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Friday, October 22, 2010

MOVERS AND SHAKERS: Carolyn O'Keefe, Creator of American Estate Jewelry

Carolyn O’Keefe’s heart belongs to two worlds…her hometown of Baltimore, Maryland, and her beloved one-time home, Carnegie Hill, Manhattan. The moment she stepped foot there and then moved into the lovely brownstone on 93rd Street and Madison, she knew this was her kind of place. That was in the late eighties, when Carolyn relocated from another favorite spot, the Back Bay in Boston, to become public relations director of Georgette Klinger Skincare Salons, then based at 501 Madison Avenue.

It was a fabulous time to be in New York. Georgette Klinger was her boss, an elegant Czechoslovakian skin care expert whose salon was the gathering place for diplomats, Broadway stars, models and socialites. Carolyn met the Paul Newman family (daughter Susan once borrowed Carolyn’s shoes because she’d arrived in Manhattan without evening pumps), Patty Lupone, Nan Kempner, Pat Buckley, Isabella Rosselini, Beverly Sills, Nancy Kissinger, Charlie Rose, Raquel Welch and many more. Miss Klinger became the second most influential and beloved woman in Carolyn’s life (after her mother Sally) introducing her to the warm, wonderful world of the upper East Side.

Miss Klinger was not interested in building an empire as her fellow beauty pioneers…Estee, Elizabeth and Helena... did. Good taste and personal care were her objectives. Carolyn was required to have monthly facials performed by European trained specialists. Miss Klinger introduced Carolyn to her box at the Metropolitan Opera where she and Miss Klinger’s guests wore formal attire. (Down below, folks were considerably more casual.) They shared long conversations and wonderfully fresh simple meals at her expansive home on Park Avenue. She taught Carolyn finer points of poise…how much to tip (two dollars more than the going rate), how to return chocolates which were not fresh enough, where to lunch and which table was preferred.

Carolyn accompanied Miss Klinger to salons and press events in Palm Beach, Chicago, Boston and Dallas. Together they created the first day spa across from the Carlisle where extraordinary facial treatments, elite Harvard-MD conducted nutrition, personal training and light-filled sitting rooms attracted Manhattan’s most exquisite women. It was at the Carlisle, after Carolyn had left New York, that Carolyn sought Miss Klinger’s approval of fiancĂ© Kevin (and got it) during a luncheon with the grand dame’s teacup poodle in a carrying case perched on the chair next to Kevin.

Alas, a few years after Miss Klinger’s death at 81, the company was sold and the salons folded. (Today, Carolyn takes a detour around 501 Madison to avoid seeing the absence of the salon and its silver, lily of the valley embossed doors.)

After working for Georgette Klinger, Carolyn moved on to direct U.S. public relations for DeBeers Consolidated Mines, a wonderfully glamorous experience with international travel to London (bimonthly), Paris, Tel Aviv, Tokyo and an extended visit, followed by a safari, in South Africa. Carolyn found it especially fun to represent DeBeers at parties in Manhattan, especially when wearing a necklace with 20 perfectly-cut diamonds the size of nickels and flanked by two bodyguards on either side. The DeBeers women were not allowed to wear costume jewelry and had a vault of diamond jewelry in the office to pick out suitable ensembles for any editor lunch or gala. Her favorite gala was the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Fashion Institute Gala, she was so excited her first time…but remembers that year was when comfort food was all the rage and they served chicken pot pie. (with quail eggs, yes, but still!)

After DeBeers, Carolyn relocated to her hometown of Baltimore and now lives in a stately 100-year old Georgian home in the historic Guilford district near Johns Hopkins University with her husband Kevin and their two daughters, Grace and Maire.

Growing up in Baltimore influenced Carolyn’s creation of American Estate Jewelry. As a child, she was entranced by the beauty of the repousse sterling flatware (Stieff Rose, a Baltimore favorite whose workshops were located there) her family used routinely. And she loved when her mother Sally kissed her goodbye in the morning to go to work…suited, subtly perfumed, lipsticked-and-blotted …of course…and wearing –always-- her signature sterling cuff bracelet which had been passed down to her from her great grandmother. Her mother wore that cuff on weekends too, throughout the day and evening.

Yearning for similarly wearable, distinctive “forever” cuff, Carolyn scoured Baltimore’s famed Howard Street, New York antiques stores and the internet unsuccessfully, then called her acquaintance, Jim Stieff, for help. Jim said, “I know someone you need to meet.” The next week they were in New York meeting with Michael Galmer, the legendary creator of ravishing repousse tabletop and vanity pieces for connoisseurs worldwide.

Together Michael and Carolyn focused on heirloom quality, hand-chased sterling jewelry intended to be passed from generation to generation, thus the name, American Estate Jewelry. The debut line of seven cuffs sells at Works Gallery in Carnegie Hill (of course!) as well as through her site and the line will expand substantially this Spring. Carolyn loves staying at The Colony Club and The Hotel Wales when she’s in town for business. Says Carolyn, “It’s a dream come true to work with Michael and be a regular back in New York again!”   We are so pleased to present Carolyn O'Keefe as our latest Mover and Shaker!

Peachy Deegan interviewed Carolyn O'Keefe for Whom You Know.
Peachy Deegan: Tell us about your mother please and how much she loved her cuff.

Carolyn O'Keefe:  Happily!! I adored her. My mother was a pretty blue-eyed redhead who had a career when none of the other moms did! She didn't have a lot of time to fuss over herself and wouldn't have the interest to do so anyway. So she dressed speedily for work and for play, and that's why she loved her cuff. I assume she loved it because she had other bracelets and did wear them on her other arm sometimes, but the cuff was ALWAYS on except for bath and bedtime. The cuff, lipstick and Sortilege perfume were constants.

Tell us about your patriotism please and how the name American Estate Jewelry came to be.

Oh, I am patriotic! I've traveled quite a bit and love other countries, but be it ever so humble there's no place like the USA. I remember traveling to Europe as a college student with my best friend who ...though a Democrat and quite liberal...was laughing with our french friends about what a buffoon Jimmy Carter was. Well, I am center right but I didn't think that was appropriate. I would never say anything negative about my president abroad. I also absolutely love the spirit of entrepreneurship and the hearty goodwill Americans have. Okay, so we're sometimes loud. Life's meant to be lived robustly with high expectations! I think that's very American, and terrific. And Michael is patriotic too. He feels blessed to live in America and has great passion for the silver traditions from the late 1800's.

Regarding the name, well, the economic times are tough and it's rightly turned our focus to family and what's enduring. Remember all the loads of trendy jewelry that people were buying? Some of it wasn't made of bad materials, but it was THIS year's look to be replaced by NEXT year's look. Well, that disposable concept isn't really modern or timeless. My mom gave me wonderful things from her great grandmother and I love them even if they're not in fashion. However, American Estate Jewelry is actually, intrinisically, a notch up from my grandmother's stuff (please forgive me, Grandmama!)'s sturdy and incredibly detailed. It's made in America and it's meant to be valued as part of your estate and passed from generation to generation. No one's going to dispose of these pieces!

We do a lot with skincare; we are closing in on 1,000 beauty posts. How do you like working with jewelry as opposed to beauty?

It's a combination of the product and the people that grabs me. Truth be told, the job I always lusted for was Annette Green's job as director of The Fragrance Foundation. I wear fragrance every day, mainly Chanel 19. Marilyn Miglin from Chicago is a nice lady and a wonderful perfumer...Pheromone is one of my favorites for night. I love the behind the scenes creation of products. It was a joy to visit the Georgette Klinger laboratories, and I wrote a training guide with all of her potions and the key ingredients. A heavenly project. I chatted continuously with our chemist and with our clients. I was at-one with that company!

Jewelry is a different love. In the diamond business, I enjoyed Jose Hess's work, especially his curvy "boomerang" earrings Demi Moore always wore and Marty Katz in LA does the most ravishing diamond work. It was exciting being a judge for Diamonds International one year in Tokyo, but again, "behind the scenes" was my favorite: going into the diamond mines in South Africa. Even with all that, nothing tops seeing Michael Galmer play with his special jewelry clay trying out different motifs, trying on his finished pieces, feeling them, hearing what inspired him. The molding and chasing process is a rare technique these days, and I'm happy that incredibly skilled New York craftsmen are at work making American Estate Jewelry.

You've lived in some great places on the East Coast; how would you compare and contrast them? 

Wow, what a fun question.
Here's the comparison someone told me, and I think it's true. You order a sandwich from a deli in Boston, and they don't really look at you and are a little brusque as they hand you your egg salad on rye. In New York, they look at you and shout what do you want with that sandwich? OKAY YOU GOT IT! Step to the rear! In Baltimore, they say "Hon, would you like a little chopped celery with that? Do you like lots of mayonaise? Isn't it a beautiful day outside?" Then they tell you about their sisters and you tell about yours.

Boston is collegiate and that spirit permeates throughout. I loved walking to work through Back Bay and the Garden with the swan boats. My friends were low-key about their style and sometimes I felt a bit alien. One time I gave a party and decided to insist that people dress up. I didn't realize the October timing and one guy came fully decked out and made up as a clown! The women put on a tiny dab of Clinque Meadow Gloss (that's barely pink) and rubbed it in...that was the extent of their glamour but I hear that's changed a lot. I also adored Singing Beach, Crane's Beach, Gloucester, Marblehead and Duxbury; I'm an ocean girl.

Yes, I liked Boston, but when I came to Manhattan, I heaved a big sigh: home! There's a juiciness about New York, an engagement among people that is vibrant. Rushing rushing's exhilarating. Bigtime fabulous. I love the summers in the Hamptons...not the party scene but the beaches in East Hampton and Amagansett and outdoor dinner gatherings with good friends. Friends are family in NYC, you bond for survival!

In Baltimore, it's comfortable, relaxed and really pretty where I live in North Baltimore. This area was designed by Frederick Olmstead. There's southerness, normalcy and weirdness all gently mixed. John Waters lives around the corner from us and I think he gets Baltimore right a lot of the time. I loved the movie Hairspray; John Travolta and Queen Latifah captured the spirit of this place. All incomes and races share a trait of niceness. At this point in my life, Baltimore's so right especially when I get enough doses of New York.

What do you miss the most about Carnegie Hill?

My best friend Deborah, strolling down Madison, Central Park so close, the small grocers to pick up fresh produce and flowers, the bookstore, the ivy on the buildings so there's a big burst of green looking out the big front windows of my former apartment, and I do like the little eatery with outdoor seating near 93rd and Madison and the burger place nearby. New York has THE best burgers.


Tell us about your experience with Paul Newman please; we loved seeing him race at Lime Rock Park.
I wish I could say I spoke to him a lot. It was hard to find my voice. He sparkled. That smile! He said something like, "I'm looking for Mrs. Newman" when he came into the salon. And we all thought that was incredibly cute. After he left, we spent hours repeating that as if it were a Shakespearean sonnet he'd delivered!! Mrs. Newman had a wonderful calm. She never got mad if there was a delay in getting her products and always had a pretty smile. Miss Klinger adored her!

If you could spend 24 hours straight on the Upper East side, and money is no object, without sleeping where and how would you spend them and why?

Oh wow, I love sleeping, that's part of the fun. I like waking up at The Colony Club and opening the windows onto Park Avenue and looking out and having my oatmeal delivered via room service. I would then window shop along Madison Avenue, go to the Whitney with a friend, have a long lunch outside watching people go by, take a long walk through Central Park, buy things for my daughters from a street vendor outside the Guggenheim, have tea or cappucino at that chocolate place across from the Carlisle in the back where the walls are draped, and then nap and go to Feinstein's to hear Michael Feinstein. I'm sad that one of my favorite places La Goulue recently closed because I'd definitely go there at some point.

Do you have any good Miss Klinger stories you'd like to share with our readers?

A million! When Proctor and Gamble's cosmetic CEO was wooing Georgette Klinger to buy the company (unsuccessful) and came out of her office, her teacup poodle ran after him and bit him and would not release his pant leg. Miss Klinger kept repeating "he only nips!" Well, I'd been nipped a few times and that dog drew blood! Not only that, but I often followed after the dog to discreetly scoop up little accidents.

Miss Klinger spoke at Harvard Business School and I coached her and accompanied her for her speech. It was so wonderful because other speakers were very clinical but when Miss Klinger told her stories so charmingly in that accent, she got a standing ovation. Later we were in the Ritz for a drink, and a very attractive Christie Hefner came up to Miss Klinger to compliment her effusively on her remarks. After she left, Miss Klinger said, "What a lovely girl! Where does she work?"

It must seem pathetic a la Second Hand Rose, but Miss Klinger really wanted to make my wardrobe more stylish and gave me treasures from her closet...Chanel, Oscar de la Renta and a terrific Lanvin dress. She was only 5'3 to my 5'10 but they fit me perfectly and I still wear them.

She handpicked presents for every employee and I was the lucky one to go shopping with her at the Herend gallery reserved for retailers (she bought enough to qualify as a retailer!). I was a kid in the candy shop as we decided which piece was best for which employee. But my favorite part was when she turned to me and said, "How about this for you?" It was a beautiful Rothschild Bird cachepot with cobalt blue accents and that is the pattern I picked when I got married years later.

You have had the good taste to marry an Irishman we understand; tell us about how being around the Irish influences you please.

I did have good taste and good sense to marry Kevin. I think the Irishness has influenced the way I am with children. When we had Grace, Kevin was way more at ease with her. I held her like a porcelain doll as did the rest of my WASP family, but Kevin's family (a family of 7 boys and 1 girl) tossed the newborn around like a football, completely relaxed. (Observing this, my family was not relaxed!!) So Kevin's ease with babies has rubbed off on me and I am really comfortable jiggling, laughing and playing with drooling babies.

What or who has had the most influence on your pursuit of excellence?

For myself, I am more in pursuit of joy than excellence. But, I am thrilled experiencing the excellence of others...when I saw Alexander Godunov perform, I realized I'd never really seen ballet before. When I sat at Walter Hoving's memorial service and heard Norman Vincent Peale deliver remarks, I realized I'd never really heard a sermon before. Seeing the Sistine Chapel...well, you get the idea!

What are you proudest of and why?

I'm not sure I feel pride. It's more a feeling of gratitude. I'm glad that I am the kind of person who enjoys life at a high level and I hope that's my effect on others too. I'm grateful that my two daughters seem to have also picked up that perspective and are doing what they love, following their own standards and uplifting their circle of friends.

What would you like to do professionally that you have not yet had the opportunity to do?

I love business and have been successful helping other leaders with their visions. I want to be substantially successful with my vision of American Estate Jewelry. That will be a thrill.

What is your favorite place to be in Manhattan? 

Park Avenue
What is your favorite shop in Manhattan? 

Scully & Scully...the Herend!
What is your favorite drink? 

What is your favorite restaurant in Manhattan? 

La Bonne Soupe!
What is your favorite Manhattan book? 

The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton 
If you could have anything in Manhattan named after you what would it be and why? 

A block of Park Avenue

What has been your best Manhattan athletic experience? 

Running around the reservoir at dusk
What is your favorite thing to do in Manhattan that you can do nowhere else? 

Hosting a memorable dinner party 
What has been your best Manhattan art or music experience? 

Joan Mitchell exhibit at The Whitney
What do you think is most underrated and overrated here? 

Underrated: the relaxed stroll; Overrated: Saks
Other than Movers and Shakers of course, what is your favorite Whom You Know column and what do you like about it? 

Product Alert: the Beauty Recommendations; Peachy says it's good and I buy it!
What else should Whom You Know readers know about you? 

I'm going on a Mercy Ship next year
How would you like to be contacted by Whom You Know readers? also through American Estate Jewelry Facebook

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