Thursday, August 11, 2022 Aug 11, 2022
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The Carat and the Schtick

You thought we had reached the limits of excess. Ha! You obviously haven’t met the latest generation of Dallas’s jewelers to the rich.

IT’S THE OPENING BLACK-TIE GALA FOR THE NEIMAN-MARCUS Fortnight, and, as usual, the great glamour lady of Dallas jewels is holding court. Carla Francis has drawn a crowd of people who are staring wide-eyed at her jewelry the way a camel looks upon approaching an oasis. She is wearing new sapphire earrings and a matching necklace. A 22-carat diamond ring on her finger appears to be the size of a Peewee league football helmet.

One woman, grinning lustfully, makes a beeline for her friend.

“Carla, my God,” says the woman, who’s wearing some sinfully expensive dress with just enough neckline raciness to make her DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER, WE HAVE ALL BEEN TAUGHT, AND in Dallas, it seems, that is our mandate, the star we follow. Fine jewelry, in fact, got to Dallas before most of the people did. In 1877, Joseph Linz left his home in St. Louis and arrived in Denison. Texas, where he went out to rich ranchers” homes and sold them diamonds.

Now think about this. There were no charity balls back then. There was no Ten Best Dressed List. There was no S&S Tea Room for women to gather in for lunch and gossip about other women’s jewels over at the next table. People had to worry about Indian scalpings, drought, grain for the cattle-not whether they had something pretty to put around their wives’ necks.

But as it turned out. pretty things were exactly what they thought about. There were so many frontier Texans who wanted good jewelry that by 1891, Linz Bros, had moved its headquarters to Dallas and become the largest direct importer in the South of cut she’ll let you try on one of her pieces right there at the party.

Already famous in Dallas society for raising millions of dollars at the charity balls she organizes, Carla has joined an aggressive and eclectic group of people who have set up shop in Dallas over the last few years to do just one thing: sell astonishingly expensive jewelry to the Dallas rich,

Until the Eighties, the city’s affluent bought their jewels from one or two stores in Dallas, or they traveled to Europe and New York to do it. But now, a new stone age has emerged, bringing with it an exhibition of fantastic opulence that is significant even for a city that has always delighted in its own excess.

“It used to be the people who bought good jewels cared about quality,” grumbles Albert Linz Hirsch, who at age sixty-two has been selling expensive stones at Linz Jewelers for forty-six years. “Now this new group only thinks about carat size.”

Other high-end jewelers, of course, disagree. But the undeniable fact is that jewelry in Dallas, even in the midst of the city’s much-ballyhooed recession, is ubiquitous. Expensive jewelry has become more than ever a tool used in the never-ending task of proving personal status. Where once only a chosen few owned the best jewelry, now a horde of women wear ruby necklaces with that nonchalant air that tells an outsider they have a lot more rubies at home.

“What I remember,” says Stan Mellion, a thirty-five-year jewelry salesman who recently retired as senior diamond consultant from Corrigan’s, one of the established names in Dallas jewelry, “is that people used to come in and ask, “How much do I have to pay a month?’ Now they come in, very educated about jewelry, and if they see a good stone, they’re going to pay out a lot of money without flinching.”

And there are people ready to collect it. You can make the rounds of the priciest jewelry boutiques in the city and stare at dozens of $I00,000-plus jewelry items. Readily available are pieces costing more than a half million dollars. Even middle-of-the-road Zales, the Irving-based company that is the world’s largest jewelry retailer, has begun appealing to a more couture-conscious consumer, throwing out items like its costume jewelry and cigarette lighters and pushing more gold and diamond fashion jewelry.

“There is no other city in the country with this kind of competition for the exclusive customer,” says Cliff Bueché, one of the dozen high-end Dallas jewelers who have opened up stores during the last five years. He is joined by Carla Francis (who opened her own store this past October after spending four years selling her jewels out of Loretta Blum’s exclusive dress shop); by the big-name houses like Fred Joailler; and by thirty-year-old Bill Noble, whose two-and-a-half-year-old store at Highland Park Village has become a sensation among the Dallas wealthy. Bueche says, “Whenever someone walks out the door without having bought anything, you worry that he might be headed to another competitor to check out the prices there. We’ve never had that before, and it’s made for some very interesting moments.”

That’s putting it mildly. When I began to tour the city’s pricier precious jewel boutiques, I expected showroom salespeople dedicated to making customers feel that they don’t own enough rich stuff. I figured I would encounter a group of nattily dressed jewelers who would make terse little bows and act as though they were speaking English only in deference to their customers, throwing long, withering looks over the tops of their bifocals whenever you asked a bunch of stupid questions.

Instead, I met a bizarre and intriguing collection of people-ranging from the city’s most famous bachelor to a transplanted European who, incredibly, wants to start a diamond mine in Arkansas and a former West Texas ambulance driver who was surprised to find himself being asked to run the Dallas Tiffany’s. All of them have made jewels the primal element in their lives. They have developed their reputations by tapping into the city’s almost mystical devotion to wealth and position. They have encouraged thousands to believe in the importance of small stones, barely an inch high, that cost $250,000.

But most importantly, they have made jewelry the ultimate form of dandyism in Dallas. These days. when the ability to consume flagrantly is within reach of nearly everyone, when the common man knows how to buy designer clothes, a big, high-priced rock is the one thing that can still distinguish the very rich from the rest of us.

“I don’t want this to come out as sounding shallow,” says the always quotable Francis, “but the reason you buy jewels is deeper than just getting attention. It is-and I think this is right-the ultimate way to show your appreciation of the finer things in life.”

So welcome to the finer things in life. You’re probably thinking: Jewels.. .isn’t this a bit pompous? Isn’t this exactly the self-indulgence that we have often been warned about, the kind of thing that led to the fall of Babylon and of Rome?

The correct answer to all of the above is yes. But please don’t feel the slightest guilt about any of this. As Oscar Wilde, who was fond of moral inversions, once said, “It is only the shallow people who do not judge by appearances.”

DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER, WE HAVE ALL BEEN TAUGHT, AND in Dallas, it seems, that is our mandate, the star we follow. Fine jewelry, in fact, got to Dallas before most of the people did. In 1877, Joseph Linz left his home in St. Louis and arrived in Denison. Texas, where he went out to rich ranchers” homes and sold them diamonds.

Now think about this. There were no charity balls back then. There was no Ten Best Dressed List. There was no S&S Tea Room for women to gather in for lunch and gossip about other women’s jewels over at the next table. People had to worry about Indian scalpings, drought, grain for the cattle-not whether they had something pretty to put around their wives’ necks.

But as it turned out. pretty things were exactly what they thought about. There were so many frontier Texans who wanted good jewelry that by 1891, Linz Bros, had moved its headquarters to Dallas and become the largest direct importer in the South of cut diamonds from Europe. By 1899, the brothers, to attract attention, built a seven-story building in downtown Dallas, one of the first skyscrapers in the city, and then filled up two horseshoe-shaped cases with diamond jewelry. Dallas had yet to reach the 20th century; it was in many ways a wild hell-hole of a town. But people here were already coming up with savvy, flamboyant marketing techniques to sell expensive jewelry.

Through the early 1900s. Zales began building its empire from the unlikely city of Wichita Falls, Corrigan’s started a chain of stores that would soon become very popular, and Linz continued to build its reputation as ’”the Tiffany’s of the South,” developing a clientele of old-money types who, to this day. buy their jewels there.

But the selling of absurdly expensive jewelry in Dallas escalated sharply after World War II, all because of one man who came to set up the precious jewelry department of Neiman-Marcus. In 1948, Dudley Ramsden, a cantankerous, quirky, brilliant salesman, arrived in Dallas from the East Coast, bringing with him the jewelry of the best New York and European designers. He set up shop on the first floor of the downtown Neiman’s and promptly began a dynasty. No one had ever shown jewelry of this quality, or for such a high price. “He’d wear these diamond cuff links that looked like chandeliers,” says a former Neiman’s executive who worked with Ramsden in those years, “and he’d have things costing over $100,000 right there in one of his jewelry cases. Well, we hadn’t heard of such a thing. And old Dudley would just look back at us as if something was wrong with our brains.”

Until he retired a couple of years ago, Ramsden and his jewelry department set the standard for expensive jewelry in Dallas. “Only in Dallas?” snaps Ramsden, a proud man with all the tact of a cactus. “Howabout America? My God, I made 68 percent of my sales from outside Dallas.”

In truth, Ramsden did have some of the best merchandise in the country. These were the glory days of Neiman-Marcus, when it was the kingpin of Dallas retailing. “Any girl worth her salt who grew up in Texas,” says Carla Francis, “would drive to Dallas twice a year to buy her clothes and walk through Dudley’s department.” And Ramsden would put on this act, dropping the names of movie stars he knew, telling one story after another about the romantic history of certain gems, all designed to make his customers feel they were about to purchase a piece of art.

Ramsden would often spend his days at the Brook Hollow Golf Club, where he made friends on the golf course with a lot of well-heeled businessmen who would eventually buy jewels for their wives. But he also carefully cultivated his platoon of salesmen back at the downtown store. Their suit jackets were always buttoned and they never put their hands in their pockets. Ramsden would walk out of his office, grab a salesman, and ask him the price of dozens of items in the different cases. If the salesman made one mistake, Ramsden would chew him out. “Dudley was never pleased with you,” says Bill Noble, who worked at the downtown jewelry department before beginning his own business. “You’d say, “Hey, I just sold a $100,000 diamond.’ And he’d say, ’So why didn’t you sell them something else? Those people could afford it.’ “

“He was unfriendly and tough and a real son of a bitch to work for,” says Jorge Miguel, one of Ramsden’s top jewelry salesmen until he opened his own store, “but he was a genius at selling. I’d watch him tell customers a dozen stories about how important that piece of jewelry was and how others like it had appreciated over the years and how they would be missing a great opportunity if they did not buy it. And he never offered a discount on anything. He’d look you straight in the eye and say this is how much it cost and that he would never negotiate on the price.”

Ramsden would grant only a brief interview for this article because he doesn’t want his name to be associated with the new breed of jewelers. “I don’t want to be a part of those people,” he says. “Frankly, I don’t respect them…. Listen, they make a couple of sales and suddenly believe they are jewelers. They aren’t jewelers. They’re just salesmen.”

Nevertheless, the Ramsden legacy remains. His son is now vice president of Neiman’s precious jewels department, and some of his ex-employees have begun or are managing successful jewelry businesses in Dallas. But for a long time, almost no one would challenge Ramsden on his turf. From the Fifties to the Eighties, only one other person came in to Dallas to sell ritzy jewels. His name was Richard Eiseman, and he moved from the East Coast, married the daughter of a well-placed Dallas family, and in 1965 opened a jewelry boutique for the very rich.

Eiseman, now sixty-six, a quiet man who has one of those disarming smiles that tend to make you smile in return, was not bashful at all about going head-to-head with Ramsden. In 1970, Eiseman ran an ad in one of the local newspaper’s special Sunday sections that read, “The beautiful people of Dallas wear beautiful jewels from Richard D. Eiseman.” When Ramsden showed up at his reserved seats that very day for a Dallas Cowboys game, several of his friends in nearby seats all stood and teasingly held up copies of the Eiseman ad.

Although Eiseman was far from flamboyant-he would deliver jewels to his customers in an old Ford LTD-he did try more innovative designs in the late Sixties, like introducing the work of designer Henry Dunay, which helped him compete with Ramsden. He also understood something even more important: the allure of the big stone. Eiseman brought several to the city, and even today, he has what he calls one of the finest emeralds in the country, a flawless, stunning ring that costs $750,000. Eiseman says he will only sell it to a Dallas resident. “I don’t want something so important leaving the city,” he says with a shrug.

The older exclusive jewelers like Eiseman and the well-known Albert Hirsch of Linz have another advantage going for them- longevity. With his glistening forehead and dark eyes, Hirsch looks like one of those old oil paintings of a 19th-century statesman. He can be an imposing salesman. A Highland Park native, Hirsch grew up with many of those who have become the wealthiest people in the city; he is now selling to the third generation of old-money families.

Although the Linz chain no longer seeks out the big jewelry pieces that sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars, Hirsch still gets calls from his old friends, from the Hunts to Bum Bright, who want him to track down a good stone. “All I can say is that the old quality families don’t want size as much as they do the brilliance and quality in a stone,” says Hirsch. But with a stern shake of his head, he admits that times have changed.

Eiseman agrees. “Everything has gotten a great deal more dramatic,” he says, “and even the younger generation looks upon expensive jewelry, not just for their wedding bands, but as fashion accessories. I think, much more so than other generations, people see jewelry as being something more significant.”

To understand the truth of this remark, you only have to meet the man who was the first of the new generation of high-end jewelers, who opened the doors for others by breaking away from Dudley Ramsden’s regime to start his own Dallas jewelry boutique. Jorge Miguel, the ex-soccer star and the great Dallas bachelor, made it not just because he could sell a good stone, but because he could sell a lifestyle.

“WHAT I USED TO DO.” SAYS JORGE MIGUEL, HANDSOME AND vigorous at the age of forty-three, his dark Brazilian eyes flashing with mischief, “is write down their license plate number. Let’s say I saw a beautiful woman in a car. I had a source with the DPS in Austin, you see. I’d give him the license plate number and he’d tell me who owned the car. It was so simple. And then I’d call them up and say, ’Hello, this is Jorge.’ “

We are at some high-tech Italian restaurant, staring at a beautiful woman who is not driving, but eating at a table with an older woman, perhaps her mother.

“But wait,” says Jorge. He is studying the situation. “Ah, no problem. See, she is using a credit card. Later, I will go to the waiter and ask for the phone number off the receipt. That way, I can call her.”

We are silent for a moment, alone with our thoughts.

“Please,” Jorge says, suddenly very serious. “You must help me out. You must not make me look like a playboy. Those days’- and he waves his hand sadly like some amateur actor in a melodrama-“those days are gone forever.”

Of course, those days are far from gone, and even if they were, his crack public relations team wouldn’t let anybody know about it. Miguel, with his dashing accent and suave manners, began popping into Nancy Smith’s society column in the Dallas Times Herald in the early Eighties, and the resulting publicity has made him a small fortune. Although few people knew who he was- and even fewer had ever seen his jewelry-Miguel suddenly found himself famous.

“Jorge Miguel is in California, visiting his Hollywood friends again.” one society columnist would report. Then a couple of weeks later, we’d read that Jorge had been seen hugging Victoria Principal. And then there would be a line about Jorge putting some earrings on Brooke Shields. On and on it would go. Jorge would loan Martina Navratilova jewelry for a photo session. Jorge would become friends with movie star Cliff Robertson. Soon, everyone was writing about him. The National Enquirer linked him romantically with “Dallas” star Linda Gray. He made the cover of Southwest Airlines’ monthly magazine. People who were taking the plane from Amarillo to Lubbock to get to some farm implements meeting would open the magazine to read about this Jorge Miguel, a jeweler on Lovers Lane, chatting about all his friends. Just who in the world was this person?

WELL. AFTER DOZENS OF PROFILES IN THE news media, his biography is as well known among some members of the social set as stories from the Old Testament are to Sunday school teachers. Miguel was a Brazilian soccer player until he hurt his knee, and so he came to the United States to play in Lamar Hunt’s newly formed professional soccer franchise, which didn’t prove that his knee had healed as much as it showed how bad American soccer was. Anyway, Miguel became a semi-star with the Dallas Tornado until he hurt his knee again in 1969 and was forced to retire.

Without soccer, Miguel was competent at two things: speaking English in a thick foreign accent and charming women. Those were, apparently, just the right qualifications for him to be accepted as a shoe salesman in the women’s department of the downtown Neiman’s. Miguel loved it. He made a decent amount of money, which he promptly spent on clothes and a new Porsche, and he met lots of women.

“It was very exciting, very fulfilling job,” Miguel says seriously at lunch, after we have shifted positions in our seats to look at two other women who have walked in. “Why is that?” I ask.

“Because I was down on my knees before them, stroking their legs and asking for their money. But you know something? I had a rule. I stuck to it very seriously. I never dated anyone who worked in my department.” “How could you do that?” I ask. “Everyone in my department was a man.” Dudley Ramsden heard about this energetic Brazilian, offered him a job in the precious jewelry department, and watched, no doubt in shock, as Miguel, with a big smile on his face, rushed around the department trying to sell anything to anybody. “Jorge literally would chase women all over the store,” recalls Bill Noble. “He’d yell. ’Madame! Madame! One moment. I have a jewel that was made especially for you.’ “

To just about everyone’s amazement, it worked. Most women couldn’t help but like him. (“It was the accent,” says Miguel thoughtfully, as if analyzing a math problem, “that drove them crazy.”) And the number of rich Texas good of boys who didn’t trust him because of his Latin style was not inconveniently high. Says one former Neiman’s public relations executive: “He’d take these women into a private room, throw their hair back, put some necklace around them, and make them feel as if they were wearing the Hope Diamond.”

After nine years under Ramsden, Miguel decided to strike out on his own. Ramsden was furious and still won’t speak to Miguel (just as he won’t speak to several former employees who have left for other boutiques). “Miguel was a personable guy” Ramsden says now. “a former soccer player. So we take him and train him and he makes a few sales, and all of a sudden he thinks he’s a star.”

True, it didn’t seem very probable that Miguel would make his new venture work. But after a poor experience running Adelstein Jewelers for a year, Miguel, in late 1979, struck a deal with the owners of Lou Lattimore, the exclusive women’s fashion store. Miguel would be given a department in the store to show luxury-class jewels. Miguel’s big argument was that jewelry should be proportionate to the body, which meant it should be larger and bulkier. That also meant it was as expensive as hell. Nothing, not even earrings, was under $1,000.

It’s a good bet that just about every rich woman in town, and many of those with aspirations to be rich, walks through Lou Lat-timore at least a couple of times a year-which means they walk past Miguel, who is standing there next to his jewelry cases blowing kisses at everyone. One day in the early Eighties, Linda Gray walked by. Miguel, using his best Latin charm, asked her why she wore stupid costume jewelry during the filming of “Dallas:’

She invited him out to the set. He brought a bunch of $100,000 jewelry pieces. Soon, all the lead actresses of the cast were wearing his stones on the set and asking him to be their date at parties. Miguel was also asked by the show’s producers to provide the jewels for the women to wear during the episode where they all attended the black-tie Oil Baron’s Ball. His publicists began calling Miguel the “official” jeweler of “Dallas,” and the title, for some reason, stuck.

Miguel is hilarious when he talks about women and their jewelry, because he is not shy about criticizing their taste. When women walk by without earrings, he actually covers his eyes. “Some of these ridiculous women don’t understand jewelry.” he says one day at another lunch, his accent getting stronger as he becomes more agitated. “They’re not sophisticated. Sometimes they wear these tiny chains around their neck’-his voice continuing to rise in pitch-“and good God, they look like leetle beety babies!” Half the restaurant turns around to figure out what he’s talking about.

But Miguel, for all his campy style, helped lead a transformation in the jewelry business. While Ramsden would not allow himself or his salesmen at Neiman-Marcus to be photographed for the newspapers’ society sections, Miguel relied on the cult of personality to sell jewels; he tried to make himself as famous as the stones he was selling. He also proved an outsider could hold his own against Neiman-Marcus.

With the opening of the Galleria in 1982 came Gump’s and Tiffany and Fred and Cartier. Carla Francis began selling jewelry to her wealthy friends. Wholesale jewelers appeared, promising discounts on the most expensive pieces.

It was a frantic time, like an old frontier gold rush. For more than three months, people had to stand in line to get into Tiffany. On the morning Tiffany opened, a man was waiting at the door; he bought a bracelet and earrings for $10,000. Even the creators of fake jewelry, like Judy Mason, owner of Diamontrigue, were doing a staggering business. Mason, who can make a replica of a $125,000 diamond ring for less than $2,000, was once asked to meet a woman in the bathroom of one of the city’s finest restaurants in order to sell her a fake diamond ring. The woman was headed for a party after the dinner and had to have a ring that would be as big as the ones the other women would be wearing.

But perhaps most unusual was the arrival in Dallas of three young European brothers by the name of Boulle. Two spoke with English accents and one with a French accent. They had come to sell diamonds direct from Africa (eliminating, they claimed, price increases by middlemen). They immediately made a splash by borrowing the largest “radiant-cut,” flawless, fancy yellow diamond in existence-79 carats-and displaying it at the Plaza of the Americas Hotel.

Now their big project is to mine for diamonds in the United States. In southwest Arkansas they have bought mining rights to more than 100.000 acres around Diamond Crater State Park (now mined by tourists with shovels for three dollars a day) and they are negotiating with the state for the rights to create a mining operation in the state park itself. Although the Boulle brothers won’t talk publicly about their mining operation, there are rumors that they have purchased mining rights in other states. It’s an ambitious project and a long shot: almost 90 percent of all the world’s gem diamonds are controlled by De Beers, the international diamond mining cartel. But the leader of the venture, Jean Raymond Boulle, says the Arkansas mine would “change the world map of diamonds,” and it somehow seems appropriate that if anyone does uncover a huge diamond mine in this country, it would be someone living in Dallas.

Yet, of all those who helped inflate the market for fine jewelry in the Eighties, no one was quite able to match the success of a boy wonder named Bill Noble and his friendly neighborhood million-dollar jewelry store.

WILLIAM NOBLE RARE JEWELS IN HIGHLAND PARK VILLAGE Shopping Center is perhaps the most expensive retail jewelry store in Dallas. A piece of jewelry was sold there last year for more than a million dollars, so one could reasonably expect the atmosphere to take on a nearly religious hush, broken only by distant coughing or a salesman’s discreet murmur.

Instead, one time I was there, a little girl traipsed in to have a jeweler fix her plastic Care Bear watch. Another time, a woman who had originally driven to the shopping center to pick up some film stopped to chat and ended up buying a $3,000 pair of earrings. A young husband walked by, paused for a moment, then stepped inside. He told Noble his wife wasn’t feeling well and he really ought to do something. Fifteen minutes later he walked out with a pair of $2,000 earrings. Another man strolled out of a private room after buying a $100,000 strand of pearls.

Granted, the posh Highland Park Village Shopping Center is not exactly one of those discount malls where people’s jewelry mainly consists of copper bracelets worn to ward off arthritis. But the traffic that zips in and out of this jewelry store is phenomenal, especially when you consider that the necklaces featured in the showcase windows have six-figure price tags.

“A person does not recognize his need, deep down, for a jewel until he walks past and sees it,” says Noble, explaining one of the more amazing consumer philosophies I’ve ever heard. “Really, people don’t understand they need this kind of jewelry until they get a look at it.”

And the idea works. Highland Park moms, their children in tow, will sneak in for a quick peep-in the same way that office workers pop around the corner for just one drink at the end of the day-and wham! Noble hits them with a $20,000 bracelet.

A lot of this is due, of course, to Noble himself, who has none of the fastidious, temperamental manners that some people associate with fine jewelers. Noble, in fact, seems so down to earth that some people, when they first come in, don’t believe he owns the place. He looks more like a button-down, young real estate broker than someone who’s going to sell you a diamond.

It doesn’t hurt that he, too, comes from a very well-connected, blue-blood banking family in South Texas-his grandmother was the first woman to own a bank in Texas, and his father, who also owns banks, used to pal around with Lyndon Johnson, But the son was never interested in banking. After college, he tried a couple of jobs-a devout Christian, he even toyed with the idea of going into the ministry-but everything changed when he met Dudley Ramsden at a wedding rehearsal dinner. Noble gave a toast at the dinner, and Ramsden was so impressed he offered the young Noble a job.

Noble was only twenty-three, but he quickly became the whiz kid of the downtown Neiman’s department, selling more than $1 million in jewels in his first year. Almost impulsively, he decided to start his own business. He found a wealthy investor who helped him raise more than $1 million for capital, and opened his first store in 1983 at the Registry Hotel. No one in Dallas had sold such expensive stones from a location that far north, and in a hotel, of all places, but Noble went for all the marbles. In his first magazine ad, he showed a picture of a $500,000 pear-shaped diamond and announced it was for sale.

“My Dad thought I was flat-out crazy,” Noble recalls. “Actually, I had the same thoughts myself. Then, after my first year in business, I did two and a half times better than what I had projected.”

About the same time that Noble was getting his footing, developer Henry S. Miller, who personally selects the tenants at the Highland Park Village Shopping Center, began looking for an expensive jewelry store. Although top national companies in retail jewelry were lobbying to come into the exclusive shopping center. Miller wanted a local face. The last fine jeweler at Highland Park Village, the well-known English company. Bond’s, went out of business quickly because it couldn’t get anyone into the store. Miller went with the kid. In July 1984, Noble opened his store in one of the prime retail locations in the country. It was, in retrospect, a remarkably fast, four-year climb to prominence, but along the way, Noble learned how to put together a sensational collection of jewelry, and he learned how to sell.

“Some of my Christian cohorts.” he says, “have asked me how I feel appealing to someone’s ego and vanity by selling them such expensive things. They ask me if I feel guilty. Well, all I can say is that there is no joy like that of selling an item to an individual who is simply going to give it to his wife as a token of love. That million-dollar piece of jewelry I sold was to a man who just wanted to tell his wife he loved her. Now how do you argue against that? People here just love to buy jewelry; and that’s all there is to it.”

Which brings us, in a neat circle, right back to the ultimate lover of jewelry, Carla Francis, and the future of fine jewelry in Dallas.

“One day,” Carla is saying as we sit in her den, its walls covered with wild animal trophies from her husband’s hunting trips, “I decided it was time just to prioritize my interests. You know I had become too much of a generalist. I played a little tennis, shot a little with my husband, traveled, cooked dinner. But I kept saying, ’Carla, what are you really about?’ And then it hit me. Jewels! I should sell jewels.”

I listen carefully, trying to understand ] what brought her to this decision. Carla turns her eyes on me like two gun barrels.

“’But didn’t you think you were going to miss your jewels after you sold them?” I finally ask.

“Oh, my gosh, yes. I was frantic about | that. My husband [retired attorney Jim Fran- cis] said I would turn pea green with envy the first time I saw one of my pieces on another ! woman. And I have to admit that one time, I began looking for one of my diamond bracelets-sometimes I just like to look at the stones and remember their beauty-and then I realized that I had sold it. Well, it nearly broke my heart. I felt like I had lost one of my children.”

She pauses to choose her next words. Today, Carla is wearing a bracelet, upon which is carved a golden leopard with ruby eyes. She is wearing a long gold and diamond necklace, gold and diamond earrings, then a gold ring on one hand, and then a diamond ring on another hand. When the light hits her she looks positively luminescent.

“But I’ve gotten over that,” she says. “I liked dealing in beautiful jewelry as a service to my friends. The girls always expected me to bring along some pieces-even if we were all in La Jolla or whatever-for them to look at. I looked upon it as a service to something I love.” And so began one of the most unlikely debuts in the history of American jewelry. A beautiful Dallas socialite launched her own business in the back of the Loretta Blum dress shop. “No one thought it would last longer than six months.” says one of her friends.

Au contraire. Carla has expanded to her own store, put together more than $2 million worth of inventory, and promoted herself in an inimitable way. “Whatever I think will sell, I just put it on and wear it wherever I have to go to that day. I use myself as an advertisement. One time, one of my friends was looking through some things, and she said, ’Carla, you see that necklace? Someone else already has it.’ I said, ’Oh, darling, don’t be silly. That’s what I wore to the Crystal Charity Ball.’”

Carla has also limited her jewelry selection to the things she likes on herself. She doesn’t sell small gold necklaces or a strand of pearls. She likes it big and bulky. “A lot of flash for the cash,” she says. Most important, though, is the fact she has done so well, according to one jeweler who asks to remain anonymous. “That is the best sign of all of how far the fine jewelry business has come in Dallas. There is a niche for a Carla Francis. The market here is flexible enough for a lot of different expensive jewelers. Who would ever have guessed that more than just a couple of us could make it selling $100,000 pieces? It just shows you that people are willing to spend money on you.”

And the competition to capture that money grows even more intense. This year, thirty-nine-year-old Cliff Bueché, an aggressive, highly polished jeweler who has worked with Fred’s and Tiffany’s, opened his own precious jewel boutique at the Crescent. Rumors abound that Bill Noble is preparing to expand to another location. Bill Kasler, the director of Fred’s in the Galleria, has recently ordered the company’s Parisian designers to come up with some special creations to be sold only at the Dallas store. Jorge Miguel has figured out still another way to market himself: his book, called Jewelry: How to Create Your Image ($19.95), argues that clothes should be purchased to show off the jewelry a woman owns, not the other way around. “A woman without jewelry,” Jorge writes exuberantly, “is like a sentence without punctuation!”

But undoubtedly the most telling sign of how much things have changed came this past August, when a new Tiffany’s divisional vice president arrived to run the Dallas store. After a great start, Tiffany here had experienced a couple of slow years. And so the company brought in a man from Odessa, of all places, to shape up the store.

Gary Rowe does not wear European-cut suits or try to dazzle you with his knowledge of gems. Nor can he really talk about some lifelong dedication to jewels, because he started his career happily driving an ambulance in Odessa. He somehow got in the jewelry business, eventually worked himself up to divisional vice president of a jewelry retail chain on the East Coast, then quit in 1982 and moved back to Texas. He got out of jewelry, and ran for a city council seat in Odessa. He lost, and only then decided to return again to the jewelry business.

Rowe is an improbable person to run such an old, aristocratic company. “But that’s just the point,” he says. “There is a disease that can become epidemic in the top-shelf jewelry business, and that is becoming stuck on yourself. Tiffany occasionally will stick its blue nose at people, as if it’s doing those people a favor just to let them in the store. If we’re going to compete with the other companies here, we have to get our customers to feel as comfortable as if they were at home.”

Obviously, the world of high-end jewelry moves in mysterious ways. It is a very odd business, the selling of small stones for great sums, and many of us are at a loss to explain why it seems to be growing even more in popularity. That’s why, once again, we turn to Carla Francis.

“I’ll explain it this way,” she says. “It’s like a craving for a cup of coffee. There’s nothing you can do about it. Your stomach starts fluttering and your head feels dizzy and you hear something inside you screaming, ’I’ve got to have that jewel!’ Now this is just all simply a part of nature, and we’ve got to accept it. And if that means sacrificing a trip or a new dress or a bag of groceries here or there just to save up the money to buy it, well, that’s just part of life.”

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