In Fred Leighton’s Manhattan apartment there’s a set of 17th-century gold-and-enamel serving bowls, an art deco 1920s console and a 19th-century silver throne that once belonged to India’s Mughal rulers. “Fred,” says his wife, Glorya, “loves to sit on it.”
And why shouldn’t he? Leighton is, after all, the king of one-of-a-kind estate jewelry. During Academy Awards season, his trinkets—including the world’s largest collection of natural pearls for sale—are a must-see for celebrities like Best Actress nominees Halle Berry and Nicole Kidman. In fact, Kidman was the first actress to wear Leighton jewels to the Oscars when she picked an opal necklace in 1996 to go with her lavender Prada shift.
Since then, stars from Kate Winslet (she donned a diamond-and-emerald Leighton pendant the year she was nominated for Titanic) to Jennifer Lopez (chandelier diamond earrings at last year’s ceremony) have been bedecked by Leighton. “His taste,” says Debra Messing, who wore his dangling diamond earrings at this year’s Golden Globes, “is inexplicably, indescribably exquisite.”
Michael Douglas agrees: Shopping for an engagement ring for Catherine Zeta-Jones, he had Leighton help him pick out a 10-carat marquise-cut diamond in a 19th-century platinum setting. When Melissa Rivers wed in 1999, mom Joan gave her a vintage seed-pearl-and-diamond choker from Leighton. “Fred’s not about chunky diamonds,” says Joan. “I’d rather have an 18th-century necklace, and those are the kind of pieces he has.”
If only Leighton’s timeless taste in jewelry carried over to his sartorial style. Despite owning a multimillion-dollar business that includes a store on Madison Avenue and a boutique at the Bellagio hotel in Las Vegas, Leighton, says Glorya, “couldn’t care less about what he wears. I have to remind him to get a haircut! But he’s passionate about making other people look their best.”
It’s a passion Leighton—born Murray Mondschein—discovered as a teen. One of two children raised in The Bronx by real estate salesman Irving and Renee, a home-maker, Leighton worked after school at a local gift store. “It turns out,” he says, “I loved retailing.”
In 1954, after a two-year stint in the Army, Leighton bummed around Europe, developing his eye for unusual items. In 1961 back in New York City, he began importing Mexican crafts. Two years later he took over the Fred Leighton import-export business, spending the next two decades transforming it into an heirloom jewelry emporium. “People began coming into the store to sell these amazing things that belonged to their grandmothers,” he says. “A place like Sotheby’s didn’t have that many auctions, so you had to wait a long time for your money. I was buying things outright.”
At the time, says Leighton, “I didn’t know the difference between 9-karat gold and 18-karat gold. If it looked pretty, I bought it. I didn’t care about the intrinsic value of the piece.” He has since become a certified gemologist—and he has also officially become Fred Leighton, legally changing his name in 1986. “People kept coming in and asking to talk to Fred Leighton,” he says. “I decided they should be able to.”
Leighton, 69, who works six days a week, remains single-minded about his jewelry kingdom. Glorya, 61, a former psychoanalyst whom he married in 1965, runs advertising and public relations, and only child Mara, 33, handles day-to-day operations. “We’re always talking business,” says Mara.
In fact, even at home, surrounded by beautiful objets, Leighton can’t leave his bijoux behind. “He doesn’t like Sundays,” says Glorya, “because he doesn’t see the jewels!”
Diane Clehane in New York City