In 1993 I went to interview an elusive and very private writer, Patricia Highsmith. The trip entailed driving through the Swiss Alps from Italy to meet her and as I never drive, I needed the help of Ros Milani-Gallieni, who was working for Garrard on special projects. Apart from her driving ability, Ros’s company was a sheer delight. We flew to Milan, where we hired a car and proceeded towards Lugano, the nearest town to Patricia Highsmith’s hideaway, where we spent the night before negotiating the Alps in search of her. She had given us directions to a small village, where she said she would be waiting. She was there when we arrived, looking dishevelled and rather strange. She asked Ros to stay behind and invited me into her car. We drove up a mountainous road for about twenty minutes before reaching our destination. After an interview full of drama, she drove me back to where Ros was waiting and the parting was more congenial than the reception had been.
Ros drove us down to Milan airport, handed in the car and we flew back to London. For a short trip, it had had more than its share of melodramatic moments. Ros and I often travelled together to Milan and Paris and seemed to work well together. Her grasp of languages was an added bonus, especially in Italy. I once met her parents and we spent an operatic evening at La Scala, Milan. I particularly remember the visit since we stayed at the Excelsior Hotel Gallia in the so-called Madonna Suite, named after the pop singer, who must have used it on several occasions. It happened to be the only accommodation available at the time. We had searched elsewhere without any luck, so we figured why not live it up for the night and follow in the footsteps of Madonna? Such extravagance is something I have always been partial to.
In Paris we stayed at either the Plaza Athénée or Hôtel de Crillon, or even L’Hôtel, where Oscar Wilde was said to have lived his last days and finally died. Ros’s task in Paris was to coordinate the marketing and publicity of René Boivin there with its boutique within the Garrard showrooms in London. She also played a major role with her counterpart in Paris, who was in charge of René Boivin’s new flagship shop at 49 avenue Montaigne together with the boutique in rue de la Paix. The new shop’s inauguration party was a sumptuous affair.
In all of these activities Ros was a key figure. I met her when she was introduced to me by my wife Maria. Poised and elegant, she had perfect manners, and combined in her face the freshness of a Nordic complexion with a faint hint of the Mediterranean. She was attractive, with a mysterious air of restraint that was hard to define. My first impression was one of a young lady totally in control who would seldom allow herself to be distracted by emotional demands likely to disrupt her structured life. I was fascinated by the intriguing mix of messages she seemed to send out to the world. She was certainly someone out of the common run who had hidden depths worth exploring. Little did I know that this short encounter would lead to a working relationship destined to develop into a close and longstanding friendship that would weather the rocky patches that were to lie in its path and come through unscathed. Over time I was to discover that beneath what seemed a cool exterior Ros was a woman who was passionate about her work and passionate about people but kept her feelings in separate compartments. The phrase ‘a woman for all seasons’ was one that might have been used to describe her. She would write this memoir for my autobiography:
A Working Life with Naim
Naim – a four-letter word – requires no introduction. The contacts and network flooded all around him whenever he called with a quest from his desk at Asprey plc. During my years beside him, in his role as group chief executive of Asprey, the luxury-goods consortium encompassing Mappin & Webb, Tomasz Starzewski, Asprey Bond Street, Asprey New York, René Boivin, Sangorski & Sutcliffe and the wonderfully distinguished Garrard the Crown Jewellers, my tasks took on the true meaning of multi-tasking – which I am still slave to today. In creating and running the most exclusive events for him, where aspiration turned into reality, he transmitted to me a wealth of enthusiasm and energy. This in turn opened out into an expansive vision of opportunities and developments for the benefit of the group.
My first interview at Asprey, shortly after a three-year stint with Anouska Hempel Couture – and three years before that with Mr Armani at Giorgio Armani in Milan – was a relaxed and welcoming affair. Naim offered me the opportunity to use and develop links with Europe and the five languages I had at my fingertips. It was an inspired chance. Work centred round the fourth floor at 106 Regent Street, which was the inner sanctum, buzzing with pretty girls, all of them much younger and more dynamic than I was. Security looked on approvingly as new arrivals and good-lookers asked to be shown their way to the fourth floor. As you opened a door you would invariably be met by an aroma of fresh-brewed coffee, or at mid-morning the fragrances of fresh herbs and fish dishes being grilled or steamed for Naim’s punctual lunch at 12.30 p.m. Press, buyers, bankers, lawyers, writers, designers must all look back on colourful memories of those times with him, and sometimes ‘one of us gals’ would be invited to spice up the table, though the calibre of the guests daunted us!
The settings were carefully prepared, and it was always a greatly animated table, with lively stories shared over large goblets of Cloudy Bay white wine, and a good strong coffee to end. Then a discreet bleeper, custom-made in black croc, would summon a ‘gertie’ to clear us all out of the boardroom and back to our duties. Naim would then leave the room, leading his friends out and enjoying compliments about the flamboyantly colourful silk linings of his newly tailored navy-blue cashmere suit, or about an unusual stone he had set in a handsome bold signet ring – a cabochon emerald.
Among the major jewellery exhibitions I set up and oversaw was the complete rebuild of the new René Boivin store after the move from L’Opéra to avenue Montaigne with Jacques Bernard at the helm of the famous Parisian signature. The prestigious Boivin collection was inaugurated with the grand opening of the Paris store in May 1993, celebrating over a hundred years of history and treasures – a collection I now have in a book to revive the dream from time to time. The French house of haute joaillerie had been brought into the Asprey group in April 1991 and boasted an exclusively designed showroom within Garrard the Crown Jewellers. Then in October 1993 there was Vienna, the venue chosen for the celebration of Garrard’s 150th anniversary as Crown Jewellers to the British monarch. The British Embassy opened its doors to this spectacular one-off royal gala and exhibition, held within the rooms of the ambassador’s home – quintessentially British territory in Austria. It was magnificence all round.
The pieces had been selected from the Regent Street store a month in advance with stealth-like secrecy. Antique clocks, Queen Adelaide’s restored crown, silver wine coolers, each the size of a small bath, ultra-fine jewellery set with the most sought-after stones, watches and more left the West End with a code word for their destination. Long preparations had gone into emphasizing the significance of this grand opening for the exhibition, with the inauguration being marked by our most elegant and striking Princess Alexandra. She was escorted and introduced to selected guests by David Thomas, the Crown Jeweller, alongside Naim and John Asprey. A complex exhibition of this size and value was a highly intricate affair requiring many preparatory journeys to Vienna to ensure a seamless outcome for the occasion. The presentation also ran along a carefully planned series of media events, with the sexy Elizabeth Hirnigel in control, gathering all the great and good of Vienna to flock to Naim, our visionary chief executive. Elizabeth was one of that special breed of high-powered public-relations women who combine fantastic professional standards with a very impressive list of social contacts.
With Boivin the creations designed in the firm’s more recent times by Jeanne Poiret, the widow of Jules René Boivin (1893–1917), are undoubtedly unique, though the life and spirit of its exquisitely created collection today lie in the dark, locked away since Boivin closed its doors. Pieces of intricacy rarely beheld – in the forms of animals, birds, flowers or fruit, each piece articulated, tremblant, sliding, pivoting – linger in vaults, a project that sadly never got to where it should have been: on the most beautiful girls and women of all ages, perceptive enough to understand its immense beauty.
The sadness of Boivin’s current fate has its reflection in the dejection surrounding the latter days of Naim’s and my projects – a friendship that at that time got locked away too when a then irreconcilable difference cut us apart. There followed a deep and complex silence, a troubled understanding of notions, of misled emotions, misguided aspirations. It all spiralled out of control and spun into free orbit. Naim was suddenly unapproachable and disappeared off to France for an entire month. How had I managed to alienate a man of such strength and emotional courage? To safeguard his well-being and allow me time to consider my work priorities, which had all along been my biggest challenge, he had set an end. I began to realize there was a gulf between us that had to be negotiated if our relationship were to survive. He wanted me to be emotionally driven in everything I did, with no defined boundaries. ‘It was,’ he said quite stoically, ‘the quest for an intellectual climax that was missing.’ Its absence was for the most part the cause of it all. I now know that this meeting of minds was to him far more potent than anything else, and certainly immeasurably more gratifying.
Fortunately, over time, we completed our journeys, our characters did grow further and stronger and more secure. The void between us became a subject we gradually started reapproaching and exploring with the confidence of reflection and thought. Through laughter and anger we came to a full circle, and are now, in these pages of Naim’s third book of memoirs, within a rich tapestry of people’s thoughts and feelings concerning an exceptionally driven and inspiring man and his journey through life. What I feel today about my learnings with Naim is that his style, enthusiasm, passion, spontaneity and completely sincere affection – which is still a part of our relationship – have made me understand the person he saw in me more than ten years ago through his nurturing and care; and this has also enabled me to see the person others see in me.
This person has now come into its own space with precisely the foresight he so clearly envisaged: ‘When she was a girl, she was a place. Now she’s a woman, she’s an entire world.’ A completion of the circle seems to have come about, a notion so well put by one of my dearest friends, who once wrote: ‘Happiness is not about doing everything you want to do, but in wanting to do everything you do.’