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The Fashionable Life: Attilio Codognato
Codognato's current proprietor, Simeone's great-grandson—also named Attilio—assumed the helm in 1958, and has since amassed a cult following all his own. With his striking white beard and trim suits, Attilio is a charismatic presence, and like his great-grandfather, is a lover and collector of art. He is also a renowned host, often throwing dinner parties that bring together his eclectic international club of friends and clients.
Tatiana Sorokko has been both—devotedly—since she first met Attilio at his salon in 1992 (while she was on her honeymoon, no less). She recently visited the 76-year-old jewelry designer to discuss the spirit of Codognato and the élan with which he lives and works.
TATIANA SOROKKO:What made you fall in love with jewelry?
ATTILIO CODOGNATO:It was probably a gift that my father gave to my mother, a beautiful diamond brooch. She was with a group of her friends, and they all wanted to see what Mario, my father, had bought for her. Then the brooch disappeared while it was being passed around from table to table! I will never forget that brooch—my first memory. It's incredible and tragic in a way.
TS:How did the sensibility of Casa Codognato come about?
AC:It all started in 1906, 40 years after the shop was founded by my great-grandfather. His son, my grandfather, was a collector ofwunderkammerobjects, and he sold a key chain with a skull to the Baron de Rothschild—that was the beginning of what later became a recognizable style, with the memento mori sensibility. Memento mori is a beautiful idea. It's the end of absolutely everybody. It's the Duchampian idea, or Andy Warhol's idea, that we are all similar at one precise moment—that of death.
TS:How old were you when your father died?
AC:I was 11. He did not have a chance to teach me many things. But when I was 21, I met the amazing jeweler Enzo Salvati, and I became his dedicated apprentice. He was a superb, creative craftsman, and a mentor to me philosophically and culturally as well. His influence was paramount. I took over the family business in 1958. I was still just a baby, really.
TS:Who were some of Codognato's big clients from the past?
AC:Our biggest clients were the royal families of Italy and Russia. Also, Misia Sert, Maria Callas, and Coco Chanel. Ernest Hemingway often bought Codognato jewelry for a Venetian beauty he fell in love with—Adriana Ivancich. The character Renata inAcross the River and Into the Treesis modeled after her.
TS:What did Coco Chanel buy?
AC:The famous pearls that she wore all the time. One strand was mine—it was in jade, very pale.
TS:Did Elizabeth Taylor buy from you?
AC:Her husband, Richard Burton, did. Alexandre de Paris, the famous hairdresser, saw the snake bracelet in my shop, and he told Burton and Taylor that I had this fantastic piece. Burton said, "I cannot move from my hotel because I need a drink, but I want this bracelet," so I personally delivered it to the Gritti Palace.
TS:Who were some of your most loyal clients?
AC:Luchino Visconti would come by every evening while he was filmingMorte a Venezia[Death in Venice] to buy something. And each time I would say, "Maestro, yesterday you already bought the best piece!" It was very simpatico. He never asked me what the price was. He would just say, "I want that, that, that." Another person who never asked me the price was Barbara Hutton. She would put all kinds of jewelry on the table and say, "All this—to my hotel." But if you sell to people like that, you must always give them the best price because they are trusting you.
TS:What about now?
AC:There is a young lady in New York, the gallerist Dominique Lévy. She wears morning jewelry and evening jewelry, and she likes Codognato pieces from the period of 1910 to 1930. Another great client is Princess Firyal of Jordan. She and I met through a mutual friend when she was in Venice. I happened to be in Milano that same day. She said, "Codognato is closed? No! He must open!" So I took a train back just to open my shop for her.
TS:Tell me about the wonderful parties you host at your palazzo.
AC:For many years I used to give yearly dinner parties in honor of Leo Castelli's birth-day in September. Also, I hold parties in honor of Nick Serota, director of the Tate museums, when he comes to Venice. I like my dinners to be arranged in a certain way. For large parties I'll have all the tables installed around one central table, where my wife and I sit with the guests of honor. I welcome my guests with champagne and hors d'oeuvres, and I always have Italian food. I like to have waiters serve food in a modified à la française way, where several large dishes are brought out for each diner to help themselves. It is not common to give toasts in Italy, but I like doing it, actually. I will often give a toast for the guest of honor.
TS:What jewelry makes a great holiday present?
AC:It depends. A ring is very personal. Symbolic, really. So unless you want to make a particular statement, I suppose other things may be more appropriate. A gift reflects who you are. And we are all different, are we not?
TS:Do you ever give your own jewelry as gifts?
AC:Only to my wife, Gabriella, my daughter Kika, and my son Mario.
TS:You have a reputation for being very discriminating about whom you sell to.
AC:Yes. I like to sell to my friends and to people who understand the meaning of my pieces. And others, who are notsimpatico profondo,who buy just for money or something like that, I am not interested in.
TS:So you could even refuse to sell?
AC:I have done it, yes.
TS:You had an art gallery for a time, at the beginning of your career.
AC:I opened the gallery in 1962 in Venice, Galleria del Leone, which was a kind of anesperimento.I had it only for a short time. It allowed me to buy for less those paintings that I wanted for myself. I started with a beautiful exhibition of Lucio Fontana, then a Cy Twombly show, then Gerhard Richter—all of them big stars now. But at the time it was so difficult to sell them. I remember I sold a Lichtenstein, a Warhol, and a Jim Dine—three major pieces—for ,000.
TS:What was the first work of art you bought?
AC:It was a Fontana, back when Fontana was easy to buy. I got it when I was 18, for only five dollars—the same price as dinner at a trattoria.
TS:Would you recommend jewelry as a good investment?
AC:Yes. Some people invest in precious stones, but I believe it's the jewelry as a work of art that is more valuable at the end. A stone by itself does not excite me.
TS:Do you ever get so attached to your own work that you don't want to sell it?
AC:Yes. If I sell something that I like, something very important, I always have regrets afterward. The thought of selling all of my pieces—it terrifies me.
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