interview by YELENA DEYNEKO
photography by MARK MANN
production by CYNTHIA ALTORISO & DAVID CARLO hair & makeup by JANESSA PARÉ
backdrop by CHARLES BRODERSON
In her 30+ years as a jewelry designer
Ella Gafter has always looked for the SHINE.
Yelena Deyneko: Please tell us about the pin you are wearing? It is stunning!
Ella Gafter: Thank you! I created this opulent Rococo-style corsage brooch twenty years ago to showcase the lustrous beauty of pearls, and as a technical and esthetic challenge to myself and to my top Italian maestri.
Yelena Deyneko: Explain the nature of the challenge.
Ella Gafter: First of all, the brooch is almost a foot long! It took engineering genius to calculate the three-dimensional build and curvature of the main platinum branch so it would not simply split in two if you so much as took it into your hand. Then there was the layout and size of the twigs, the owers with pearls and diamonds, the frosted-crystal leaves and a butterfly y which is set en tremblant. How big do you make them? Where do you place them? How many? It’s a question of balance that has to be answered before you start working. The only guides were the marvelous Australian South Sea pearls I’d collected for years.
Yelena Deyneko: It does look like a piece for the ages!
Ella Gafter: Funny that you say that. The brooch was part of “Pearls”, an exhibition the American Museum of Natural History inaugurated in October of 2001. It was the most comprehensive didactic exhibition ever presented on this organic gem, and it toured around prestigious museums in all 5 continents during several years. The brooch I am wearing was one of a handful of 20th Century pieces selected by the lead curator of “Pearls”, Dr. Neil Landman, to show to the public.
Yelena Deyneko: What are you working on now?
Ella Gafter: There is a new project – a zodiac collection with colored stones.
Yelena Deyneko: Beautiful. People like color.
Ella Gafter: No, you like color because you’re Russian. People often feel constrained: "I have a red dress but this is blue – how will I put it on?” Or “I have yellow shoes and the dress is yellow, so the jewelry has to be yellow." Not necessarily. Everything has to flow harmoniously; that’s an art and a science.
Yelena Deyneko: How did your style develop?
Ella Gafter: You have to be born with intuition. When my designs aren’t realized the way I envision them, we keep working until it looks gorgeous – never okay, never vulgar, never compromised. It’s an orderly process that involves creativity and talent, but also experience and aesthetic logic. Throwing together disparate things to “see what it’ll give” isn’t good enough with me, expensive jewelry. Not for nothing is a Maestro called a Maestro; you have to know what you are doing to the point where others want – need – to learn from you.
Yelena Deyneko: You're very confident!
Ella Gafter: I’m so insecure you cannot even imagine, but I know where I want to arrive, and when I’m done with a piece I stand by it. I am strong, but I’m extremely careful. I think a lot until I make a move; then I trust the process.
We used to go to pearl farms in Australia in the middle of the sea, at the end of the world I traveled with Talila. An adventurer! She was so smart and funny and speaks many languages. We started during her time off from Harvard.
Yelena Deyneko: Describe the process of jewelry creation.
Ella Gafter: I am charmed by color and shine: The gems and pearls tell me where they want to be and how they want to look. Not that I always understand them, but I’m humble enough to keep working and changing until the piece looks balanced. If they don’t want to be in the settings I put them in, it keeps me from sleeping.
Yelena Deyneko: How did you start as jewelry designer?
Ella Gafter: I don’t want to tell you the exact episode but I saw a shine when I was about eight years old. Many episodes later in my life always brought me back there. It has been my obsession. I was hooked on the shine; it guides me and I listen and follow.
Yelena Deyneko: What happened once you realized your calling?
Ella Gafter: It was a very long road. I don’t want to talk about it. It took time. But now, do you see what jewelry I can make?
Stefania Cesari holding the extraordinary, one-of-a-kind fan by Ella Gafter.
Stefania entrusted me with a stupendous needle lace and the challenge was on! I don’t have to tell you how complicated and delicate a job this was, but the result – with emeralds, diamonds and a natural-color golden pearl – is an objet d’art.
Yelena Deyneko: Gorgeous.
Ella Gafter: It must be gorgeous! It changes your fate, your very being. It gives you shine from within, it gives luster to your skin. This is no longer just jewelry, this is a part of you.
Yelena Deyneko: The more we talk, the less I know you.
Ella Gafter: My career is a mystery even to me. [laughs] When I was relatively poor I once showed my “collection” to a certain dealer who said, “Nice design work. I would pay you 10% or 20% more, but give me better stones next time.” I understood that a little better wasn’t 20% more, it was double, three times the price – understand the difference? Since then, my motto when I buy a stone or pearl has been, “Where is the shine?” A big revelation. If doesn’t shine there is no point.
Yelena Deyneko: When did you start working with pearls?
Ella Gafter: Not many years ago, maybe thirty-five. [laughs] The Australian pearl is big and beautiful and lustrous and feminine and alive, so it was an easy choice – I love the brilliance, luster and bliss in everything! Even today I woke up and looked out the window at 4 a.m. to the brilliance of the city; the light was perfect and the sunrise came. It inspired me. It was magical. I was happy to start a new day!
Yelena Deyneko: Were you approached by pearl wholesalers at first?
Ella Gafter: What? We used to go to pearl farms in Australia, in the middle of the sea, at the end of the world, and got them from the divers. It was a fantasy life. Today things are rather more streamlined. I traveled with Talila. An adventurer! She was so smart and funny and speaks many languages. We started during her time off from Harvard.
Yelena Deyneko: So you and Talila were going around the world buying raw material…
Ella Gafter: No, in the beginning Talila was still at university. I traveled a lot with my husband. Let me tell you a story. On one of our many trips to Bangkok thirty years ago – before so many mines were exhausted – I was looking into a very big parcel with hundreds of rubies. I started forming a small pile and told my husband, “Four eyes are better than two.” He looks at my selection with a loupe and says, “This stone’s got a hole in it,” so I throw it back into the large lot. I go on working and the stone again winds up in my selects. And my husband laughs and again we throw it back and I keep sorting. Then I say, “This is my final selection!” It was big money. And the same stone was there: I figured that if it spoke to me for the third time I had to buy it! I made a beautiful ring with it, and it was the first thing I sold from that collection because the ruby was fire!
Yelena Deyneko: Where was your first office?
Ella Gafter: A phone booth in Rockefeller Center! A dealer once asked, “When can you come?” We said, “In a minute.” “Where are you calling from?” “My office.” When we got upstairs they said, “Wow, you guys already have an office here in Rockefeller Center.” I said, “Absolutely.” And now that we’re on the 31st floor, I like to show from the window that “first office,” although the phone booth is not there anymore.
Yelena Deyneko: How did Talila become part of your business?
Ella Gafter: I needed her then and she needed her mother. Without Talila I would not have realized anything of myself. On the other hand, Talila is an accomplishment in and of herself.
Yelena Deyneko: What kind of mother are you?
Ella Gafter: Mixed. I give everything but am very demanding and very high-maintenance, but always for a productive reason. I don’t waste anyone’s time.
Yelena Deyneko: Did she help you negotiate?
Ella Gafter: Yes! We were tough but if we saw something gorgeous we would buy it. I always had an eye for what is lively and I’d pay any price they wanted. Did you hear me? Any price, because when it shines at me, it’s worth the investment; if not, then I wouldn’t take it as a present. Because if I sell it to you even for a little money, I give you nothing. It’s my responsibility to give you quality and beauty.
Yelena Deyneko: What other things in life are important to you?
Ella Gafter: Loyalty. If somebody is not loyal there is no second chance.
Yelena Deyneko: Please tell us about the gorgeous fan you designed for your friend Stefania.
Ella Gafter: Stefania Cesari holds the title of Cavaliere del Lavoro bestowed by the Italian President. She owns a large business of the most marvelous fabrics in Europe. Her company has redesigned rooms in the Quirinale, the Kremlin and other European palaces, not to mention the residences of Middle Eastern principalities. Along with collecting one-of-a-kind lacework and kerchiefs, her passion is extraordinary antique hand fans; Franco Maria Ricci published a book on her collection. I remembered that the President of the World Fan Association mentioned that he wasn’t aware of a single lady’s hand fan in the world with guard sticks made of gold. That’s when Stefania said, “Ella, you do it!” She entrusted me with a stupendous needle lace and the challenge was on! I don’t have to tell you how complicated and delicate a job this was, but the result – with emeralds, diamonds and a natural-color golden pearl – is an objet d’art that can actually be used. It was painstakingly crafted by Gran Maestro Pasquale Zicchieri and bears Stefania’s name and the year of its coming to life.
Yelena Deyneko: You achieve what you want.
Ella Gafter: I know what I want and go for it. Ideas, designs, clothes, recipes – I dress carefully even when going to a mine in northern Thailand! My fundamental drive is to try to do things well. My family, friends and clients love me and I love them. We meet around my table to eat carefully prepared food and look at carefully executed jewelry, and there is always the shine, darling!