About two years ago I had a most delightful and unexpected reunion with Julia Lemigova, the Russian beauty queen who become my illustrious model and friend during my tenure as Chief Executive of Asprey PLC, a conglomerate that included Garrard, Mappin & Webb and Watches of Switzerland, to name but a few of the famous companies within the group. Julia, now married to the famous tennis star Martina Navratilova, she resides in the USA. We chatted happily of bygone days when our sense of adventure and creativity were the instigating factors in our lives.
On 2 October 1991 Mappin & Webb, in association with the World Gold Council, held a ‘Celebration of Gold’ exhibition at 170 Regent Street. Exhibits included a seven-kilo nugget prospected in Brazil, a Japanese 24-carat-gold dress and a Lau Dynasty Chinese bowl. Seven jewellery designers, including myself, created unique pieces for the occasion. Among the many items I was responsible for were two centrepieces, a 22-carat-gold egg weighing four and a half kilos, priced at £66,390, and a 22-carat-gold tiger weighing in excess of two kilos and retailing at £34,950.
My jewellery ensemble for the exhibition included bracelets, rings, earrings and gold hearts; all had a discreetly erotic feel to them, the emphasis being largely on weight and a simple concept of fine lines. My pièce de résistance, however, was a gold wishbone choker that had matching bracelet, ring and earrings. Tatler described this set as having ‘a bold design whose greatest virtue is a striking, contemporary simplicity’. Much credit for my personal endeavours in producing these fine pieces of jewellery and the two centrepieces must go to John Nix, the manager of the Asprey workshop, whose professionalism and tireless pursuit of excellence gave the finished products an added lustre.
The exhibition was a grand affair, and I was delighted when the choker was snapped up by a discerning client on the first night for a cool £10,860. It was beginner’s luck, John Asprey teased me, when a number of the items I designed sold very quickly. The press came to the opening night in force and found themselves dazzled by the sheer glow and collective impact of the gold. Patricia Miller, in the Evening Standard, remarked that,
When he was a student Naim was so poor he lived on Weetabix . . . now he has his breakfast egg out of a £2,775 golden stand he designed himself and uses a silver egg as a doorstop. (It is so heavy you could hardly lift it and it retails at £5,500.) When he shows off his golden prizes, he will have 24carat-gold leaf sprinkled in every cup of punch. Naim traces his love of the arts to his childhood in Palestine, where his father collected paintings, miniatures and carpets. His first design [for Mappin & Webb] was a platinum heart about an inch long, set with a single diamond. He meant it for Valentine’s Day and sold it for £7,950. He designed his own wedding ring, which he wears on his little finger and calls ‘a bond’. ‘When you love someone a ring is a bond. I never had one when I got married. I would have felt chained then.’
The most spectacular event of the evening occurred when Julia Lemigova, the beautiful ‘Miss Soviet Union’ (the last before the collapse of the Soviet state), the daughter of a high-ranking KGB official, aged nineteen, appeared on the scene. She was wearing the 24-carat-gold wedding dress by the Japanese designer Yumi Katsura. It was worth £180,000 and made from twenty-five metres of pure gold brocade, with a tiara, veil and long train. As Julia moved between the guests she was like a vision from a world of tsarist fable – a princess arriving for a coronation. Her wonderfully formed features were in harmony with the whole effect. It was a moment of pure theatre – and the gold was real!
I had met Julia only three weeks before the exhibition and we became friends almost immediately. The exhibition was a great success in London. Tributes kept pouring in, but the one I most appreciated was in a letter from Sally Goldsby, the public relations manager of the World Gold Council, who was the driving force behind the whole project. The exhibition, she wrote:
… had undoubtedly been a huge success. Firstly the magazine promotion featured probably the best photographed gold jewellery ever seen in this country. Secondly the gold artefacts initiated by you are some of the most exciting ever made. Also, the displays of the shop and the overall presentation of the exhibition were of a very high standard. Your own enthusiasm and support have been second to none!
After that glowing accolade, the exhibition moved to Mappin & Webb, Edinburgh. Sally Goldsby joined me and Tania Foster-Brown (Mappin & Webb’s publicity manager), with of course our golden girl Julia Lemigova, who became closely associated with the exhibition. Her parading in the sumptuous gold dress caused the biggest sensation in Scotland. She was mobbed by onlookers together with an army of photographers who flashed their cameras in a frenzy of excitement. On a personal level those three days I spent in Scotland in company with Sally, Tania and Julia would have been any man’s dream of a heavenly escape from the daily round. We returned to London fully reinvigorated and proud to have achieved such a remarkable feat. Julia was hailed as the beautiful Miss Russia who had brought a sparkle to grey Edinburgh. All in all it felt like a job extremely well done.
Julia, with her dark hair and brown eyes, was a quintessential Caucasian beauty and knew exactly how to present herself in every situation. It was a safe prediction that she had an international modelling career ahead of her. During her time in London she modelled the kaleidoscopic range of silk scarves I had designed for Mappin & Webb, and also my ‘friendship’ rings and bracelets of intertwined bands, of which John Swannell took the photographs. In the advertising for the rings, both her hands and mine appeared together in the photograph.
What no one could have foreseen for her was a darker episode when she became emotionally involved with Edward Stern, a prominent member of an eminent Jewish banking family. After Stern was shot in Geneva in 2005 by a mistress with one of his own guns – he had reasons to fear enemies, including some in the Russian mafia – Julia came forward to tell her story. She claimed Stern had been the father of her son, born in 1999, though he never fully accepted the fact. When the child was five months old she advertised for a nanny and engaged a Bulgarian woman who applied in person. Within days the baby became seriously ill and was taken to hospital, where he died. The doctors found evidence of injuries that suggested he had been shaken, but a subsequent inquiry was inconclusive and the nanny disappeared. Later Stern’s mistress contacted Julia to try to prise details of their sex life out of her, and at one point, said Julia, offered to tell her ‘the truth about the death of your son’. When Stern was murdered he had been wearing a latex body stocking and his mistress confessed to having shot him during an argument about money after a sado-masochistic sex session. Julia came to believe that Stern had arranged for her child to be killed and that his mistress had been trying to blackmail him over the baby’s death.
I could never have imagined it possible that my sweet Julia would become embroiled in such a cycle of high international drama, where the main players were unsavoury characters out to use their wealth and power in the ruthless pursuit of illicit and immoral ends.
But Julia, now full of zest and joie de vivre has fully recovered from that horrible ordeal and is now her bubbly self again. She’s a woman whose strength of purpose and in-born joviality is a delight to behold and whose friendship I shall never forget.
Martina, her loving partner is a very lucky woman to have had the good fortune and taste to capture such a gem.