Learn Why Collectors Head to Siegelson to Snap Up Incredible 20th-Century Jewelry Before Museums Do

In jewelry lore, there are some dealers who stand above the rest, famed for the astonishing jewels they’ve held in their inventory and the impressive transactions they’ve concluded. 

In the early decades of the past century, Pierre Cartier, who ran his family’s New York City flagship, repeatedly made headlines for the important stones and royal jewels he sourced and sold. Among them were a pair of emerald earrings that Emperor Napoléon gave to Empress Joséphine and a strand of 42 black pearls from the collection of the Russian aristocrat Prince Felix Yusupov. 

During the mid-20th century, Harry Winston gained celebrity status for his ability to obtain rare treasures — including the Hope Diamond, which he ultimately donated, along with other jewels, to the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. 

New York–based jewelry dealer Lee Siegelson has risen to the ranks of Cartier and Winston since joining his family firm in 1992. Like the legendary dealers before him, he knows every detail of the history of the designs in his possession and includes a full dossier with each important piece he sells.

1935 Art Deco aquamarine and diamond ear clips by Cartier, offered by Siegelson
Siegelson specializes in outstanding 20th-century pieces by renowned makers, such as these 1935 Art Deco aquamarine and diamond ear clips by Cartier.

A rundown of the jewels that have passed through Siegelson’s hands amounts to a list of some of the greatest designs ever created. The treasures span the past 150 years and a range of significant styles. The iconic creations Siegelson has sold include, to name just three, the Duchess of Windsor’s Suzanne Belperron blue chalcedony suite; Princess Mathilde Bonaparte’s late-19th-century 250-carat diamond Mellerio rose brooch; and the custom aquamarine buckle necklace commissioned by Cole Porter for his wife, Linda, and designed by Fulco di Verdura for Paul Flato during the 1930s.  

A model wears the Modern cuff by Art Smith, later acquired by Siegelson and donate to the Cleveland Museum of Art
To celebrate the company’s 100th anniversary, Siegelson donated a number of pieces to museums, including the ca. 1948 brass Modern cuff by Art Smith, which went to the Cleveland Museum of Art. Photo courtesy of Mark McDonald

Like Winston, Siegelson has sold and donated several historic pieces to American museums, each a testament to his passion for artistry, innovation and bold design. Among them was a large ruby and amethyst starfish brooch, designed by Juliette Moutard for René Boivin in 1937 and originally owned by Oscar-winning actress Claudette Colbert, that the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, bought from Siegelson in 2019. 

Last year, Siegelson marked the 100th anniversary of his firm by making donations to various institutions. “Museums have had a huge impact on my understanding of jewelry,” he explains. “I wanted to give something back.” Each piece was chosen to complement the collection of the recipient institution. He gave jewels by Alexander Calder to the MFA Boston and the Newark Museum of Art. The Cleveland Museum of Art received a modernist bracelet by Art Smith

To celebrate the planned (pandemic-delayed) opening this spring of the Mignone Halls of Gems and Minerals at the American Museum of Natural History, in New York, Siegelson has presented the institution with the Organdie necklace designed in 2001 by Michelle Ong for Carnet. The openwork, fully flexible bib is set with more than 110 carats of round and pear-shape rose-cut diamonds.  

Introspective sat down with Siegelson to find out more about his history and the jewelry currently in his collection.

What inspired you to join the family business?

Jewelry dealer Lee Siegelson
Lee Siegelson started his career in the jewelry industry fresh out of college, in his early 20s.

The year I graduated from the University of Colorado at Boulder, my father [Herman, son of firm founder Louis] was sick with cancer, and he said I needed to come in then if I wanted to learn the business. My parents divorced when I was very young, and I grew up with my mother in Michigan. Whenever I visited my father in New York City, the business was always a bit of a mystery to me, but I wanted to be with him, so I joined him. 

He had a full storefront in the Diamond District, on Forty-seventh Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues. Things were very different then than they are today. People would shop for jewelry on Fifth Avenue, Madison Avenue and Forty-seventh Street. Eventually, I moved the company from Forty-seventh Street to an appointment-only salon on Fifth Avenue. 

I only had a year to learn the business before my father died. When I took over, I was just twenty-three. It was daunting when I knew so little about it, but I learned the ropes and honed my eye. I feel like attending high school at Cranbrook, in Michigan, gave me a solid background to make aesthetic judgements. Plus, I have always been good with numbers and people. All of those qualities helped me find my way. 

Siegelson's former storefront on West 47th Street in Manhattan.
The Siegelson shop was formerly located on West 47th Street, in Manhattan’s Diamond District.

Your inventory has extraordinary range in terms of the periods it covers and the designers you carry. On 1stDibs now, you have everything from a Cartier Art Deco demi-suite to a 1970s bracelet from the Hopi Native American jeweler Charles Loloma. What qualities unite all the pieces you choose?

The pieces represent different styles, but I look at them all with the same filter. I search for jewels that represent the paradigm. 

Great jewelry is not just a display of important gems, although the stones are one part of the design. Often, the gems in the jewels have been cut to fit in just that piece, as though the designer was almost painting with stones. Gems in these types of jewels usually can’t be taken out and reset in another piece. They’ve been sacrificed for the design. 

A 1933 illustration for Vogue showing a René Boivin diamond-pavé cuff offered by Siegelson
The René Boivin diamond-pavé cuff shown here in a 1933 illustration for Vogue was designer Suzanne Belperron’s take on the maison’s Tranche bracelet, named for its tapered curve resembling a melon slice.

There are several Siegelson original designs on 1stDibs. What inspires the jewels you create, and how often do you make a new piece?

I don’t make jewelry on any kind of production schedule. Often, a jewel is inspired by a beautiful antique stone I’ve purchased. That’s not something you can plan for on a calendar. When a perfect pair of antique-cut, pear-shaped Golconda diamonds or an exceptional pair of kunzites comes across my desk, I often feel inspired to make something that follows the tenets of great Art Deco design. I also have the Chroma collection, which features brightly colored geometric settings that pull out hues from deep within the stones.

What jewels are your clients looking for now?

Many people want jewelry with clean lines and sculptural shapes, usually dating from around 1925 to 1970. Suzanne Belperron’s jewels are high on the list of things people are looking for. They like the color and scale of her work. Jewels from René Boivin also have the mode people want. Pieces from these houses look as modern now as they did when they were made. 

How do you help a client build a collection?

A 1970s turquoise, lapis lazuli and gold cuff by Hopi jeweler Charles Loloma.
The deeper blue of scattered lapis lazuli segments enriches the color palette of this ca. 1975 turquoise and gold cuff by Hopi jeweler Charles Loloma.

I walk them through the nuances of what makes a great piece from a designer versus an average piece. I’m honest with them about what they’re looking for and the possibilities of finding it. 

I try to find things that are valuable that they’re going to be able to wear. Wearability is an important quality to just about everyone. Few people today want jewels that are just going to sit in a safe. 

What do you love to sell?

I love selling the sculptural jewelry that clients really enjoy and wear. I also enjoy opening their eyes to different designers, such as Charles Loloma. I think he’s on a par with Cartier, and the pieces are made equally well. 

What would be your dream item?

There’s an Art Deco tiara by Raymond Templier. The piece epitomizes the architectural boldness of Art Deco glamour. It gets a great close-up in the 1928 movie L’Argent on the German actress Brigitte Helm, who plays a baroness and spy.

What do you regret having parted with?

I don’t lose sleep over it, but I wish I still had the Princess Mathilde rose brooch. I enjoyed being a custodian of that jewel.

Lee Siegelson’s Talking Points

Suzanne Belperron Paris brooch, ear clips and ring, 1951 Shop Now
Suzanne Belperron Paris brooch, ear clips and ring, 1951

“Suzanne Belperron was known for making exceptional one-of-a-kind designs, but she did not often make sets. This is the largest matched suite of Belperron jewelry known to exist in the original fitted case. It features an assortment of deep-purple amethysts and yellow sapphires and citrines in an arrangement only Belperron could have devised.”

Jean-Émile Puiforcat glass and silver vases, ca. 1925 Shop Now
Jean-Émile Puiforcat glass and silver vases, ca. 1925

“These extraordinary Art Deco vases by Jean Puiforcat are austere and streamlined, composed of polished silver against rich ruby glass. Puiforcat insisted that all his pieces be made by hand, but no hammer strike is ever visible in the work. It is exceedingly rare to find a matched pair.”

Van Cleef & Arpels Paris platinum and marquise diamond fringe necklace, 1948 Shop Now
Van Cleef & Arpels Paris platinum and marquise diamond fringe necklace, 1948

“This classic Van Cleef & Arpels diamond necklace features an unusual arrangement of geometric diamond cuts assembled in a beautiful graduated pattern. The jewel was featured in the September 15, 1946, issue of Vogue. Sofia Vergara wore it on the May 2012 cover of Vanity Fair.

Jean Després silver and black-lacquer Gear cuff bracelet, 1931 Shop Now
Jean Després silver and black-lacquer Gear cuff bracelet, 1931

“Jean Després was one of the innovative artists of the nineteen twenties and nineteen thirties who captured the streamlined aesthetic of the Machine Age in jewelry. Designed as a silver and black-lacquer gear, this bracelet is directly related to Després’s experience as a draftsman of airplane engines during World War I. By tapering the bracelet to fit the wrist, and adding lacquer, he created something extraordinary.”

Siegelson emerald, diamond and enamel spiral hoop earrings, 2019 Shop Now
Siegelson emerald, diamond and enamel spiral hoop earrings, 2019

“Spirals are a classic shape in architecture and design. These spiral hoop earrings are designed with graduated emeralds and sit beautifully on the ear.”

Juliette Moutard for René Boivin ruby heart ear clips, 1938 Shop Now
Juliette Moutard for René Boivin ruby heart ear clips, 1938

“These endearing puffy heart ear clips by Juliette Moutard for Boivin feature the unusual combination of textured gold and cabochon rubies. Light filters through the backs of the jewels, illuminating the stones. They are a playful expression of love.”

Charles Loloma turquoise, lapis lazuli and gold cuff bracelet, ca. 1975 Shop Now
Charles Loloma turquoise, lapis lazuli and gold cuff bracelet, ca. 1975

“In the nineteen sixties and nineteen seventies, Charles Loloma created beautiful bold jewelry incorporating stacked stones and mosaics with unusual material and color combinations. Loloma is an incredibly important jeweler, and his pieces are increasingly sought after by museums and collectors. This cuff is Loloma’s interpretation of a strand of beads wrapped around the wrist.”

Siegelson diamond, onyx and white gold fan earrings, 2019 Shop Now
Siegelson diamond, onyx and white gold fan earrings, 2019

“This earring design, created for the Siegelson centennial celebrating the company’s start in 1920, reimagines the Art Deco fan shape for the modern era.” 

Cartier Paris gold and diamond convertible bracelets, ca. 1945 Shop Now
Cartier Paris gold and diamond convertible bracelets, ca. 1945

“Great gold pieces are in high demand now, and this set of convertible Cartier bracelets is the largest existing set I have seen. The bracelets can be joined together to form a variety of necklace and bracelet combinations, and they feature a large-links design opulently set with diamonds.”

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