He liked to call himself “a craftsman of jewellery”. That was how Fulco Santostefano della Cerda, Duca di Verdura played down his trade when interviewed about his creations. With a flamboyant name and an aristocratic pedigree, he didn’t have to labor to build a mythical aura around himself. Growing up among the fauna carved in stone in the gardens of his mother’s estate, Villa Niscemi in Palermo, his imagination captured the capricious shapes of animals and plants that were going to become the inspiration of his work.
He was the offspring of a very peculiar aristocracy in the throes of disintegration. His relative Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa had already documented with grit and melancholy the beginning of its downfall. Fulco was born in 1898 when the end of that process was taking place. With irony he described his home town as a “capital of operetta”. It was in this “gossipy” and provincial environment that good fortune began to smile at him. When he met Linda and Cole Porter on one of their visits to Sicily, he was still an immature and feverish youth of 20. After organizing the “Ballo 1799” in Palermo in honor of Lord Nelson and Lady Hamilton, former guests at Palazzo Verdura, his name began to ring in the international party circuit. Six years later he was sitting next to Coco Chanel at a dinner party in Venice. She fell under the spell of his exuberant personality and there and then without hesitation she offered him a job in her atelier. Paris in the 30s, was a place of fantasy and exploration, of opium dens and high fashion, where elites mingled with the underworld. Fulco didn’t hesitate and for the first time his imagination matched his surroundings. Amber, diamonds, rubies, emeralds and semi-precious stones were transformed in his hands into mythological creatures, shapes from nature or bizarre objects.
His friend Nicolas “Niki” de Gunzburg, another specimen of wandering aristocrat, lured him to California where many European émigrés were creating artistic colonies. The Hollywood of the period went into rapture about his creations. Greta Garbo commissioned from him a cornucopia overflowing with pearls and amethysts. Frank Sinatra an enameled box and Katherine Hepburn sported his creations in “The Philadelphia Story”. Cole Porter after having received Fulco’s gift of a golden box, went on to name him in the lyrics of his song “Let’s face it”. (“Liz Whitney has on her bin of manure a clip designed by the Duke of Verdura”).
As years went by, Sicily was more and more in his mind. His American bi-coastal success was no longer stimulating. He was losing the glamour that constituted the essence of his work. But the Sicily he carried in his heart was just a faint echo of a world long past. He decided to move to London where he would dedicate his final years to writing his memoirs. He never had time for that. As he was leaving his home one morning, he was run over by a car. His ashes were taken to the cemetery of Sant’Orsola in Palermo. He finally returned home.