Trees with rakes for branches. Malachite fabric. Ballet dancers on stilts. A mirror suspended by gilded lobsters.
These are just some of the creations that symbolize the style of world-renowned designers Tony Duquette and Hutton Wilkinson. Duquette brought all of this and more to life when he created costumes and sets for musicals during the Golden Age of Hollywood. He and Wilkinson, his longtime business partner and design collaborator, also designed for theater and dance productions as well as the homes of their private clients.
Duquette, who passed away in 1999, could dream of an artistic use for almost anything and never hesitated to use the ordinary in his extraordinary creations. “Beauty, not luxury, is what I value,” was his mantra.
“I will use anything that will help me capture the quality I am seeking; what I find in the streets, in the attic, on the desert, in the sea, the gnarled tree root, the snail’s own shell. To make incrustations with nature and time, to cast a spell, the essence of invention … a personal culture,” Duquette said of his work.
He brought that same design sensibility to the jewelry he created for his mother, aunts, wife and later, for private clients. He had a “lifelong fascination with jewelry and bright, shiny things,” Wilkinson said.
Terri Ottaway, curator of the GIA Museum, is excited to present this larger-than-life jewelry in a GIA Museum exhibit in Carlsbad.
“There is nothing subtle about them,” Ottaway said. “It is amazing to see the unusual gemstone choices they made – and astonishing to see how well these unconventional materials work together.”
Larry Larson, a gemology instructor at GIA, agrees. “It is interesting to note how they chose color for inspiration rather than searching for perfection in the gems,” he said. “They always seemed to go for strength rather than the merely pretty.”
Duquette created his early jewelry pieces at the same time he was designing ballroom scenes and fashion and dream sequences for MGM studios, 20th Century Fox and Universal Studios. His film work included “The Ziegfeld Follies,” starring Fred Astaire and Lucille Bremer, “Lovely to Look At” with Zsa Zsa Gabor and “To Catch a Thief” with Cary Grant and Grace Kelly. Legendary directors Vincent Minnelli and Alfred Hitchcock sought out the freelance designer for his ability to bring his bold, fantastical creations to their sets.
People fell in love with Duquette’s work and asked him to create his magical interiors for their homes. He counted Mary Pickford and Buddy Rogers, J. Paul Getty, Elizabeth Arden, as well as David O. Selznick and Jennifer Jones, as his private clients. Later, Duquette and Wilkinson decorated houses and parties for Herb Albert and Doris Duke. They also installed interiors for John and Dodie Rosekrans for their 12th century Palazzo Brandolini in Venice, Italy and their apartment in Paris on the Place du Palais Bourbon.
“Tony Duquette had the eye, lived the dream, created the ultimate setting,” fashion designer John Galliano wrote in the forward to “More is More,” a lavish book written by Wilkinson about Duquette. “He mixed glamour with the glittering social scene like others would hang decorations on a Christmas tree. He applied these baubles of beauty to real life in his designs, and later in his jewelry line, and made everything beautiful.”
Duquette won a Tony award for Best Costume for the original Broadway production of “Camelot” and was the first and only American to be honored with a one-man show at the Louvre in Paris.
That 1951 exhibit included a collection of his jewelryin 18k gold. When the Duchess of Windsor saw his pieces, she commissioned him to make a necklace of citrine, peridot and pearls. Duquette presented her with an 18k gold wreath of vines and flowers and she wore the necklace often, according to Wilkinson. By wearing it to evening events – even though most wore platinum at the time – she started the trend of wearing gold jewelry after five o’clock.
Bergdorf Goodman heard about Duquette and Wilkinson’s jewelry pieces and invited them to create an exclusive, high-end, one-of-a-kind line. The two did so until Duquette passed away at the age of 85. Wilkinson continues to create pieces for the “Tony Duquette Collection” using their favorite materials including malachite, pearls, emerald and coral. Wilkinson describes these jewelry designs as bold, theatrical, extravagant, Byzantine and sometimes even barbaric.
“If it’s not fabulous, it’s meaningless,” Wilkinson said.