The House of Boivin’s ruby- and amethyst-encrusted starfish brooch has captivated jewelry lovers since the 1930s. With only a few pieces ever made, the starfish brooch is a rare and mysterious status symbol. Author and investigative journalist, Cherie Burns, set out to track down the remaining brooches, several of which were unseen for decades, for her 2018 book, “Diving for Starfish: The Jeweler, the Actress, the Heiress, and One of the World’s Most Alluring Pieces of Jewelry.” Cherie recently joined the Jewelry Journey podcast to talk about her experience researching and writing the book. Read the transcript below.
Sharon: Hello, everyone. Welcome to the Jewelry Journey podcast. Today, I’m pleased to welcome Cherie Burns. Cherie is an investigative reporter and author. Most recently, she is the author of “Diving for Starfish: The Jeweler, the Actress, the Heiress, and One of the World’s Most Alluring Pieces of Jewelry.” It’s the tale of her search for three ruby and amethyst starfish brooches created in Paris in the 1930s. It was published by St. Martin’s in 2018. Today, we’ll hear about the starfish and Cherie’s research for it. Cherie, welcome to the program.
Cherie: I’m happy to be here.
Sharon: So glad to have you. I was so excited. Can you tell us about yourself and your jewelry journey? Were you attracted to jewelry before you started writing the book?
Cherie: No, the honest answer is that I would never have counted myself a jewelry fancier. Of course, I liked what I liked, but my experience with jewelry was somewhat predictable: the birthstone ring, the engagement ring, presents along the way. I saw jewelry very much as an accessory. Of course, my appreciation for it has certainly grown and improved after writing this book and all of the research that was involved, but I did not count myself as a jewelry fancier. The real attraction to this book, for me, was the story of the people that were attached to the jewelry. There was a very compelling attraction, but I have to confess it wasn’t the jewelry per se.
Sharon: It’s amazing how much you went back and forth to Europe, when people who wouldn’t talk to you then would talk to you. It really was a saga. Can you describe the starfish itself and give us some background on it? Why is there such a mystery about it?
Cherie: The starfish is a piece of jewelry the size of the palm of my hand. It is 18-karat gold and it has 241 small amethysts and 71 cabochon rubies in it. That’s the hardware. There are a couple of special things about it, though. First off, it’s articulated in a way that was very special to the 1930s in Paris and the jewelry makers who made it. It’s a pin, of course, but the woman that wears it can put it on her shoulder, on her bust, on her waist and it conforms. When you touch one, you almost have the feeling that it’s live and can crawl right up your arm. That’s what the actual starfish piece is. Once again, it attracted so many interesting people, and for me, that was its chief attraction. As I got into investigating the people, it was quite a story, and that’s always the clarion for me. I’m always looking for a good story.
Sharon: Who created the starfish?
Cherie: That’s a wonderfully romantic tale. It was created in Paris in the 1930s by the House of Boivin. The House of Boivin was a jewelry salon of the time when it was about the craftsmanship that went into these pieces. The House of Boivin, at that point, was run by Jeanne Boivin, a woman. Her husband, who was a very skilled jeweler and had started the business, had died. He had been killed in World War I and she took over the business. All of these threads link up together because of her strength—and it was not a time where people were thrilled about a woman taking over and running a business. She had access and relationships with workshops that had jewelers on the benches that made these finely wrought pieces, where you could have things like the articulated starfish rays or butterfly wings that moved. Everyone was trying to outdo themselves with their craftsmanship and workmanship.
Sharon: Reading your book, you talked to everybody who’s anybody in the jewelry industry, but before this, you really weren’t entrenched in this industry. From the sleuthing you did, what surprised you most about the people you talked with and the industry as a whole?
Cherie: I should begin by saying it wasn’t easy, and I had no idea when I began. I knew nothing about the jewelry business. I did not know it was quite the closed guild that it is. I did not know how secretive it was until I started asking questions. Once I had seen one of these starfish—and the reason I saw one was because I had written a biography searching for the beauty of the Standard Oil heiress, Millicent Rogers, and she had had one.
Sharon: Millicent Rogers.
Cherie: Millicent Rogers had one of the Boivin ruby and amethyst starfish brooches, and I had barely taken note of this. Millicent had lots of clothes, lots of jewelry, but at the party for the book—lucky me—that was at Verdura in New York, one of these starfish had turned up. I could feel the buzz around this piece, and I was expected to know a little bit more about it than I actually did. I’m sort of answering your question in a backhanded way, but when I started asking about the starfish, where did it come from, who was buying it, who the dealers were, this was when I fell down the rabbit hole like Alice. Everywhere I went, there was something new to learn about how this kind of jewelry moves around in the world. It’s very secretive. Fine vintage jewelry like this was—men often transferred wealth to mistresses with it. People have always passed it along while evading inheritance taxes, and people, unbeknownst to me, did not want to talk about jewelry. Of course, like a good reporter, the more they were withholding, the more interested I got.
At the same time, it wasn’t just about the famous, glamorous figures that had owned the jewelry, although there were quite a few: Claudette Colbert, the Hollywood actress, and São Schlumberger at one point, a flamboyant woman who was called the queen of Paris society. Just going around and talking to the jewelers, it was such an interesting group of people that worked in this business that handled these jewels, the way they talked about them, the people they knew that had worn their jewels. I thought I was a very savvy person; I’d lived in New York for almost 30 years. I had reported in a number of areas. This was a whole new world that I was going behind the curtain of. I was meeting people that worked in a kind of commerce I knew nothing about. It was fresh and it was novel and yes, they did not really want to speak with me, but I persisted, and in the end, I was able to tell the story.
Sharon: I guess that’s what an investigative reporter does. You’re so tenacious and you did persist. As I said, it was a saga of jumping across continents. I have to say, not that I was ever involved in jewelry at the haute couture level you’re talking about, but I didn’t realize it was such a secretive world, that so many doors would be slammed in your face and nobody was going to talk.
Cherie: The best example of that, when I look back on it, was going to France. There is a woman, Francoise Skye, very respected in the jewelry world, who can authenticate when this jewelry is sold. These pieces in particular are somewhat challenging for jewelers because the designs were so distinctive that they did not want to sign them. Some pieces are signed, some are not, but that’s a whole story. Sometimes jewelers would go back and have the signing of the name or the point clois put on them that said what they were, but very often that was not the case. There needs to be an authenticator, and there is. One woman is an expert, and she can look at a Boivin piece and say that it’s the real thing or that it’s not. However, she was bound by the ethics of the profession. She was very close-mouthed and discreet and also French. I will never forget when I told her what this book was about, that I was following these pieces and the women they belonged to, and she said, “No French woman would ever talk to you about her jewelry, jamais, jamais, jamais.” Never, never, never in French. I’ve looked back and to some people—I think this is in the book—she made me feel like I’d mentioned something very unsavory. She was aghast that anybody would talk about their jewelry. That is the way people look at it and the ethics of it in the business, but certainly even more so in France.
Sharon: That’s really interesting. It’s a totally different level than I operate at. I’ve noticed—like when you are thinking about buying a Toyota, all you see on the road is Toyotas. After having read the starfish book, it seems to me that I’ve seen a lot more—not the real thing, but that motif seems to be popular. What are your thoughts about that?
Cherie: I really don’t know the answer to that. One of the things that fascinated me is with this kind of jewelry, there can be an auction. There can be a piece, maybe two pieces that are sold, and then they go completely out of sight, sometimes for a generation. This kind of jewelry is sold with the three Ds: death, debt and divorce is what they say. There might be a couple of pieces for sale, and then you won’t hear about them or see them again until they come up in an auction 20 years, maybe 50 years later.
Now we have the internet, and jewelers did perhaps—I don’t want to take too much credit here—but because so many of them are referenced and mentioned in the book, they may have capitalized on a little of that publicity and the romance of the pieces and chosen that time to sell, or some of the pieces may have come back into the market. I know of one subject in the book, I was of the impression that she was so private, that when she learned that I’d written about the piece and identified her, she may have decided to sell it. Whatever it is, there seems to be more.
The other thing that’s noteworthy, to take off on this, is that one of these pieces had never been in a museum. They had always been in private owners’ hands and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston did buy a Boivin starfish. In fact, they authenticated it with Madame Skye. I’m sure that it was Claudette Colbert’s, which if you read the book, that was always a mystery for me. That was an intriguing little story, because she had the first one, but I could not find anyone who had seen her wearing it or knew what had happened to it. Like many heiresses and movie stars, she was rather fabulously careless, lost jewelry, left some in train stations and airplanes. We always assumed that maybe that’s what had happened to the piece, but in fact after the book came out—so it really wasn’t my story anymore—a gentleman who had read it sent me a photograph, bless his heart, of Claudette Colbert wearing her starfish, which he had unearthed. I think that helped that piece get the attention of the Museum of Fine Arts to be sold, so the public will be able to see it when they decide to exhibit it. Before that, unless you had a friend or had seen a photograph, you couldn’t see one.
Sharon: I saw the announcement that they had acquired it, but I didn’t realize it was Claudette Colbert’s. Wow! Like Steve Colbert.
Cherie: It is Colbert. Yeah, she was French. You don’t hear the T.
Sharon: There’s one line in your book where you quoted a woman, and I have to say it really stuck with me. I don’t remember who you quoted, but it was a socialite who had all her jewelry stolen. She said instead of having a lot of jewelry, she decided she was going to have 10 fantastic pieces of jewelry, fantastic being in a different world than I operate in, but that line stuck with me. I don’t remember who it was.
Cherie: I do. That was Nancy Marks in New York. In fact, her piece, unbeknownst to her, was the Claudette Colbert starfish that she had subsequently sold. A dealer bought it and sold it to the MFA, but that was interesting. I found that extremely intriguing because she had clearly been a jewelry fancier and she’s quite prosperous. She had a lot of pieces, but after the theft or the burglary, she was determined to pare down and have a few pieces that she was crazy about instead of a lot of pieces.
Sharon: I thought, “Well, that’s an interesting way to go.” It really made me think about it. It’s a different philosophy, I suppose. Tell us what you’re working on now and what’s around the corner.
Cherie: I am such a generalist. I think that that’s something of a problem for my writing career. There’s very little connection from one book to the next. The first book was “Stepmotherhood,” on being a stepmother, then a book on the great hurricane of 1938. There was more of a connection between the biography of Millicent Rogers and Diving for Starfish, because at least the starfish that was the connective tissue. I don’t really know what I’m going to do next. I’m watching a crime story that I’m very intrigued with, but I have a hunch it’s not going to be in the fashion or jewelry vein of my previous two books. I’m trying to find my way here a little bit. I threaten to write a novel from time to time, but non-fiction has always been the best bet for me.
Sharon: I saw the book on the hurricane of 1938. Where did that take place?
Cherie: The hurricane of 1938 was the most powerful natural disaster that had ever hit the East Coast. Now, that was what I said when I wrote that book in 2005. Since then, Hurricane Sandy was a much more powerful hurricane that went into New York, but the hurricane of 1938 was interesting because we didn’t have satellite weather forecasting and predictions. At the time, I don’t have those notes with me, but I think the numbers were close to 600 or 700 people who were drowned or were killed in three or four hours, because New Englanders missed the fact that the hurricane was headed their way. What made it an interesting book to write—like all of my work, I did most of it through interviews and talking to people—was that because Hitler went into Czechoslovakia two or three days after that hurricane, that took all of the news and the spotlight, and we didn’t have the evening news or CNN and the 24-hour news cycle. It was a very forgotten disaster, and it was a disaster that lived on in the family stories and legends of the families and the people that heard about it. That was what the hurricane of 1938 is about. It’s been a little eclipsed now by the other hurricanes, at least in terms of financial damage and force, I think.
Sharon: And your book about Millicent Rogers, which I did read—I don’t retain a lot, but I do remember the starfish, because I always think of Millicent Rogers in Taos with the boho look and turquoise jewelry and all of that. What intrigued you there? What got you going on her?
Cherie: “Millicent Rogers” was a fascinating book for me to undertake because I had moved to Taos, New Mexico, and there’s the Millicent Rogers Museum here. I knew about some of the other legends in New Mexico, but I would go to that museum and look at that photo of her and think, “Who was this woman, and why didn’t I know more about her?” My good fortune as a biographer, at that point, was that Millicent’s life had been so varied. She’d lived in so many places when she was a debutante on the East Coast, when she was an ex-pat in Paris, when she was working in the war effort in Washington, D.C., when she was having an affair with Clark Gable in Hollywood. Somehow, her story was forgotten in the places she’d been before, except for a corps of society and fashion people. The Taos people, the museum, they were really focused on her years here, but when I got to looking into it, I saw that there was this life where she had been the Jane Fonda of her time. She always remade herself in the contemporary prevailing culture of what was going on. I was just fortunate that her story was here. Of course, I learned an enormous amount about Taos, New Mexico, and what had been going on here through that book.
Sharon: I see a connection between the two, between the starfish and the “Millicent Rogers” books, and I’ll put my vote in for another one along those lines, because I thought they were both great.
Cherie: If I can discover that thread, I might tackle it. I haven’t yet.
Sharon: Thank you so much for being here today, Cherie. To everybody listening, we’ll have the link to the book in our show notes at TheJewelryJourney.com. That wraps up another episode of the Jewelry Journey. If you like what you heard and would like to hear more, you can subscribe on iTunes or wherever you download your podcasts, and please review us. We’ll be back next time with another thought-provoking guest giving us their professional take on the world of jewelry. Thank you so much for listening.
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