Ten years ago, the French jeweler Frederic Zaavy contacted John Bigelow Taylor and Dianne Dubler — the Highland Falls, New York publishers/photographers behind coffee-table tomes on Elizabeth Taylor’s jewelry and Madeleine Albright’s pins — about doing a book on his life and work. There was nothing unusual about this. Over the previous 10 years, Zaavy would call the couple to chat about the proposed work until they finally met at The Carlyle in Manhattan in 2006 to talk about it.
The 2010 request, however, was different. Zaavy, who had survived esophageal cancer in 2007, had seen his cancer return, this time to his liver. He was dying.
Taylor and Dubler would spend the last two years of Zaavy’s life photographing him, including in Spain, where artist Lorenzo Fernandez painted his portrait, and in Comporto, Portugal, where the painting was unveiled in the summer of 2011, a month before Zaavy died on Sept. 15 in his native Paris at age 46. The resulting book, “Stardust: The Work and Life of Jeweler Extraordinaire Frederic Zaavy” (fall, $75, 245 pages) — produced and packaged by the couple and published by Milan’s Officina Libraria — considers an elusive, mystical man who wanted to be the best jewelry designer there ever was and created richly textured works of art in gemstones that will long outlast a life lived briefly but fully.
“Stardust is the origin of all matter in the universe, including the diamonds Frédéric ‘painted’ with and loved so much,” Taylor and Dubler write in the epilogue to the book, whose text is mainly by Gilles Hertzog. “He was fascinated that, in addition to their beauty, diamonds resonated deep time. However, he was undaunted by time and space, which he deemed to be inconsequential. He thought of time in eons and knew his moment here would never be enough. Months before he died, he said to us, “I am already dead,” but then carried on as if he would live forever! He often acknowledged that he had been here before and would someday return.
“He once suggested putting a large, concave mirror, encrusted with diamonds, on the moon. His fantasy was to direct a laser at it, for the world to be dazzled by the returning sparkle. Possible? Maybe not. But, certainly, a magnificent vision.”
Zaavy’s vision — of nature and light and gemstones as colors on a palette — was apparent in his creations. The Seahorse brooch (2004), made of white and yellow diamonds, alexandrites, amethysts, aquamarines, demantoids, Paraiba tourmalines, colored sapphires, tsavorites, hauynes, gold and silver, with an elaborate cockscomb and jazz hands. The wavy, floral Ludmilla Ring (2003), from the “Ballet Series 2,” made of Padparadscha, violet and pink sapphires, spinels, platinum, gold and silver. The Nymphéas Bracelet (2005) — a homage to Claude Monet’s “Water Lilies” series and the namesake of Zaavy’s 2007 exhibit in New York and London, a floral abstract in white, natural vivid blue, vivid yellow, vivid violet, vivid pink and vivid black diamonds; alexandrites; fire opals; aquamarines; moonstones; rubies; natural Padparadscha, blue, pink and violet sapphires; tsavorites; demantoids; platinum; yellow gold; and silver.
Few works, however, compare to his masterpiece, the Iris Bracelet (2011), composed of a central vivid yellow diamond enveloped in purple, yellow and white diamonds, sphenes, demantoids, tsavorites, palladium, gold and silver in a series of seemingly endlessly unfolding petals redolent of a yellow iris. It was the piece that Taiwanese businesswoman Lisa Chen — Zaavy’s professional and personal partner for 10 years and mother of their son, Milan — chose to purchase from his collection at the end of his life. She was the Theo to Zaavy’s Vincent in a complementary relationship of finance and artistry forged by a love of beauty. With her financial help, Zaavy — who decided to forgo the family’s diamond business in exchange for globetrotting adventures that would take him from gemologist to designer — set up his first atelier in Paris in 2000. After the pair split five years later, Zaavy teamed briefly with Fabergé as the legendary makers of jeweled eggs sought to refresh the Russian-born company. With the “Fabergé interlude” over, Chen was back ordering Zaavy’s designs.
Today, she, along with his sister Martine — who was both a soul mate and, at 10 years older, a second mother to Zaavy — are the keepers of his flame. As his website notes, “The man is dead, but the work is there. There remains 204 drawings, 204 paintings of light that are waiting to take shape.”
Says Chen in the book: “With his colleagues at the Paris workshop, I am going to try to publish his work, so that he lives on forever.”
For more, visit fredericzaavy.com and kubababooks.com.