura and Belperron, at their Fifth Avenue salon to discuss Ward’s acquisitions of the two jewelry brands, Nico’s decision to join the family business and their approach to handling communication.

Brown Brothers Harriman: Ward, tell us about your professional background and your experience in the fine jewelry industry.

Ward Landrigan: My jewelry career began when I was 14. I was a Boy Scout, and one requirement was that I had to get a job in the community. The local jeweler hired me to sweep the floors, clean the cases and polish the silver. Over time, I started learning about the stones and realized I liked the jewelry. It was fascinating to see women come in, put on a piece of jewelry and look at themselves in the mirror because you could tell they saw themselves differently. No matter what they were trying on, they were transformed in their own eyes as if by magic.

After college graduation, I got a job as a typist at the Parke-Bernet Galleries. About three months into my typing career, the recordkeeper in the jewelry department passed away suddenly, and the company needed someone to replace him right away. My resume highlighted my time at the jewelry store, so I was called in for an interview where I had to identify different stones in pieces of jewelry. After getting everything right, they gave me the job! Shortly after, Sotheby’s acquired the company, and I became head of the jewelry department, which I ran for eight years.

Eventually, I left and started my own company brokering jewelry. One day, I read that Joseph Alfano, the business partner of Duke Fulco di Verdura, was going to retire. I very much admired the Verdura style. If you owned Verdura, you weren’t showing off your money; you were showing off your taste. I called Mr. Alfano to tell him I was interested in buying the company if he planned to sell. In spring 1984, he told me he was ready, and the deal closed in January 1985.

BBH: How did you finance the acquisition?

WL: I borrowed the money. First, I asked my banker for a loan, and he said no. Then, I took the only other banker I knew to lunch and told him my story, and he said my first mistake was that I didn’t ask for enough. He told me to come up with a number I needed. I did, and his bank gave it to me. This banker was very helpful in the early part of my career. He represented individuals who had also been Verdura clients, so he understood its prestige.

It took a long time to get Verdura back on its feet because it had become very sleepy, but it had never closed. I had long-time clients coming in for repairs and making small purchases, and then eventually buying more and bringing their children and grandchildren. We’re still working with those families.

BBH: How did the Belperron acquisition come about?

WL: In 1987, I was at the Duchess of Windsor jewelry auction. There was Verdura jewelry in the sale, but there was also jewelry by Suzanne Belperron. What intrigued me was that it was misidentified – they didn’t know it was by her because she never signed any of her jewelry. Here was somebody whose work I had admired, and it was not recognized.

At the Basel fair in 1989 in Switzerland, a jeweler friend of mine who knew that I liked Belperron told me that he had original Belperron drawings, which surprised me because everyone thought they had been destroyed. He asked if I would be interested in buying the company. I hadn’t finished paying for Verdura, so it was a little early, but I said I was interested. In 1991, we signed a business arrangement where we would sell a selection of Belperron jewelry through Verdura to see if the American market liked it, and it did. Eventually, in 1999, I bought the Belperron name.

Nico Landrigan: When I was 11, we visited my dad’s friend in France, and I remember looking at the Belperron gouache paintings that he had and being transfixed. They were every bit as beautiful, carefully rendered, original and unique as anything we had seen hanging on a wall in the museums we had visited in Paris. That stuck with me. Fast-forward to later in my early decision-making of choosing a career, and I remembered thinking that those drawings and that early exposure at age 11 was much more important than I realized.

Belperron and Verdura were jewelers, but they were also artists. If you go back far enough, the oldest artifacts are jewelry. I know it’s not a fine art the way we define it now in society, but I think when you really look hard at that distinction, it gets fuzzy. I like to think that by bringing Verdura’s and Belperron’s archives to life, we’re letting their art form live beyond the paper.

We the Family: The Benefits of Creating a Family Constitution

BBH: There’s obviously a passion for what you do. Did you also view these acquisitions as investments where there was an opportunity to revive undervalued assets?

WL: I needed a career, and jewelry was what I knew best.

With Verdura, I didn’t know what I was getting. I knew he was a great designer, and I knew there were many designs. However, the man selling it to me didn’t tell me exactly what the archive included, and I was naïve enough to go ahead with it. I thought if I owned the name, I really had something because Verdura was such a famous brand.

Success didn’t happen overnight. It took eight or 10 years to get it on its feet. Eventually, we got good press, which helps, and made enough money to advertise. We slowly built the business.

It was a good decision. I could never have foreseen its great success!

BBH: What have been some of the challenges for both of the brands in building them back up to where they are today?

NL: Awareness has been the biggest challenge for both. Even though Verdura never closed, it was basically entirely supported by word-of-mouth, return collectors and editorial coverage. If you weren’t running in certain circles, you could very easily not know that Verdura existed.

Fast-forward to when my dad bought the business. He needed to make sure it stayed relevant and that people building their jewelry collections were aware of it. That was a challenge. We advertised a bit and were lucky to have relationships with collectors who knew jewelry editors. I think there was also something very appealing about a company that was getting another life, not for the purpose of exploitation, but for the purpose of preservation and celebration.

It’s the same with Belperron, and we’re three years in with that.

BBH: Tell us about your decision to join the family business. Did you always plan to follow in your father’s footsteps?

NL: For a long time, I didn’t think I was going to. The idea first came about when I was studying abroad in Australia during college, and my dad and I took a fishing trip in New Zealand together during my spring break. There were many long car rides where we talked about life, and at one point my dad said he was thinking of selling Verdura and doing something else. That was a trigger for me to really think about whether the business would always be here. I knew I cared about it and that it was the family business, but when you’re young, you’re so disconnected from what that even means. After my dad brought up the idea of selling, I sat there thinking about it for a while, and I came back with, “What if one day I join you in the business?” That was the beginning of the conversation.

I worked outside the company for a little after graduating from Brown University and eventually joined in 2004. The idea was that I would learn the family business, and then we would relaunch Belperron. We didn’t launch until 2015, but there were many advantages to waiting. I gained a lot of experience in manufacturing jewelry. When sitting with these craftsmen who have learned from generations of apprenticeships, you’re dealing with thousands of years of accumulated artisanal skill in rendering pieces beautifully, securely, safely and durably. Working with these people is my favorite part of the business.

BBH: A common characteristic among successful family businesses is communication. How do you manage that communication?

NL: We eat lunch together most days, and we’re pretty good at communicating partly because we spend that time together. We check in a lot about the things that are both important to the business as well as to each other, and we’re open about saying when we need to put on either a business partner hat or a father-son hat. It’s good to identify that because you could end up with different motivating forces. If you’re frank with what you’re communicating and the context it comes from, I think it works.

We the Family: The Benefits of Creating a Family Constitution

WL: Nico has an innate good business sense. In a funny way, I think he’s a better businessman than I am. He is fearless and willing to take on anything. I would tend to ignore things I should have addressed, and he was never shy about telling me what I should do!

As the father and the boss, I also gave him as much free rein as I could from the beginning because either it was going to work or it wasn’t. In a relatively short time, both of us felt pretty good about it.

We spend many weekends together, too, so the communication continues. Though we try not to talk business during weekends, the venue is there if we need to take advantage of it.

BBH: Nico, tell us about the process of establishing yourself after you joined.

NL: From an outsider’s perspective, a family member creates uncertainty: How will this person behave, and is this permanent? Are we actually investing in and training this person to be here forever and to carve out a role for himself where he is most valuable, or is this purely nepotism? I try to refer to the nepotistic element whenever the subject comes up because I think it’s much better to have it out there. Being aware of it is helpful.

WL: The important part is to be aware of how other employees feel, because in a sense you are moving in on someone else’s turf.

This comes back to communication. If you address a situation, even if it’s sticky, you’re way ahead of the game. It’s not an easy thing, and Nico handled it well. His joining the firm helped the business a lot in a relatively short period of time. He was able to generate new ideas and had an original approach to things.

The two of us are sitting here, but our management team is an integral part of how we run this business. We don’t make any major decisions without talking it through with them. We are incredibly lucky to have such a long-serving senior team. They have taken these two stories and made them their own as much as we have.

We try to pass a lot of our decision-making through the filter of “What would Fulco do?” or “What would Suzanne do?” We feel that we are charged with carrying on their legacies and are so careful with their work and reputations. Culturally speaking, you walk around these offices, and that feeling is imbued in the whole team.

We the Family: The Benefits of Creating a Family Constitution

BBH: Do you want it to be a family business going forward?

NL:  I really appreciate looking back on my childhood and knowing that I had no sense of pressure or expectation that I should do this. The fact that at 22 years old I was able to have that moment of thinking that maybe I would hate to see the opportunity disappear but not thinking it was ever something imposed upon me is so desirable, and I would like to give that to my kids. It’s fun seeing them run around the salon, but I refuse to put any kind of pressure on them. So, we’ll have to wait and see.

BBH: How important is bringing in outside professionals and advisors to the company’s continued success?

WL: Where would we be without our bankers – and our lawyers, accountants and friends in the trade acquired during more than 50 years in the business? It has made all the difference in our success.

BBH: Verdura is celebrating its 80th birthday this year. How are you celebrating?

NL: We hope that the collection we’re working on is worthy of the milestone. I’m excited about the Verdura designs that we are making. Every time you go through these drawings – 10,000 different drawings in almost 30 different big leather books – you find yourself stopping at something that you may have skipped over before but that strikes you as very relevant suddenly.

WL: Neither of the two designers did schematic or working drawings. They drew the piece finished, which is very difficult because the modulation is one of the big parts of making it a success. There’s always a leap of faith when you select a two-dimensional drawing to turn into a three-dimensional piece of jewelry, but we’re excited.

BBH: Ward and Nico, thank you for your time and insight.

Interview conducted by Jake Turner, and article written by Kaitlin Barbour.

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