Situated at one of the busiest intersections in New York City, A La Vieille Russie is an elegant enclave amidst the cacophony of footsteps that traverse Fifth Avenue and 59th Street each day. The jewels sparkling in its windows evoke a timelessness redolent of a New York from a bygone era, beckoning those who stop and look to enter its doors.
Unlike any other fine jewelry store in the city, the doors of A La Vieille Russie remain unlocked during its hours of business, a trait cherished by Mr. Peter Schaffer, who runs the firm alongside his brother Paul and nephew Mark. For many, a locked set of doors can feel quite intimidating, or even off-putting, for someone who is just perusing on a Saturday afternoon or a young couple in search of an antique engagement ring. Mr. Schaffer believes that you never know who will walk through those doors and locking them could deter potential new clients who just happen to stop in. With its heavily foot-trafficked location, I bet a whole host of characters has taken a step inside A La Vieille Russie’s magnificent jewel box of a store.
Upon entry, a whirl of quiet instantly calms the frenetic energy of the busy streets outside, and the old-world aura of the interior transports you back to a time of a genteel old New York. Opulent jewelry cases house a collection of genuinely beautiful antique jewels and refined objets that have appealed to clients for generations. Originally founded in Kiev in 1851, the family business moved to Paris in the 1920s, where clients included Queen Marie of Romania, Grand Duchesses Xenia and Olga, sisters of Nicholas II, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, King Farouk and other prominent members of the émigré aristocracy. At the dawn of World War II, the gallery relocated from Paris to New York, initially setting up shop at Rockefeller Center in 1934 and then moving to another location on Fifth Avenue in 1941 before finally resting at its present location just down the block in 1961. With its New York location, A La Vieille Russie continues to cater to an illustrious clientele today, just as it did a century ago in Paris.
As its name suggests, A La Vieille Russie specializes in Russian works of art including works by the highly esteemed turn-of-the-century Russian jeweler Peter Carl Fabergé, best known for his jeweled Imperial eggs. Amazingly, the multi-generational family business has handled 26 of those Imperial eggs, which is over half of them! Asked which was his favorite, Mr. Schaffer tells me, without hesitation, that the Peter the Great egg is the best of them all.
The gilded egg, designed in the sumptuous Rococo-style, celebrated the two-hundredth anniversary of the founding of St. Petersburg in 1703. When opened, the famous ‘surprise’ is a mechanism that raises a miniature gold model of Peter the Great’s monument on the Neva, resting atop a sapphire base. Mr. Schaffer’s father bought it during the Great Depression for $1,000 from a man who simply needed the money. That price may seem shockingly low today, but few knew just how valuable the Russian pieces would become back then.
“My father then made the mistake of showing the egg to Lillian,” as in Lillian Pratt, a passionate collector of Fabergé jewelry and Imperial eggs – of which she had five. After months of refusing her offers to purchase the egg, “he finally said ok, for $20,000, it’s yours.” Mrs. Pratt purchased the egg in 1944, which is now part of the “Lillian Pratt Collection” at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.
From elaborately enameled picture frames to lavish carved animal bell pushes, A La Vieille Russie carries an unusual mix of Fabergé treasures for the avid collectors of today, which is perfectly fitting for a store “where the unusual is usual”. After several meetings with Mr. Schaffer and numerous visits to the boutique, I now fully understand just what is meant by this catchall phrase.
Just ask Mr. Schaffer about Fabergé and his menagerie of animals, and a stream of incredible stories will magically fill your afternoon before you even know it. These carved creatures, made from a myriad of hardstones, are delightful creations that, apparently, serve no real purpose. “They always have smiles on their faces, but we have no idea why they were made. They simply just sit on the desk!” According to Mr. Schaffer, if you came to Fabergé to commission something, “the designer would look you up and down and decide what animal, you the customer, was – and then you end up with baboon! Or pig, or what have you.”
Among the other curious oddities you will find at A La Vieille Russie is a collection of animal jewels dating from the 19th century to early 20th century. “Creepy crawly jewels sell better,” Mr. Schaffer informs me. “People love them. I have no idea why, but the grosser the animal, the easier it is to sell.” Perhaps the more peculiar pieces make for the best conversations. A La Vieille Russie’s collection of glittering insects is impressive, and Mr. Schaffer explains why so many of them were made back then: “At the end of the 18th and into the 19th century, the main reason they really took off is that a lot of women wore hair nets and they had little bugs on them, so these jeweled versions would sparkle distractingly to help the real hair mites blend in.”
This explanation for the popularity of insect jewels was one I had never heard before, one of the many things I learned after each meeting with Mr. Schaffer at A La Vieille Russie. After another such meeting, I added the term ‘perruque’ to my growing vocabulary. French for ‘wig’, a perruque was also a piece of 18th century furniture where one would place his/her wig whilst eating dinner. One day, Mr. Schaffer tells me, “Diana Ross came into the store, wearing her famous hair-do, and looked at the little piece of furniture, asking what it was for. I told her it was a perruquier, explaining what it is, and she then gestured that in no way would her ‘perruque’ fit in it.”
Stories like these give A La Vieille Russie a unique character that transcends time and place. Its jewels may come and go, but the unexpected stories behind them will always remain. And, if you are curious enough to ask, Mr. Schaffer will be more than delighted to share them with you.