This article originally appeared in Milieu Magazine
In 1972, Tony Duquette, the celebrated artist, interior decorator, set designer, and jeweler brought on a young man named Hutton Wilkinson, all of seventeen years old, to be his apprentice for zero salary for the first two years. Then, Duquette started paying him a lavish five dollars an hour. With that, Wilkinson packed up and started doing interior decorating work on his own – so successfully that Duquette wised up and the two started investing together in real estate. By 1989, they formally became partners. But theirs was more than just a business arrangement. It was a mentorship-cum-father-son relationship that lasted until Duquette’s death in 1999.
HUTTON WILKINSON, KEEPER OF THE TONY DUQUETTE FLAME. PHOTOGRAPHY BY ROGER GANNA JAMES.
Now Wilkinson, who lives in Los Angeles, runs what is called Tony Duquette Inc. and The Anthony and Elizabeth Duquette Foundation for the Living Arts in an effort to keep not only his mentor’s name alive but also his businesses and aesthetic – especially jewelry and interior design, both commercial and residential. The jewelry designs remain chic and stylish and are much sought after.
Duquette’s secret ingredient – his mantra really – was unapologetic excess (the second book Wilkinson wrote about him is entitled More is More ) and nowhere is this more evident than in the jewelry. True to his mentor, Wilkinson continues in the same extravagant vein. Asked what makes the creations so distinctive, Wilkinson replies: “It really doesn’t have any correlation to what other jewelers are doing today. There aren’t a lot of jewelers making one-of-a-kind pieces and crafting them in America with the kind of workmanship usually reserved for setting precious stones. The other thing that sets our jewelry apart is our vision and combinations of colors, all of which are inspired by the golden age of Hollywood cinema.”
Duquette was, by any definition, flamboyant (he was prone to wearing extravagantly embroidered, sometimes fur-trimmed robes) and a darling of cinematic society. But it was the close rapport he had with Elsie de Wolfe, often called the First Lady of American Design, that altered his life. Lady Mendl, as De Wolfe was known, was living in Los Angeles at the time with her British husband Sir Charles Mendl. Though a great deal older than Duquette – she was 85, he was 20 – she helped him not only advance as an interior designer but, even more importantly, as a costume and set designer for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Under De Wolfe’s patronage, Duquette secured decorating commissions with Hollywood royalty, such as Mary Pickford and Buddy Rogers. In 1949, when he married Elizabeth Johnstone (nicknamed Beegle and a gifted interior designer herself), the reception was at “Pickfair,” one of Beverly Hills’ most storied mansions and attended by Fred Astaire, Greta Garbo, and Gloria Swanson. Pickford and Rogers were matron of honor and best man, respectively.
Duquette designed his first piece of jewelry – a tiara made of green lucite stars – for De Wolfe (“like emeralds,” as she described it). The second was for the Duchess of Windsor: a wreath of leaves and flowers in 18K-yellow gold set with citrine, peridot, and pearls for $850 (an item that was later sold to socialite Carroll Petrie for $150,000).
Warmly embraced by the movie crowd, the newly bethrothed couple began entertaining in their own high style, eventually opening the Tony Duquette Studios in a converted silent film studio. Invitations to the Duquette soirees at the Studios were highly prized among the Hollywood glamour set, as were dinners at their Malibu estate, destroyed in a fire in 1993, and at Dawnridge, their Beverly Hills home which is itself something out of one of his phantasmagoric sets (like those in the 1955 movie Kismet ) and where Wilkinson now lives.
Once they were established as partners, Wilkinson and his wife, Ruth, though much younger than the Duquettes, spent a great deal of time together and co-hosted fabulous fetes. So similar was this merry quartet in style and taste, it was as if the Wilkinsons were clones of the Duquettes.
In 1995 and at the behest of New York’s Bergdorf Goodman, Duquette began designing one-of-a-kind jewelry set in 18K gold with precious and semi-precious stones. Now re-created by Wilkinson, the pieces are sold not only at Bergdorf ’s (at the Kenstshire boutique on the seventh floor of the New York store) but also at certain Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue, and select specialty stores.
Like the out-sized and ebullient personalities of Duquette and Wilkinson – both of whom might have been Parisian boulevardiers in another era – the jewelry is lavish, over-thetop and “not for the faint of heart,” as Wilkinson describes it. One might say they have a commanding presence – in their sheer scale and shape, ebullience, and dazzle.
Let others design for the dainty and self-effacing. While Tony Duquette had grand dames and divas in mind, Wilkinson covets only those clients who seek style in a big way.