118 years young

November 10, 2022  |  Joyce Kauf
Seaman Schepps
The lively spirit of Seaman Schepps is on display at its new Madison Avenue flagship.

Seaman Schepps had an innate talent for designing jewelry that enhanced a woman’s beauty. “Traditionally, jewelry signified social status or financial standing. But Schepps’s pieces flattered the wearer, rather than showing off family wealth,” explains Anthony Hopenhajm, who acquired the brand in 1992.

Known as “America’s court jeweler,” Schepps — who lived from 1881 to 1972 — designed for style icons ranging from Barbara Hutton and Marlene Dietrich to the duchess of Windsor and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. But his origins were far humbler.

Raised by immigrant parents on New York’s Lower East Side, Schepps grew up in a world of tenements and pushcarts. Hopenhajm believes that this melting pot of sounds and sights had a profound influence. “Color didn’t scare him,” he says.

Schepps first set up shop in California in 1904, but returned to New York in 1921. He opened a store around the corner from the Algonquin Hotel, home to the famed Round Table of writers and artists, who became his friends and clients. Although he lost that store during the Great Depression, Schepps later opened on Madison Avenue and eventually moved to Park Avenue, where the shop remained for the next 60 years.

Unconventional combos

Innovation and irreverence are at the heart of Schepps designs. “He took chances. He made bracelets out of wood and put diamonds on seashells,” says Hopenhajm, adding that Schepps’s lack of formal training may have been an advantage, since it freed him to experiment outside the strict confines of traditional jewelry design.

“He didn’t start with a pencil and paper. He was inspired by the materials,” relates Hopenhajm. At the time, the style was single-stone jewelry — “all diamonds or rubies or emeralds.” But Schepps played with creative combinations, seamlessly mixing precious and semi-precious stones with crystal, wood or ivory. His use of wood became a “hallmark design of the brand,” according to Hopenhajm; he points to the many iterations of the ebony wood Boat Link bracelet, which have included silver, diamond, and white ceramic accents.

Shell jewelry also became synonymous with Schepps. “He would take an inexpensive shell and adorn it with thousands of dollars of stones,” turning it into the perfect accessory for his fashionable clientele, says Hopenhajm. “There was nothing more chic than wearing this with a linen colored blouse in the summer or a leather jacket in the winter.”

A love of color

Color was a dominant feature of his designs. Classic examples were his Rio bracelets in peridot, aquamarine and emeralds; the Junio necklace in soft blue chalcedony and sapphires; and the Garden bracelet, blossoming with rubies, emeralds, sapphires and diamonds.

Schepps had a whimsical side as well. Snuff bottles, which he discovered on a trip to Asia, became a design element for a bracelet. He cut them in half and combined them with white topaz, emerald and jadeite. The latter was a “favorite and frequently used stone for its soft and flattering color,” says Hopenhajm, adding that it was not commonly in use among American designers.

Schepps applied the same design aesthetic to men’s cuff links, which he created in shell, crystal and jade. “Like his jewelry, the cuff links have stood the test of time,” says Hopenhajm.

“A lot of the jewelry tends to be fun,” he continues, explaining his initial attraction to the brand. “Pieces made more than 60 years ago are as desirable today as they were then.”

Reopening doors

The company’s tradition of “innovative design with a twist” is on full display at its recently opened flagship on Madison Avenue. “Like Schepps, we are inspired by the materials,” says Hopenhajm. As with the original pieces, all the jewelry is produced in New York.

Reminiscent of a Parisian salon in the 1930s, the new boutique ushers clients into a world of hushed elegance amid a palette of soft blue and beige. Hopenhajm wanted to create a “serene atmosphere for showing beautiful things,” with the jewelry as “the stars of the room.”

An Italian Rococo mirror from the 1850s and a Baccarat crystal and steel chandelier serve as adornments as well as links to the past; both pieces were originally in the Park Avenue store. The 50 feet of window displays, meanwhile, will change seasonally.

The first level also accommodates a retrospective of Schepps designs. For the first time in 15 years, pieces originally created for American heiress Doris Duke will be on display — though not for sale — including a grape cluster brooch with a mix of colored sapphires. The lower level, accessible via a circular staircase, houses Schepps’s original business ledgers and over 5,000 original drawings and sketches. Originally stored in standard photo albums, they are now preserved in archival paper.

Hopenhajm hopes to use the space for special events and educational conferences.

Resonating through the generations

“These designs make sense, 118 years after Seaman Schepps was founded,” remarks Hopenhajm. “People are tired of the sameness that’s in the market. They appreciate what is handmade and beautiful.”

He views the jewelry as transcending generations — an observation he’s gleaned from interactions with mothers and daughters. He also points to the popularity of the brand’s boutiques in Nantucket, Massachusetts, and Palm Beach, Florida.

“It’s an aspirational brand for many people because of the unique designs and ingenious use of materials,” says Hopenhajm. And the Seaman Schepps story itself resonates with people. “Self-taught and self-made, Schepps reinvented himself. He represents a true American success story.”

Image: Seaman Schepps

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