Conversation with Jewelry Designer Martin Katz
September 18, 2015
From micro-pave to mega-watt glam, jeweler Martin Katz dazzles Hollywood stars and titans of industry alike. The award-winning designer shares his love of flying, why puka shells matter, and the blue diamond he’ll never forget.
Q: Essentially, you are pretty quiet about dressing actresses during awards season. Yet, you are the #1 choice for many. Why do you think that is?
A: We’ve developed a relationship with both celebrities and stylists so have not missed a red carpet in 24 years.
You know, how we got on to the red carpet was quite by accident. A client of mine who was also an actress called. “My co-star loves your jewelry and when I told her I knew you she said, “’Get him down to the set!’”
So I get there and introduce myself, “Hi I’m Martin Katz.” And she says “Hi, I’m Sharon Stone.” She fell in love with a few pieces saying she’d let me know the next day what she wants. The next day my client called, “Sharon wants to borrow the choker and the earrings for the premier of her new film ‘Basic Instinct’.” I said, “I guess I misunderstood, I thought she wanted to buy them. I’m very sorry please apologize to her, but I don’t loan jewelry.” Of course, my client was incredulous. I said, “Unless she’s wearing a sandwich board with my name on it, no one will know the jewels came from me. God forbid she loses something. I have everything to lose and nothing to gain, so please express my apologies.”
Later, I get a phone call from the head of Paramount – who happened to be my client’s husband - asking why I wouldn’t loan Sharon jewelry. I explained and he said, “She insists on wearing your jewelry, so I’m in a bit of a bind. I have to ask if you’ll do it as a favor to me.” Of course, I couldn’t say no to a client, but I asked for a favor in return. “Will she be willing to wear my jewelry for the press shoots? Then at least I’ll get a byline.”
Of course it was a huge hit, she was on every cover in the world and I was right by her side giving her jewelry. Then the phones rang off the hook.
Q: Tell us your favorite “saved-the-day” red carpet story! There’s always one…
A: One year Salma Hayek and I worked out what she was going to wear to the Oscars about three weeks ahead. It was the longest lead-time I ever had. She was going to wear beautiful blue diamonds, something I was saving for an important event.
Q: What’s the usual lead-time?
A: Three days or less. Ten years ago, eight years ago it was a few weeks, but now it’s literally two days or one day before.
Well, now it’s the day of the Oscars, and I get a frantic call from the stylist that they’ve busted the zipper on Salma’s dress and she needs an entire wardrobe change. Two hours before she’s supposed to leave. I gathered up all new selections, ran up to their house and was literally securing the clasps as she was getting into the limo!
Another year Minnie Driver had a beautiful ruby bead bracelet on with a 30 ct. cabochon emerald – it had about ten strands of beads so it was about 2 inches wide. She managed to snag it on a chair and the beads went flying in the middle of the show. I learned later that she was on all fours and so was director James Cameron picking up the beads. They got ‘em all!
Q: How old were you when a diamond first caught your eye?
A: Ten. I was in Chicago with my mother in a jewelry store sitting around bored and my sister said, “Look at that! It’s a four carat diamond!” I do remember staring into that stone and being mesmerized, but I couldn’t wrap my head around what “carat” meant. Fast forward, I’m in college trying to think of an idea for something I could sell all these students. When I told my roommate, he said, “My brother sells puka shells, and turquoise in Colorado, we could probably get him to send us some.”
Q: Ok, puka shells???
A: We would put them in a shoebox and I’d find a willing accomplice who’d invite all her girlfriends in the dorm and I’d sell stuff for $6, $10, $20 - it was big money. When I graduated, I moved to California thinking I’d use my college sales “experience”, but no one would hire me. I think I was asking for $5 an hour. But you would have had to be very experienced for $5 an hour in 1979.
Q: Didn’t your aunt work at Laykin et Cie in Chicago?
A: Right. So after everybody turned me down, I thought maybe I should call my aunt. She made an appointment with Laykin in Beverly Hills and he hired me for 5 bucks.
He understood I knew nothing, but he was all about hiring people he could train if they had a background he could trust. And I’m the same way to this day; if I can trust somebody, we can train them.
Q: Certainly finding people thru GIA’s Career Fair cuts the learning phase.
A: Yes, I’d prefer that they have GIA training rather than start from complete scratch about stones. But, trust is critical.
GIA holds tremendous value for me and I am proud to have my name on the gallery that displays The Bahia crystal at the Carlsbad campus.
Q: After holding some of the world’s most extraordinary Edwardian to Art Deco to Retro style jewels in your hands, which design era really gives you goose bumps?
A: Art Deco. I love it. I love the colors; I love the whole Egyptian Revival period. I love the buff top stones, the geometry. It’s what I love about the New York skyline – the deco elements of it. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve looked at the Chrysler Building and said, “I have to come up with something.” I just created a new collection which is very deco oriented that I arrived to by designing the NY Palace penthouse suite. Looking out at the skyline from that vantage point, I was fascinated by all the shapes and colors.
Q: Similar to the view you’d enjoy as a pilot, which you are, right?
A: Yes. I don’t practice so much anymore, but it was just the greatest. When I was flying alone and I’d get out of the air control space, I’d put it on autopilot and just look around at the view. Very peaceful. No cellphones. No one can find you. It was great. But, I’ve started taking helicopter lessons just for fun.
Q: The inspiration of that skyline is clear in much of your work. So, let’s talk about what draws you to a stone.
A: It’s richness of color, the depth of color.
I like weird and unusual. I always ask stone dealers to show me what they can’t sell. Something out of the ordinary that allows me to add something very artistic to it. That’s when it becomes a piece of jewelry.
Q: Has a stone ever brought you to your knees?
A: Oh sure. A blue diamond. It was an asscher cut 8 ct. vivid flawless that we bought from Prince Jefri Bolkiah when he had to purge his stones during the trouble with his brother the Sultan of Brunei. We bought and sold that stone three times.
Q: What stone do you think is totally unsung?
A: Good question. Well for me, it’s a Paraíba tourmaline.
I have one now that I originally bought 13 years ago, sold it 12 years ago and I just bought it back last year for three and a half times what I sold it for. I think it’s currently worth two and a half times what I paid for it!
Q: Isn’t the original mine in Brazil exhausted?
A: Yes, so the future is in Mozambique where they’re finding this tourmaline with the copper in it, but it’s just not the same intensity. They’re calling it another name, because technically if it’s not from Paraíba Brazil, it’s not a Paraíba.
Q: Your micro-set stackable bands were a game-changer and are now widely imitated.
A: Instantly. And so imitated that it burned out.
One of our biggest clients with this ring was Cindy Crawford. I used to make micro-micro-set rings for her – they were so small, they were like diamond dental floss. It was just fantastic. We would use like .06 - they were really quite something.
We still have clients who collect them. Those bands have never been out of my window since the first day I opened the Beverly Hills store.
Q: You have said, “If I could match up all the husbands who want to spend with all the wives who want to wear, my business would be incredible.”
A: Yes, it’s weird. When a man loves jewelry, that’s when you’re really going to sell the most important pieces. I was just talking with a client of mine who about 11 years ago wanted to buy a blue diamond for his wife – a $1.5 million purchase at the time. That’s a $12 million diamond now! And his wife said, “I wouldn’t wear it. I’d rather have a pick up truck.” Can you believe it? Those were her words!
Q: That was painful. You’ve kept your business discreet and exclusive for over 30 years. Strategy?
A: Well that’s a good question. Lately people have been inquiring about investing and I’m evaluating whether I want to become beholden to anyone. There are a few things we’ve been doing in collaboration. Victoria’s Secret, The New York Palace “Jewel Suite,” DKNY “Golden Delicious” million-dollar perfume bottle and Ray Bans. I just got back from Paris and have the 5 fragrance samples for a candle and then maybe on to an actual fragrance.
Q: And when you get that done, you’re going to fly off in your helicopter to…
A: Napa Valley.
Q: Great place to create your own boutique inn!
A: Now you’re sounding like my wife. When she comes up with these things I tell her, “This would be a perfect time to tell me you’ve been a billionaire all along and you’ve just been hiding it from me!”