Part 2: The Pearl Choker


First Person

Yesterday, Martin was standing in the middle of New Orleans, kicked out of his hotel room, with only a towel to serve as his pants. He had come to the city after seeing the Van Cleef & Arpels exhibit at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum in New York, and was hoping to score a deal using his experience in the jewelry business. To start at the beginning: “Nathaniel Rich’s Trousers.”

The pearl choker was a counterfeit. It was stamped VCA—the salesman cannily allowed me to be the one to discover that fact, pretending he hadn’t noticed it himself—but the hallmark looked like it had been imprinted by a chimpanzee hours before I arrived at the store, and the stringing of the pearls and the faux-silk thread was contemporary mainland China rather than early-twentieth-century France. It was raining now, I had holes in my shoes, and I stepped through the puddles of the broken-brick-and-cobblestone streets of the French Quarter with increasing despair. What absurd burst of enthusiasm had inspired this doomed pot-of-gold mission? New Orleans as Emerald City?

Maybe my soon-to-be ex-wife was right: perhaps I am bipolar and incapable of recognizing when I am in the midst of a manic episode. How were Nathaniel Rich’s trousers helping me now? The cuffs were muddy and wet, and I worried about how and where I would have them laundered, as I slumped from jewelry store to jewelry store in apathetic parody of my former life, stepping on my heels with my toes in the air. The bars were beginning to be populated, and the cold beers and tall, colorful potions and modest glasses of cheap red glistened their eyes at me like snakes or flying monkeys (I don’t drink, but sometimes still want to).

There was another door, on Royal. Jack Sutton Antique and Jewelry. I knew the name; he was on my list. He has an eye and a reputation, so if it’s in his case it’s the real thing. We had done business years before on three half-carat pink diamonds I had bought in a Fort Worth oil heiress’s estate. Just in case Jack was in, I ran my fingers back through my hair and slapped both my cheeks. The rain was coming down harder. I thought about stopping by a hotel lobby to “borrow” an umbrella before entering (to lend a modicum of dignity to my appearance) but then thought, Screw it. Inside it smelled like lemon oil, that fine, calming, luxurious smell of freshly rubbed antiques from my childhood (my stepfather owned Calgary’s largest antique store, Collector’s, and as a kid I polished thousands of Scottish and French antiques).

There was another customer in the store. He was in blue jeans and had a potbelly. A long-legged and broad-shouldered Swedish type was waiting on him. He grunted and pointed at items in the case with his pinkie finger. She had too many pieces out on her silk pad, and I could see how he was dominating her. She looked nervous but kept showing him more, and when she tried to put something back in the case he’d wave his hand over the pad like a diner shooing off a waiter.

It was just the three of us in the store. There must have been another person in back; they wouldn’t leave a single woman alone in a jewelry store, not even in the French Quarter. She looked at me with hopeful eyes, as though I would be her excuse to be rid of this fat man in his soiled seersucker jacket. I cruised the other cases, looking for invisibly-set pieces, the “mystery setting” invented by VCA that was their signature for years and that took the Thais to properly unpuzzle and duplicate. One men’s ring with an enormous sapphire cabochon protruding from the mouth of an eighteen-karat-gold toad looked like a candidate.

“It’s not what you think it is,” the man in the dirty jacket said. He had a heavy Southern accent. The Carolinas or Kentucky. “It’s a knockoff. Who are you buying for? Or are you on your own?”

Figures, I thought. He looked like a hip-pocketer. I went to see what he had on the tray. The saleswoman looked from one of us to the other with confusion. She wasn’t sure whom to defer to. I smiled at her.

“We’re both in the business,” I said. She looked more confused yet. Her mouth opened oddly and unattractively. It was a very lovely, full, round mouth when closed. I noticed her canines were sharp.

“She knows me,” the hip-pocketer said. He held out his fat hairy hand. The skin was so pale it was almost green; it looked veinless. “My name is Drew Childes. Do you perchance have anything to sell, my friend? Or are you only here to acquire?”

“Do you have anything old?” I asked him. I introduced myself, and Drew Childes had heard of me; we had friends in Dallas in common. I lied and said I was sent by a client to buy anything European that was made before World War II. He told me to meet him at Bayona at nine o’clock that evening. I told him not to waste his time bringing anything over twenty thousand dollars. He laughed, a deep, honeyed laugh full of skepticism and intelligence, and said, “My dear, why don’t we discuss prices after you have inspected the merchandise.”

At the restaurant that night, under a clear New Orleans sky with the stars boldly equatorial above us and tiny battery-operated candles on the tables, he drank watermelon mojitos and showed me piece after piece of Cartier, Fabergé, art nouveau pieces by lesser-known designers—or unstamped but clearly authentic—until we came to what he already knew I was after, a turn-of-the-century VCA twenty-two-karat rose-gold cuff with a bouquet of flowers on it in different colors of sapphire and ruby: lilacs, roses, periwinkles, mystery-set petals with square, diamond, channel-set stamens. The bouquet itself was held in a vase carved from a Paraíba blue tourmaline—the tourmaline alone, loose, I thought, must be worth five thousand dollars. The cuff was three fingers wide. It looked like ten grand if it was a no-name; if it was VCA, as I could see before I even inspected it, seventeen, even twenty.

The negotiation began. I didn’t have anything I planned to put in as a trade so it was a cash deal. I don’t even own a watch anymore, and all of my jewelry—including a turn-of-the-century signed Louis Comfort Tiffany pin with a twelve-karat, perfect emerald-cut citrine center circled by Kashmir sapphires—is in the safety deposit boxes of my first and second wives, hopefully awaiting my daughters, who will doubtless one day pawn this or that irreplaceable piece for a black motorcycle jacket for a latest boyfriend. I couldn’t start too low, but I didn’t have much more than ten thousand to spend. The piece was out of my price range, but I knew I could double my money on it if I could buy it. You could wear it into the Cooper-Hewitt exhibition and they’d think you’d stolen it out of a case. So I told the waiter to bring us a bottle of champagne (“only one glass, please”), before I offered him seven.

Tomorrow: “To the Mandarin Oriental.”