Simon de Pury on His Run-Ins With Pharrell Williams and How Hip Hop Revolutionized the World of Fine Jewelry
The veteran auctioneer believes the producer will steer Louis Vuitton to greater heights.
Every month in The Hammer, art-industry veteran Simon de Pury lifts the curtain on his life as the ultimate art-world insider, his brushes with celebrity, and his invaluable insight into the inner workings of the art market.
Pharrell Williams was announced as creative director of Louis Vuitton’s menswear division last week. This is a formidable new milestone in an outstanding career in which the artist has reached the top in the worlds of music and fashion, besides successful forays into the worlds of art, cinema, and design. He has been a tastemaker long before LVMH made this inspired appointment.
I have followed Hip Hop with fascination since its advent in the late 1970s. It is a movement that is to this day continuously evolving. Pharrell has been one of its most brilliant proponents ever since his days as a super successful music producer, first as part of the Neptunes, then of N.E.R.D., before hitting mega stardom as a solo artist. His hits Get Lucky (with Daft Punk and Nile Rodgers) and Happy are timeless classics that are engraved on our mental hard disks and instantly lift our spirits when we hear the first notes being played.
The inventiveness of Hip Hop went way beyond music and has been a game changer in the worlds of art, street art, fashion, cars, lifestyle, and jewelry. When I used to own Phillips I decided to put all the accent on contemporary culture and particularly on contemporary art, photography, and design.
There is one area of the auction world in which the contemporary creativity and originality seemed to me to be completely missing, and that was sales of Fine Jewelry. I had conducted numerous auctions of highly important jewels, mainly in Geneva, while I was Chairman Europe of Sotheby’s, but the accent was principally on the quality of the stones as opposed to innovation in design. So much so that I would tend to be bored while leafing through the jewelry auction catalogues of Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Phillips. To jazz things up a bit I asked the German iconoclast photographer Jürgen Teller to do one of our jewelry catalogues. He produced a stunning book that came in a pizza box. He hung the jewelry on the necks of his mother, his uncle and other family members. This catalogue has become a collector’s item in its own right but the jewelry itself didn’t become less boring by association.
Whenever I was looking at album covers of some of the greatest Hip Hop stars I was struck by the originality of the very “blingy” pop jewels worn by them. In a field of little innovation it appeared to me as significant as the jewels and precious objects created by the great Russian jeweler Carl Fabergé at the end of the 19th century and start of the 20th century. Or of the stunning designs created for Cartier by Jeanne Toussaint who became its director of fine jewelry in 1933, and who is at the origin of some of the greatest jewels of the Duchess of Windsor.
I therefore decided to plan the first auction ever entirely devoted to Hip Hop jewels. I asked Alia Varsano, a very talented lady who had been warmly recommended to me by contemporary art collectors Don and Mera Rubell. After a few weeks of hard work she managed to assemble, thanks in no small part to the help of Jacob Arabo, the owner of Jacob & Co., and of his wife Angela, a truly impressive group of spectacular Hip Hop jewels. Some were associated with the biggest names of rap aristocracy such as Missy Elliott, The Notorious B.I.G., 50 Cent, Faith Evans, and Pharrell Williams.
Jacob Arabo can be credited for being at the origin of creating so many extraordinary pieces for his ever growing group of clients who were back then referring to him as Jacob the Jeweler. I was always particularly proud of the quality and lavishness of our catalogues. An even greater effort went into producing this one than any catalogue I had ever produced. One day before the catalogue was meant to be shipped and couriered to our global client base, I received a letter from a lawyer representing Pharrell Williams. He had seen an advance copy of the catalogue, and said that the jewel that was being described as having belonged to Pharrell had never belonged to him. The lawyer was demanding not only that the lot be withdrawn but that the whole catalogue be destroyed.
Less than 18 days before the actual auction was supposed to take place, the lawyer of Phillips advised me that it was too great a risk to take to proceed with the sale and that, even if this one lot was being withdrawn, it could raise doubts in the mind of potential purchasers as to the provenance of other pieces. So it came to be that very sadly I did follow our lawyer’s advice. If you start in a totally new collecting category you simply cannot afford there being any doubt whatsoever.
I was always a huge admirer of Pharrell Williams but didn’t know him personally back then. Craig Robins, the visionary founder of Design Miami/Basel, shortly later arranged for a meeting in Miami. I was struck by how personable and humble he was.
Subsequently I was able to acquire from Jacob Arabo a number of the jewels that were destined for the auction that never took place. I offered them as presents to the mother of my youngest daughter. Whenever she was wearing some of them, they became the main topic of conversation.
A few months after the Hip Hop jewelry auction fiasco, Denise Rich asked me to conduct an auction in New York to benefit Gabrielle’s Angels, at an annual gala she organizes for the cancer charity she created in memory of her daughter Gabrielle who died of leukemia. Denise Rich, the mother in law of art dealer, artist and Artnet News columnist Kenny Schachter, is extremely well connected in the music world. She is a songwriter and has written songs for a.o. Sister Sledge, Diana Ross, Celine Dion and Chaka Khan. The headliner that evening was Pharrell Williams. His performance was electric. Suddenly he asked after a song “Is Simon still here?”. When I waved affirmatively and energetically, for him to see me, he asked me to join him on stage as he wanted to sell at auction a lunch with him.
As soon as I was on stage, Usher joined and said that he would join the lunch as well. Two seconds later, Maxwell also came on stage saying that he would equally join his two musical colleagues. The ladies in the room went wild. Frantic bidding ensued, so much so that in the excitement I totally forgot how much the lunch with the three stars had sold for. In any case it raised more money than any lot had done during the regular auction before then. This anecdote shows that Pharrell is as generous as he is talented.
Pharrell always had a keen interest in contemporary art. He is part of the artist roster of Emmanuel Perrotin for whom he produced amazing furniture. His collaborative sculpture that he did with Takashi Murakami in 2008 was sold at Christie’s in Hong Kong for $2.8 million in 2019.
In June Pharrell Williams will present in Paris his first Louis Vuitton menswear collection. Based on everything he has done in his illustrious career so far there is no question that anticipation will be at a maximum high fever pitch.
Simon de Pury is the former chairman and chief auctioneer of Phillips de Pury & Company, former Europe chairman and chief auctioneer of Sotheby’s, and former curator of the Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection. He is now an auctioneer, curator, private dealer, art advisor, photographer, and DJ. Instagram: @simondepury
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