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The Katz Meow

Why does Hollywood's Best Supporting Jeweler play the part so well but the role so reluctantly?

"Excuse me, I have to go yell at Helen Hunt."

It is three days before the Academy Awards, and Martin Katz is trying to convince last year's Best Actress to go a little crazy for this year's ceremony, to wear some jewelry that pushes the limits of her minimalist tastes. He returns from the phone call in defeat—Hunt wants nothing more than diamond studs. But he has other, more pressing concerns. No one wants a repeat of last year's Minnie Driver episode, when the Good Will Hunting nominee got down on hands and knees to retrieve runaway rubies from a broken strand of the Art Deco bracelet she'd borrowed from Katz.

In the last five years Katz has quietly become known as a jeweler to the stars, a moniker he dislikes even though it places him in a pantheon of such better-known names as Harry Winston, Cartier, and Van Cleef & Arpels. Shortly after Sharon Stone made the movie Sliver she posed for a magazine cover wearing an antique butterfly from Katz, strung to her bare shoulder with dental floss. The jewelry garnered much better reviews than the film and begat a coterie of celebrity borrowers who need to sparkle at premieres, award shows, and other paparazzi gauntlets. It is a clientele for whom no surnames are necessary: Gwyneth, Anjelica, Roma, Meg, Mira, Meryl, Cate, and Kirstie, not to mention those who have already shed their surnames, Madonna and Roseanne.

Katz is slightly schizophrenic about his lending library. "I do not make mannequins out of the people who wear my jewelry," he says somewhat defensively, and he professes ignorance of half the luminaries who clamor for his party rentals. (After the Grammys a friend called to ask why he hadn't "done" Lauryn Hill, the young hip-hop star who won five awards. Katz's response was, "Who?" And he never returned a call from Lynn Redgrave, Oscar-nominated for Gods and Monsters, because he got her mixed up with sister Vanessa, whose politics he doesn't like.)

Even though he feels a bit tarnished by his reputation for accessorizing stars, Katz's press kit includes a triple-column "celebrity list," and he acknowledges the synergy between these names and his real client base: the industrial rich, the wives of deep-pocketed CEOs and masters of the universe. "I used to believe my clientele didn't care what the celebs wore, that they were the last to be aware of this stuff," he says. "I'm shocked when they ask, 'Was Demi wearing your earrings? Do you have any more like that?' Hollywood influences the world. The stars are America's royalty. We watch their pomp and circumstance, their openings and calamities, how they're styled, and every aspect is reported. It becomes a showcase." Despite this attention, and the fact that Michelle Pfeiffer may be more glamorous than Mrs. Silicon Valley Tycoon, Katz does not equivocate about his loyalties to the rich and famous: The famous borrow; the rich buy.

What both borrowers and buyers are drawn to is Katz's incomparable collection of estate jewels and his own contemporary designs that pay homage to the Belle Epoque, when the staid Victorian era gave way to the more refined work of the Edwardian period, the whimsy and color of Art Nouveau. The pieces he buys "speak" to him, and those that speak loudest have a knock-'em-dead stunning quality, like his rare, multihued Mogul necklace or the Mogul earrings Nicole Kidman wore at last year's Oscars. "But the more spectacular and unusual, the less safe and usable," he says, "just like clothing."

There is a certain amount of decorous ambulance-chasing in this business: Katz's heirloom pieces are acquired from private estates, small jewelers, and dealers all over the world, so he must stay in touch with estate lawyers and jewelry stores whose job it is to dispose of such treasures. "I get calls rather routinely from people in divorce or death situations," he says. "In every town, no matter how small, there are rich people, and their heirs may not have a lifestyle for the jewelry or may not understand it. Small stores may be holding a piece way over their heads. They call and ask if I'd like to buy it." There are also private offerings, like the diamond bracelet purchased from a woman who has more grandchildren than she has jewelry and decided to liquidate her collection to avoid family squabbles.

Though Katz dislikes reproductions, he evokes and updates classic techniques in his own designs. And he's nostalgic for the reciprocal professional alliances forged at the turn of the century between jewelers such as Cartier and couturiers like the House of Worth. Clothing was often created to fit the jewelry, rather than the other way around: Bodices were made in fabrics that were friendly to brooches, and necklines fit necklaces. Katz has considered reviving that tradition, and is currently in discussion with a number of designers. And in his work he's attempting to maintain a level of quality and taste commensurate with haute couture while at the same time being interested in a youthful look. His "floating" and smaller "sprinkle" necklaces are part of his "young diamonds" concept: Seemingly gliding over a woman's clavicles, they look important but not matronly. A recent perusal of nature books at the Rizzoli store led to his unique "ivy vines" in tsavorite garnets, of a softer, more muted green than emeralds (there are more than a thousand of them in his necklace, representing one month's worth of gem-setting), and he used an old technique of silvering over 18-karat gold ("silver top"), creating a patina that looks "fatigued" rather than newly minted. "It's a contemporary design, filled with movement, but it has an old soul," says Katz. "I'm not the first to use leaves and flowers and fruit, any more than a singer is the first to record romantic ballads. But it's my voice." Most of his ideas are executed by French master craftsmen. Ironically, Katz himself can't sketch worth a damn. "You should see my drawings," he admits ruefully. "I'll send my stick figures to artists in Paris, and they'll fax back a drawing with a note that says, 'Is this what you were trying to do?' "

Katz, who grew up in South Bend, Indiana, had no formal training for the jewelry profession. At Indiana University he studied business and psychology (not a bad preparation for the jewelry trade), and he earned money selling puka-shell necklaces, acquired wholesale from a frat brother and financed by his own younger brother, who had a lucrative paper route. An older cousin worked for the jeweler Laykin et Cie, known for its film "placement" (Doris Day wore their baubles in Pillow Talk,), and got him a job with the company in California, where he once made the Sultan of Brunei wait for his purchases until his check had cleared. "I was an assistant salesman selling watches for five dollars an hour," Katz says, "but I was reasonably aggressive. My first week I sold a $20,000 Patek Philippe. I wore a Seiko myself and fantasized about owning a Baume & Mercier. Eventually I sold so many watches the company president put one on my arm at a trade fair and said, 'That's a gift.' Without missing a beat I said, 'And I have a brother.' Katz opened his own jewelry business in the high-flying early eighties, when cash seemed limitless and expendable. But when the stock market crashed in 1987 he lost everything. "I figured I'd go to work for another jeweler," he says, "and I went to New York on a tire-kicking expedition. People in the trade offered me inventory. I sold two million dollars' worth of stuff off my dining-room table that year. I realized that the older pieces were more interesting and retained a higher value, so I went on a mission to learn about vintage. Signed, named, and numbered things tend to bring more money. But I will always love contemporary design. Just because something's old doesn't mean it's great."

Katz's relationship with his clientele is reminiscent of a time when the process of acquiring jewelry meant visiting a private salon. The modern equivalent is a grownup "play date" at the mirrored jewelry bar in his Beverly Hills penthouse—high enough that he could moonlight as a traffic reporter without a helicopter. Clients sip Champagne or Diet Snapple as he opens drawers and tries to hone in on their desires. "You haven't told me color or clarity," he chastises a woman who wants to trade up on her diamond ring. "That's like telling me you want a three-bedroom house in a good neighborhood." His challenge is the modest or satisfied woman who claims she doesn't need any more jewelry. "If I could match up the husbands who want to spend with the wives who want to wear," Katz says, "my business would be incredible." Playing might include a bit of edification. ("Rubies and sapphires are the same mineral, corundum," he instructs. "It picks up trace elements that change the color.") Sometimes there's a bit of gossip: When one customer learns a particular bauble was sold to the husband of an acquaintance, she snorts, "Yeah, he'd better start making it up to her. He's been a bad boy." Katz jokingly suggests she should have a few of the narrow jeweled bangles, known as service stripes, given to Victorian wives on their anniversaries. "Confidences and discretion are a big part of this business," he allows. "We're keepers of secrets."

And part-time shrinks. Katz comments on the myriad reasons people buy jewelry: "There are apology purchases, revenge purchases, loneliness purchases. The nicest are love purchases." After a heavyset woman flirts with all the daintiest pieces in his oeuvre, he observes, "Larger-framed women like delicate jewelry in order to feel feminine; small women like imposing jewelry to feel powerful. I think that's always been true. Most of my antique rings with big rocks are for a size-two finger."

He plans to move the business to a new boutique later this year. When that happens he will no longer be living with the bejeweled masterpieces that constitute his livelihood. "Like my Hockneys and Lichtensteins, they're art to me," he says. "I look at every wonderful piece I have virtually every day." A few years ago he sold a treasured sapphire and platinum Deco bracelet to a client and regretted it almost instantly. "I drove her crazy, trying to get it back," he says, "and I made sure not to show her anything that would go with it. She had a definite hole in her sapphire inventory." Eventually she sold the piece back to Katz—at a profit. "I would be a far better collector than a dealer," he sighs, "but I'm not a museum. It's my passion and I have an attachment, so I'm not such a good businessman."

He's not bad either. Clients cheerfully pay $5,000 to $1.5 million for his wares—"but if a client wanted a $5 million ruby necklace, I'd know where to find it," he offers. He prides himself on the soft sell, trying to match jewelry to both personality and anatomy, taking into account the panoply of possibilities in the female form."Necks that are fuller around the collarbone are easier to fit," Katz says, "and everyone's ears are different. Some women don't particularly like their necks and do important earrings. If I don't have something that suits a client, I'll generally say, 'Let's wait. I'll have something better for you.' It's more important to have a client than to make a sale." The toughest dilemma is the diplomacy required when asked to opine on hideous jewelry that belonged to a beloved Great Aunt Helen. "How do you tell someone that her child is ugly?"

Katz sets himself apart from his competitors not only by seeking the unique but by incorporating a certain edginess in his spectrum, which can mean strange juxtapositions in his living room. Days before the Oscars he is setting out diamonds for Best Supporting nominee Brenda Blethyn, an English gentlewoman in gray suit and pumps, so unlike her over-the-top character in Little Voice. Inches away is Courtney Love's stylist, with magenta hair and a tattooed wrist. Another stylist, wearing clothes more befitting her sylphlike clientele, is crying—literally crying—that she can find no size 11 shoes for Cate Blanchett, nominated for Best Actress for her performance in Elizabeth.

As the stars and their representatives celebrate their fabulousness, the slate-gray carpet in Katz's apartment shows a tracery of footprints from the heavy traffic. There are dueling cell phones and lots of kissy-face—or more accurately, kissing of the air behind the ears. A film-industry wife brings three dresses in dry-cleaner bags, not sure which will fit if her herbal diuretic doesn't work but all the while grabbing up fistfuls of M&Ms from Katz's endless supply. The Jewish wife of a comedian is contemplating a jeweled cross. "Good news, Mom," she wisecracks, "I'm going to the Oscars. Bad news, I'm wearing a cross." Fingerprints are cleaned off each selected jewel by a steamer that makes a ferocious whoosh like a cappuccino machine gone mad.

The fact that a piece of jewelry is photographed on a public figure does not necessarily help to sell it, and there are some pieces Katz will not allow to be shown on the necks and wrists of famous people. "It compromises the integrity or specialness," he says. "There's always value in the unknown. A woman who wears this kind of jewelry as a matter of lifestyle wants to be the first to carry the thunder. And some things are too rare to be exploited."

There is testimony to the quality of Katz's curatorial eye in the story he tells of finding an unsigned piece he thought had been made by Cartier and taking it to the company for verification. The verdict came back: "No, it's not Cartier. . . .

"But would you like to sell it?"

Aimee Lee Ball wrote about the art of invisible setting in the last issue.