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On a discreet little corner of Madison Avenue, a meticulously presented array of vintage jewelry sits prominently in the window of Stephen Russell. As co-owner Russell Zelenetz walks us through his most prized pieces, he takes the peering faces of awestruck passers-by framed in his window good-naturedly. In fact, he seems genuinely pleased to have others appreciating the collection he and partner Stephen Feuerman have spent over 25 years building.
The longtime friends and business partners share an appreciation of fine art, and an abiding passion for the beauty and superior level of craftsmanship in the pieces they collect. Their genuine love affair with both vintage and contemporary jewelry is reflected on every surface of the cozy store. “We didn’t want this to feel like a jewelry store,” said Zelenetz on why he made the choice to eschew counters in the shop. “We want it to feel like you’re in our living room–this is our collection, this is art. It’s like a museum to us.”
Zelenetz’s eyes positively sparkle as he fits us with a dazzling platinum and diamond art deco cuff bracelet. The cuff, made in the “Sudanese style” in 1930 by Henri Lavabre for Cartier Paris, boasts a hidden spring-loaded mechanism and a smoothness of movement that belies its age. This sense of agelessness is typical of the jewels in the Stephen Russell collection. All of their vintage pieces are seemingly imbued with a timeless aesthetic that easily moves between period and trend.
“The great jewels transcend time, they don’t show a date,” explained Zelenetz, as he moved on to a platinum and diamond bracelet made by Boucheron in 1925. Its innovative, highly flexible design was first debuted in a hairpiece at the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels in Paris. True to the popular Art Deco style of the time, the bracelet features Boucheron’s angular, geometric interpretation of flowers.
Often, the stories behind the jewels are as much a treasure as the pieces. While discretion is the name of the game in the collector’s business, every once in awhile Zelenetz manages to stumble upon an intriguing hidden history. We learned that one Van Cleef & Arpels brooch made in 1926 was specially commissioned for the wife of the president of the Dutch Shell oil company. Featuring diamonds, natural pearl, and emerald, the brooch flawlessly reflects the art deco preference of the time.
Yet another of the collection’s notable art deco pieces possesses a rather illustrious history. Made in 1930 by Lacloche Freres, the diamond and platinum cuff has a unique design that mimics the buckles of a belt. This, along with its uncommon cylindrical shape, have led it to be exhibited at Bijoux Art Deco et Avane-Garde in the Museé de Arts Decoratifs in Paris. It has also been featured in Vivienne Becker’s book, The Impossible Collection of Jewelry.
A rare citrine and gold art deco cuff made in 1934 by René Boivin comes with a very unique story. After the 1917 death of Boivin, his wife Jeanne assumed control of his business. Working alongside jewelry designers Suzanne Belperron, Juliette Moutard, and her daughter Germaine, Jeanne set about proving the ample capabilities of women in a male dominated industry. Jeanne was also sister to fashion great Paul Poiret, leading Maison Boivin pieces to become extremely popular among the fashion set. As a result, Belperron and Moutard were able to design more esoteric jewelry, which focused on style rather than material details like the number of gems. Cartier similarly embraced ‘fashion jewelry’ with the creation of their 18K gold and silver ‘Art Moderne’ cuff in 1938. Impeccably designed, the solid cuff has a clean, contemporary aesthetic that translates easily between casual and cocktail attire.
With the rich history behind Stephen Russell jewels, by the time we’d seen the last piece it was easy to understand Zelenetz’s enthusiasm. “It would be very, very, difficult to find this level of craftsmanship today,” says Zelenetz of a platinum and diamond necklace from Janesich. The piece can be worn as a necklace, or as two bracelets. As he demonstrates the way the diamond baguettes change direction depending on how the necklace is worn, we couldn’t agree more.