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.
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.