Frédéric Zaavy was an extraordinary Parisian jeweler whose short career launched him into the stratosphere as the lead designer of the legendary house of Fabergé.
We are literally made of stardust. The more we learn about the tiny universe smaller than the atom, and the great universe where stars are born, the more we understand that everything in nature is connected, dot-by-dot.
Having admired the work of New York still-life photographers John Bigelow Taylor and Dianne Dubler, Zaavy brought them all together during his last year while dying of cancer, to set his life story in the philosopher’s stone.
French philosopher Gilles Hertzog wrote the text for Taylor and Dubler’s “Stardust: The Work and Life of Jeweler Extraordinaire: Frédéric Zaavy,” a stunning art book filled with images so contemplative that it’s not always clear whether you are looking at precious stones or diamonds in the sky.
Zaavy’s work is beautiful and the book is itself a jewel, but the one thing that stands out about the man, his work and his relationship with Taylor and Dubler is something metaphysical. Like the best metaphysics, you can’t quite pin it down, but you know it’s there.
Keith Widyolar (NYLCM) spoke with Taylor and Dubler in February 2021. The interview has been lightly edited for flow.
NYLCM: What is so metaphysical about Zaavy?
DUBLER: The beginning of the story sets the tone for everything. Ten years before the whole thing began, Zaavy called us out of the blue. We were in New York, he was in Paris. He called and introduced himself.
He had seen a book we did with another major American jeweler and started looking at our work. We have done close to 300 art books spanning architecture, interiors, jewelry and antiquities.
Zaavy said, “I want you to do a book on me.” He explained that he was a jeweler in Paris and working at that high level of Parisian jewelry which has a long history. We asked when he wanted to begin. He said, “Not now I’m busy collecting stones.”
He would call us maybe three or four times a year, and interestingly enough, we were very often hiking in a forest somewhere. We sort of got to know each other through these intermittent phone calls in the woods.
But that goes to the metaphysics of this whole thing. He knew that we were the people to not only do this project, but he probably also knew that his life was going to be cut short, and we would have to be his emissaries after he was gone.
TAYLOR: In a way we are the executors of Zaavy’s artistic estate. We explain him to the people of the future. He never wanted the book that we made. It wasn’t the book he was going for while he was healthy. He believed that he was the heir to Jean-Baptiste Tavernier (1605-1689) who was the gem dealer to French Sun King Louis XIV. [Tavernier was a world traveler whose most famous find was the flawless blue diamond we now know as the Hope Diamond.]
Zaavy had this very strong connection to Tavernier. He also had this sense of timelessness that he would be here in 200,000 years. That was the number of years he chose. The book he wanted was going to be a novella. He was big into the futurist novel series “Dune.” He read every “Dune” book and gave us the entire library.
He wanted his biography to be a novella that stretched from the time of Jean-Baptiste Tavernier – to him in the present day – to this character hundreds of thousands of years in the future.
DUBLER: He thought a little like Tibetan and Pre-Columbian philosophers who ordered time in these huge blocks. We’re talking hundreds of thousands of years. That was part of his thinking. [A diamond is forever.]
He never found the person to write this novella because once he got the final diagnosis (of cancer), we went into overdrive. We were commuting to Paris and traveling with him to other places like Iceland, Spain and in the end to Comporta, Portugal.
It was all very rushed. It flowed pretty well, but he never could find the person to write that novella.
TAYLOR: But he did find Gilles. Gilles was a philosophical writer. He doesn’t write about jewelry. He doesn’t write about artists. He writes about philosophy and politics.
For Frédéric this would work, but the relationship between the two of them was fraught. It was late. Frédéric was dying. He was on morphine. He got very combative. He knew he wasn’t going to get what he wanted so he gave Gilles all he could and then he died.
When Lisa Chen, Frédéric’s partner in Taiwan (who continues his production today at fredericzaavy.com), decided that she wanted to see the project finished and would support it, we brought Gilles back on board. He had all his notes and was ready to go.
The book that resulted was really a snapshot of Frédéric’s last year. It was all about what he produced, where he was going, what he was thinking, how his world looked, and what was influencing him. It was all basically that final year.
It was never the thing he wanted, but there’s a huge philosophical, mystical component to that.
DUBLER: I always referred to him as “the philosopher jeweler.”
“Every atom in your body came from a star that exploded and the atoms in your left hand probably came from a different star than your right hand. It really is the most poetic thing I know about physics … you are all stardust.”The first words in the book are by physicist Lawrence M. Krauss
DUBLER: Because there is this connection between diamonds in particular and a lot of other stones with the stars. You are wearing the stars on your hands and on your ears.
He thought of deep time, or you could say no time. But if he did think of deep time, it was the way a physicist thinks of time.
That was critical to him, so in the course of any day or any week or month, he would have his work. He would be in his atelier. He would do the work he had to do for that hour or day. But then, we’d be at lunch or dinner or just hanging out and he would be on to something else completely – basically the discussion of consciousness. That’s what we talked about this whole time.
TAYLOR: In terms of his art, he was moving away from jewelry. It was just the vehicle for the stones. The stones were the thing. That was very important to him. These little bits of carbon that are timeless and immortal. As things progressed in the last year of his life, he started building jewelry that was unwearable.
The piece on the cover of the book, you can’t wear that. You can put it on, but you’re not going to go out dancing. He was talking about moving away from jewelry, but continuing to use stones. So he was going to make objects and sculptures.
One day he said, “You know I want to put a mirror on the moon, encrusted with diamonds, and we’ll shoot a laser at the mirror and the sparkle will come back to Earth.”
NYLCM: Tell me about those last days. He took you to El Escorial, the burial place of Spanish kings.
DUBLER: We walked into a gallery in Paris and saw these paintings by a Spanish artist. Zaavy fell in love with them and bought the paintings. Then the artist came back to Paris and they met and became fast friends.
The artist was Lorenzo Fernandez and he lives near El Escorial.
NYLC: Was this Charles V’s tomb?
DUBLER: It’s not only his tomb, El Escorial is where the kings and queens of Spain are buried. It’s a pretty heavy place.
TAYLOR: It’s a dark and heavy place.
DUBLER: You just cannot believe the richness of this building. It is a fortress made from the most incredible marbles from all over the world.
But it’s from the conquest. It was all paid for by thievery in the New World. When we were there with Lorenzo, we didn’t want to talk about it in front of him, but Zaavy was very upset about it.
TAYLOR: The reason we were there was that he had commissioned Lorenzo to do a portrait of him. So as well as initiating the book, he also initiated a portrait. Lorenzo wanted to photograph Frédéric for the portrait. That’s why we were there. We spent a day of photography and a few days hanging out and enjoying the place.
At one point Lorenzo told Frédéric that the portrait was going well and that he might be interested to know that it is a meter and a half long by a quarter of a meter tall. Frédéric wondered what kind of portrait that could be. You’re talking about a long horizontal piece. Lorenzo said, “Don’t worry, I think you’ll like it.”
DUBLER: Frédéric had never seen any portraiture from this artist. The paintings he bought were paintings of little miniature origami (Japanese folded paper art). Each of the subjects is an inch tall, but the paintings are huge.
TAYLOR: Months later we met Lorenzo in Comporta, Portugal. They came with the painting. That’s the portrait.
NYLCM: Who’s the other person in the picture?
TAYLOR: They’re both Frédéric. Frédéric as he was then and Frédéric as an old man, which he was never to become.
DUBLER: In the middle is a little orb of infinity.
NYLC: You know that if you walk an infinity strip, you arrive back at the beginning.
TAYLOR: It blew Frédéric away. The picture of Frédéric looking at the painting is a still we pulled from a video.
Lorenzo spent a week or ten days with us. It was the last get together. Gilles was there. Frédéric’s sister and brother in-law were there too.
We had a final photography session on the beach. He had brought a big crystal and some other gemstones and wanted me to photograph those stones in the sun as he was holding them. So we spent the day on the beach, a brilliant sunny day, holding these stones up to the sun and trying to get interesting pictures.
At the end of that Zaavy was completely exhausted. I basically carried him up the dune and the next day, he flew to Paris for some unorthodox treatments. He was dead twelve days later.
NYLCM: The French seem to have a natural talent for design. Where does that come from?
DUBLER: If you are a creative person, you’re always consciously and unconsciously looking to be inspired. Whether you are walking in the woods, or getting out of your car, there’s a certain curiosity for adventure. You just want something to inspire you. Inspiration is a reservoir of stuff you’ve taken in.
TAYLOR: I think it’s also in their DNA.
DUBLER: Then it builds up in an individual and they have to express it. It is this relationship between us and our world. Certain cultures like the French have been at that for a long time.
TAYLOR: Remember the French had kings who appreciated beauty over everything, the most beautiful, the most spectacular. Nobody else had this, maybe the Chinese, but nobody did it like the French Louis kings. I have to believe that trickles down in the DNA of the French people because they have that inspiration in their past.
DUBLER: They grow up with aesthetics. It’s right in the ether. You can’t escape it.
NYLCM: It’s the inexplicable French joie de vivre (joy of life). Are there specific pieces that meant something to you personally?
TAYLOR: At this point almost all of them, because we are so intimately involved in this.
DUBLER: They’re like our best friends who we don’t see any more. Do you remember the cuff that was modeled on the water lilies? I have to tell you that in person, it is something, and it is wearable.
NYLCM: If you go to MoMA and sit in front of the water lilies, you get a very different feeling from seeing them in a book or on the internet. You’re saying the same is true about the cuff?
TAYLOR: It is one of the most beautiful things we have ever photographed.
DUBLER: It was made primarily of colored diamonds and opals. The coloration of the diamonds was part of Zaavy’s way of painting with stones.
Another great jeweler, say who had a run of yellows that had to do with a flower or something, he might have three shades and sizes of yellow diamonds. Zaavy would have ten or twelve and would lay them down almost as if they were paint.
TAYLOR: He had such an abundance of stones. When he called us in 2000 and said that we would do his book someday, he said, “I’m really just starting my jewelry career, but I’m collecting stones.”
He had such an abundance of colored diamonds that he could do that range of ten shades. Other people can’t. They had to go out to a gem show and look for colored diamonds.
Zaavy already had all that from years of traveling in Africa and buying diamonds. He would sell the big ones and keep the little ones.
We knew an art dealer who was very important in New York, Eugene Thaw, who made his career selling old master paintings. In the course of that he would pick up drawings. He kept the drawings and sold the paintings, and was able to build an extraordinarily important drawing collection.
DUBLER: He gave it to the Morgan Library.
NYLCM: Tell me more about Zaavy’s connection with Africa. You said he was sourcing stones very early on.
TAYLOR: He was meeting people like André Assaf who became kind of a mentor to him. Frédéric had the youth and the gumption and the energy and lack of fear to basically go down to Africa with a suitcase full of cash, hire some bodyguards, and go off into the boonies.
I wish we had more of his stories. He had lots of them that he never got a chance to tell.
DUBLER: Tavernier actually had to do that too. But he was traveling in a time when people did not travel individually. He went through Persia, all the way to India and into Burma. He bought those stones at the sources or from the Maharaja or whomever.
I’ve read a condensed version of his travel diaries. It’s a fantastic story. He had to have guards. He made six huge trips. Each time he went back, he took more money to buy, and he started buying and selling on the journey.
His whole story is of moving on the land, with bodyguards, money and the stones he purchased. Frédéric went through the exact same thing – except centuries later. He’s in Africa with a big truck and bodyguards and material that he has brought or bought to trade. This was an identical situation with Tavernier which I’m sure thrilled Zaavy to no end.
NYLCM: How does being world travelers influence your work?
DUBLER: It connects back to the question of what is creativity? Being out in the world and exposed to people and ideas and physical things, the landscape, architecture, food, and music. It fills you up.
TAYLOR: It’s all nourishment.
DUBLER: You process it and spit it back out in some form. That’s the greatness of traveling and being exposed to as much as you can be exposed to.
TAYLOR: We had a great mentor for many years. He died recently. His name was Gillett Griffin (1928-2016). He was the Pre-Columbian art historian and curator at Princeton University Art Museum. Dianne knew Gillett before I met her and we’ve been together for fifty years.
Gillette was this wonderful guy who basically became our best friend and directed our life.
DUBLER: When John and I first met in 1970, we met in Princeton. In 1972 we left America. We first went to Afghanistan and India and Nepal. We were traveling and working. We were taking photographs, but we didn’t have a professional business out of it. We had little businesses that we did on the side.
In Nepal we bought Tibetan art and sold it. We had a post-Victorian furniture business out of this big bazaar in Bombay, India.
TAYLOR: We had a t-shirt company called Honky Tankas.
DUBLER: We were early on bitten by the travel bug.
TAYLOR: Travel was a big part of our life early on. At the end of the 1970s, Gillette decided we needed a career. We needed something serious. He said, “You love art and you love photography, so why don’t you photograph art?” “Done!”
DUBLER: That’s how it started, how our photography career began. We started photographing a lot of Pre-Columbian art initially for dealers in New York City.
NYLCM: What is Zaavy’s legacy today (and 200,000 years into the future)?
DUBLER: Not everyone is fortunate enough to have talent and a document of that talent. It will always be there for people to be inspired by. He was inspired and in turn kept inspiring other people and not just jewelers, but friends and people that he didn’t even know who would seek him out.
TAYLOR: I think there are three ways Zaavy impacts people now. Either they were his friend and that will always be there; they buy this book and have this connection; or they own one of his pieces. To actually have one, to own one and wear it, affects you in some way.
During the COVID-19 Pandemic, life and death are moving a little faster than most of us would like, but there is a profound stillness in this book. The images work like mandalas and the pages work like the “Book of Changes.” They make you calm and make you dream.
When the ancients made art, they weren’t just pictographs the way we think of art today. They were vessels of spiritual energy. Somehow this book is that. It sprinkles a little of Zaavy’s stardust on every reader.
“It is what we see in our imagination, in our inner self that counts. A jewel becomes an ocean of stars…”Frédéric Zaavy
“Up above the world so high…”
Stardust: The Work and Life of Jeweler Extraordinaire: Frédéric Zaavy is available in New York City at the Museum of Arts and Design on Columbus Circle madmuseum.org, fine bookstores, and on Amazon.
John Bigelow Taylor and Dianne Dubler can be reached at kubaba.com
Zaavy’s work is available at fredericzaavy.com
PS: If the moon sparkles like a gem some time in the next 200,000 years, you know who’s responsible.