You can tell a lot about a person by their possessions. In the case of jeweler Fred Leighton, who passed away at 85 in July 2017, his love of beauty, jewelry, decorative arts and history was showcased in his personal collection, which was sold at Sotheby’s in April 2018 in a sale entitled “The Jeweler’s Eye: The Personal Collection of Fred Leighton.”
The first time I met Fred Leighton, when I was just starting out in the business, I was nervous about our meeting. There was never a conversation about vintage jewelry that did not lead back to Fred Leighton.
But the minute we met, all nervousness disappeared. His casual demeanor, easy smile and calm manner put me immediately at ease. And clearly, he was a man with a passion for jewelry. Even after he “retired” — he sold his store in 2006 — our paths crossed regularly at various events where he was, in his words, “just helping out a friend.” The truth was that he loved jewelry and beautiful decorative objects and it was never really work for him, just an extension of who he was…a man with the impeccable taste level that is often associated with designers.
Born Murray Mondschein in the Bronx in New York City, he legally changed his name to Fred Leighton in 1986. Leighton got his start in New York City retail in the 1960s when he purchased a store in the West Village that sold Mexican wedding dresses, silver and crafts. The store was named Fred Leighton after its original owner. Customers would come into the store looking for Fred Leighton, which is what prompted Mondschein to change his name. As time went on, Leighton expanded into Mexican and Native American silver jewelry, and he eventually discovered Victorian jewelry. As his interest in jewelry developed further, he went on to get his gemological degree. He began gathering more jewelry and moved his store to Madison Avenue on the Upper East Side, where he specialized in vintage jewelry.
His deep enthusiasm for vintage and period jewelry brought the genre of jewelry back into popularity as he developed a clientele of society doyennes and celebrities. It was Leighton who taught them, in his soft-spoken way, about the beauty and history of these jewels. In 1996 Leighton made his first foray into placing jewelry on the red carpet when he loaned actress Nicole Kidman an opal choker to wear with a lavender Prada dress to the 1996 Oscars. Today, Fred Leighton jewelry is a staple of elegance and glamour at all the major red-carpet events. He is credited with starting the trend of wearing brooches in the hair and stacks of bracelets.
Leighton’s collection that sold at Sotheby’s was filled with an eclectic assortment of jewelry that had been compiled over decades. He had diamond pieces, as well as jewelry with rubies and emeralds but also more unexpected gems including moonstone, demantoid garnet and amethyst. Styles spanned all eras and included some fabulous examples of work by Marchak, Georges Fouquet, Tiffany & Co., Templier, J.E. Caldwell, Cartier and others. The collection was bound together by the stylish designs and quality of the pieces.
Leighton left a great legacy — he reminded us all that beautiful jewelry stands the test of time and is meant to be worn and enjoyed.