“I have to be fair to both sides of my brain, and both sides are a lot of fun!” Greg Kwiat confesses when I ask him which he gets more of a kick out of—exquisite new Kwiat diamond creations or spectacular Fred Leighton vintage pieces? He is in a position to know: as a scion of the Kwiat family he is the CEO of the famous jewelry enterprise, but he also heads up Fred Leighton, the legendary purveyor of antique jewelry.
It is a rainy midwinter afternoon, and I am talking to Greg in the Kwiat-Leighton shop on Madison Avenue, a place that might seem intimidating to the casual shopper, but Greg insists he wants you to come on in and look around! (And look around I do, but more on that in a moment.)
“I think we have a really unique place in the industry because we have both perspectives in understanding jewelry,” he tells me. “On the Kwiat side of our business, we do classic and timeless diamond jewelry, so we understand modern jewelry in the traditional diamond context of the four Cs. But we also understand the world of vintage, which is to say that we understand that things are special for reasons that are harder to define and go beyond some of those basic definitions that we have for quality.”
Oh, those mysterious 4 Cs—cut, clarity, color, and carat. I ask Greg which C matters most, and he doesn’t hesitate. “At Kwiat, we always emphasize the importance of the cut. The quality of the cut determines far more than anything else. A well-cut diamond is lively and bright and brilliant, and a poorly cut stone is dull and lifeless. If it’s cut badly the color and clarity don’t matter. A D-flawless stone that is poorly cut is just an ugly rock.”
But then again—here’s that other side of the brain! —he goes on to explain, antique jewelry is a different ball game. “With vintage, you have to open your mind more. To a certain extent, it is still about the cut, but the piece also must have a presence, an appeal that will transcend time and place. When we buy vintage, we’re looking at style, at what makes it special. It may be a Victorian piece, but we don’t live in Victorian times.”
Indeed, we do not. In the olden days, all diamonds were natural diamonds, but now, well…I decide to confront the glittering elephant in the room. What does Greg think about lab-grown diamonds? He is judicious and really smart in his answer. “I think we are going to see a real separation in the market. The high-end jewelry is going to focus on natural diamonds—to maintain a position in the market you have to commit to natural diamonds. I tell people the most compelling rationale is investment potential. You’re making a substantial purchase at whatever level you’re buying—it’s a lot of money for you. Jewelry has long-term meaning in our lives. Natural diamonds hold value. Lab-grown diamonds do not.”
The beauty of a natural diamond may endure forever, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have to get the word out. “We do a lot of PR,” Greg tells me. “I have gone on red carpets and TV shows over the years, I’ve done Live from the Red Carpet with E! and CNN. There’s spontaneity, and it’s fun, it’s a real conversation. Julia Hart’s show, My Unorthodox Life, just aired on Netflix—they did a thing in the store, and I was on the promotional video for the show, and when it aired, I had all these people texting me!” he laughs. “And Fred Leighton really made its name from being on the red carpet – the idea that antique jewelry is special, selected by celebrities in the moment of their greatest triumph.”
And speaking of greatest triumphs – on my way out, I am accosted by a snake on the Leighton side of the shop. He has a half-carat diamond embedded in his 18 karat gold head, minuscule ruby eyes, and a look of nonchalance that has been captivating people for over 100 years. Suddenly I remember something else Greg told me about antique jewelry: It should take your breath away! “These are objects traveling through time, we are only the temporary owners of them. They tell a story.”
What can I say? That serpent is on my finger now, as I write this, whispering stories only I can hear.