Yard Stick

The jewelry of Raymond C. Yard, the high-society standard from the '20s to the '50s, remains unsurpassed for refinement, quality, and touches of whimsy

The life of Raymond C. Yard is a delicious swirl of contradictions. He was a poor boy (the son of a railway conductor) who rose to the top of a rich man's business. A commoner in a world of pedigree. And in a realm of Europeans and Europhiles, he was as American as George M. Cohan—born not on the Fourth of July but on April 19, 1885, in Montclair, New Jersey. He was also—judging by the comments of those who knew him in his prime—that rarest of gems, a man of flawless integrity.

"Once," recalls Bob Gibson, president of Raymond C. Yard, who took over the firm from his father in 1987, "Yard had my father go to a gem dealer to purchase a batch of moonstones he had first dibs on. My father, quite naturally, wanted to pick through the pile and select the best stones. He dispatched a message to Raymond, who wrote back with instructions to divide the pile by placing his forearm in the center and choose one side or the other. Raymond later explained that out of respect for the seller he would not take all the best stones, since that would prevent the wholesaler from making further quality sales and thus damage his reputation. This kind of self-imposed fairness is unheard of in today's world."

There's a Horatio Alger quality to Yard's career. ("Raymond is a perfect example of the American dream," states Gibson.) He started working at age 13 as a doorboy for Marcus & Co.—a prominent New York jewelry store. Earning three dollars a week, he opened doors for members of high society who would one day open doors for him. Four years later Yard was promoted to the pearl-stringing department, where he developed an astute eye for color, shape, and luster, and four years after that to the floor of Marcus & Co. as a salesman, where he would work for the next 15 years.

"In those days everyone was wearing pearls because they were in abundance," says Gibson, who—thanks to volumes of original Yard sketches—now makes Yard jewels to order. "Then two things happened that forever changed the jewelry business: the use of platinum in jewelry, which allowed for intricate flexible design, and access to Kashmir sapphires." Precisely the two ingredients, it turns out, necessary for the advent of Art Deco jewelry—and Yard's future success.

Yard's break came in 1922 when John D. Rockefeller Jr. approached him with an irresistible proposition: If Yard would open his own salon, Rockefeller would buy the majority of his jewels from him and encourage his friends to patronize him as well. No discounts, no deals—just the desire to see a good man succeed. Thus it was that at age 37 Raymond C. Yard opened an "upstairs" salon at 607 Fifth Avenue. Rockefeller kept his word. And not only he, but the Vanderbilts, DuPonts, and Harrimans became clients, as did, in later years, the Flaglers and F.A.O. Schwarzes, Joan Crawford and Douglas Fairbanks.

"He made several important pieces for John D. Rockefeller Jr.," says Ralph Esmerian, a dealer in precious stones whose father—Raphael Esmerian—was one of Yard's major gem suppliers for many years. "For instance, Yard created a great necklace of perfectly matched Oriental pearls that took him ten years to find."

Among Joan Crawford's many purchases from Raymond C. Yard was a wide, fancy-cut diamond bracelet punctuated with three star sapphires weighing 73.15, 63.61, and 57.65 carats, respectively. She always wore this as part of a suite that earned her the moniker Joan Blue.

If social connections were Yard's only suit, the story would stop here, but in fact he was a fine jeweler in his own right—known for procuring the finest-quality gems and best platinum-smiths on the market. "Raymond had all the 400s as his clients because of the relationships he forged while at Marcus & Co.," says Manhattan estate jeweler Fred Leighton, referring to the New York society A-list. "But he also became a master-craftsman. Anytime you find a really beautiful Art Deco bracelet or a combination of top stones, it signifies it as a Yard piece. Yard was the American counterpoint to Cartier in the twenties."

It's not uncommon for Yard pieces to show up at fine auction houses and exceed the catalog estimate. In October 1996 that pearl necklace made for Rockefeller sold at Sotheby's New York for $464,500; the estimate had been $250,000-$350,000. And at Sotheby's in April 1997, a ca. 1927 diamond, emerald, and ruby pendant-watch, with a catalog estimate of $35,000-$45,000, went for $51,750; while a ca. 1925 diamond and emerald pendant jabot clip, listed for $15,000-$20,000, sold for $27,600.

"Yard jewelry fetches more because of the quality of the workmanship and the stones," says Leighton. "His diamonds were always the whitest and beautifully matched. His colored stones were always the brightest. I've never seen a piece of his jewelry that was not of the greatest quality. On a scale of one to ten, he deserves a nine and a half. I really can't think of many other jewelers I'd say that about."

As worldly as he became, Yard never seems to have lost the integrity that proved so winning to New York high society. "I met him only once, when I was about fifteen," says Esmerian, "but I got the sense he was a meat and potatoes kind of guy. He was on the front lines when buying gem and colored stones. He protected his clients' interests. He never made false promises. Bob Gibson still gets the great-grandchildren as clients to this day."

In fact, Gibson has the firm today because Yard took his father, Robert Gibson, under his wing after the boy caddied for him at Winged Foot Golf Club in Mamaroneck, New York. He hired Gibson as a doorboy and saw to it that the young man's career paralleled his own. When Gibson left the firm to serve as a fighter pilot in World War II, Yard promised to rehire him after the war. He not only redeemed that promise but passed the business on to Gibson when he retired in 1958. (Yard died in 1964).

Raymond C. Yard represented the end of an era in jewelry. His career commenced around the time that most of the world's mines for precious colored stones were drying up (though good stones were still available), and by the time it ended gem-quality stones were increasingly difficult to find. That's why Bob Gibson's quest today is to warehouse original pieces, thereby preserving the Yard heritage.

"No one hopes for the discovery of a new mine. Great-quality colored stones are just a rarity these days," he says. "Many of the new stones are heat-treated to intensify the color. Plus in the old days they cut five-carat stones to look like four carats because you wanted depth. Depth is what makes the color bolder. Now they cut five-carat stones to look like six carats. Most modern stones are not cut for intensity. That's why we use old stones. When we do find a quality stone we cut and set it according to our original designs. Of course, my passion is to bring all Raymond Yard jewelry back into the house, but what I really love is to acquire great colored stones through estate purchases and reset them in a Yard design. We'd much rather do that than create something new."

"You just can't produce that kind of jewelry anymore," says Leighton. "His things were so beautifully made, from every bezel to every link. There's jewelry that's really art; Yard brought it up to that level."

"There is a formula to making a great jeweler," muses Gibson. "You need great wealth, great platinum-smiths, and great colored stones. But Raymond C. Yard had heart, and that's the only way to come up with something that's worth more than its weight in gold."

Raymond C. Yard can be visited by appointment only. For information: 212-247-6222.

Mahvour Lord, a New York based writer, is new to Departures.