American Masters

Some believe vintage jewelry begins and ends on the clasp of a Cartier Tutti Frutti bracelet. Ralph Esmerian has a more expansive view. A chairman of the American Folk Art Museum and now the owner of Fred Leighton Rare Collectible Jewels, Esmerian aims to enlighten the world on the wonders of American jewelry. "These pieces are not only decorative art," says the fourth-generation gem dealer. "They're American artifacts."

Esmerian's encyclopedic collection was once accessed only by those lucky enough to be afforded entrance to his New York offices. Starting this season, it will be open to all at Fred Leighton's Madison Avenue store. A fine example of democracy at work.

How does Cartier fit into the history of American jewelry? During World War II all the big French houses opened operations in New York, Esmerian explains. So, yes, this gold, citrine, and enamel brooch?likely a patriotic gesture done in the early forties?is Cartier, but it was designed and made in the U.S.A. $80,000. All pieces at Fred Leighton, 773 Madison Ave., 212-288-1872.

"I'm the guy they call little Mickey Mouse / Got a sweetie down in the chicken house," sang Disney's animated rodent in 1929, and the face of American jewelry changed forever. Who knew? The anthropomorphic traits of Mickey and the gang soon popped up in the work of designers such as Raymond C. Yard and Donald Claflin. Yard created brooches of rabbits, with rubies and emeralds to dress them up as soldiers, butlers, and brides. Claflin, responsible for the enamel pantaloon?wearing parrot here, also had a way with smiling diamond-studded walruses. $115,000

Much the way New Hampshire's White Mountains inspired the paintings of Thomas Cole, American jewelers were moved by the country's natural landscape. Their palette was broader than the Europeans', according to Esmerian. They had turquoise from Arizona, garnets and tourmaline from Maine, pearls from the Mississippi River, and sapphires from Montana. Tiffany & Co.'s circa-1915 Montana-sapphire and diamond pendant, shown here, blends the trademark brightness of the state's natural resource with the design motifs of Mogul India. $110,000

Today's red carpet may have its Neil Lane and Martin Katz (not to mention Fred Leighton), but Paul Flato was the pioneering spirit. In the thirties Flato was jeweler to Hollywood stars and New York socialites. High-flying and adored, yes, but Flato, says Esmerian, was no snob. His specialty was finding everyday objects?a straight pin, a paper clip?and turning them into jewelry. Even a profile of the common man was precious material in Flato's hands, evidenced here by the gold and diamond?face brooch once owned by Ginger Rogers. $100,000

David Webb's early sixties lapis and gold bracelet was crafted, as were all his supremely bold pieces, with the consumer in mind. "He gave clients what they wanted," says Esmerian, "and in prosperous post?World War II America they wanted to show off." $75,000

Believe it or not but from 1870 to 1950, Newark, NJ, was the capital of American jewelry. Hundreds of workshops produced pieces in large quantities, making adornments available to the masses. Krementz, whose 1910 bracelet is shown here, was a leading house. $65,000

Marcus & Co. was an early-20th-century cowboy. "It was the first house that dared to really shoot contrasting colors right at you," Esmerian explains. This flower of orange citrine and pink tourmaline was one weapon of choice. $350,000

T. B. Starr was known for assimilating foreign ideas into his work. This late-19th-century belt is Indian in inspiration but typically American in design. "Starr, like most great American artists," Esmerian says, "borrowed European ideas then simplified them." $100,000