Seaman Schepps’ immigrant parents, happily domiciled on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, could not have prophesied that bestowing the name “Seaman” upon their newborn son (b. 1881) might prove propitious one day, as he evolved into a world-renowned jeweler, who turned seashells into precious jewels, among his many ground-breaking innovations. The root of his unusual first name, however, is borne of a somewhat less romantic and more pragmatic circumstance: the sign for the Seaman’s Bank for Savings, it was said, was visible from his mother’s hospital window.
Seaman Schepps Classic Link Bracelet in Black Onyx and 14K Gold, c. 1980
After having held a variety of odd jobs, the young Schepps blossomed into a discerning curator of decorative objets and bijoux, and upon traveling in California, he opened a series of shops, selling trinkets, antiques, objets de vertu, and jewelry. Ultimately, he realized that the latter was his calling, and returning to New York, he opened a boutique on Sixth Avenue around the corner from the famed Algonquin Hotel. His clientele were the bold-face names and rock stars of the era — and he was venerated as “America’s Court Jeweler.” After the stock market crash, when he, like so many, lost all, he knew he had to focus on what he did best, and that was jewelry. And he had to find a market niche that was uniquely his.
Seaman Schepps Multi-Gemstone in 14K, c. 2005
That he did by vending his exclusive designs, mixing non-traditional textures, materials, colors, stones, and metals that heretofore had not been necessarily thought of as “precious.” His color combinations were unusual, unexpected, and bold. He avoided using the all-too-easy-to-incorporate diamonds and more conventional stones, and instead, opted to use branches of rich coral, onyx, snowy ivory, vivid turquoise, rock crystal, or even lustrous wood and glass! On a grand trip around the world, he found tremendous inspiration in Hong Kong, and it is perhaps there that he lit upon the idea of transforming into jewelry the conch-type shells that Mother Nature had graced with a luminous patina.
Seaman Schepps Classic Link Bracelet in Rock Crystal and 18K Gold, c. 2010
Schepps’ pioneering flair, his stylish palette, his often chunky but eminently wearable jewelry, garnered him prodigious fame in the 40s and 50s and his roster of clients included Doris Duke, the Duchess of Windsor, Coco Chanel, Elsa Schiaparelli, Katherine Hepburn, Marlene Dietrich, Jinx Falkenburg, Rosalind Russell, Elizabeth Taylor, Andy Warhol, gallery-owner Holy Solomon, and members of illustrious families — DuPont, Mellon, Rockefeller, Roosevelt, Kennedy, Vanderbilt. (Wife of publishing magnate Alfred A. Knopf, Blanche Knopf, was photographed out boating one day, wearing a stack of his legendary “Mouse Trap” bracelets.)
Seaman Schepps Aquamarine, Diamond and Pearl ‘Bubble’ Earrings in 18K, c. 2010
His shell jewelry is highly prized and distinctive and was regularly photographed in the fashion bibles of publishing — Vogue, Bazaar, Town & Country, and so on. His brilliant colors and sophisticated designs transform baby conch shells into extravagant jewels, wrapped in golden wire, topped with gleaming cabochons, or set with a glint of a sapphire or ruby. Although the company is no longer family-owned (his daughter Patricia Schepps Vaill sold it in 1992 to Jay Bauer and Anthony Hopenhajm, who maintain the company’s flagship at 58th Street and Park Avenue), it still produces the characteristic Schepps look, thanks to a treasure trove left by the master, including nearly 5,000 comprehensive jewelry renderings and 650 molds. (His granddaughter Amanda Vaill published a stunning coffee-table book about him, replete with striking photographs of jewelry.) Today Schepps’ jewelry is prized by women of shrewd style who want to sport an exceptional look and have the confidence to carry it off.