Here, The Ice Is Right

By Cory Ohlendorf
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 18, 2007

With the taxman cracking down on those five-digit goody bags and questioning the legality of "gifting" designer dresses tax-free, one Oscar night tradition remains alive and, more important, IRS-sanctioned: The lending of the jewels.

Jewelers can load a starlet up with as much loot as her lithe frame can carry -- so long as they get the bling back -- without fear of Uncle Sam asking for a cut. ("When there is no transfer of property, there are no tax consequences," explains Theresa Branscome, an IRS spokesperson. "Loans aren't ever taxable.")

So it's open-sesame time at the vaults of the world's finest jewelers. Tim Gunn, of TV's "Project Runway" and now chief creative officer for Liz Claiborne, likens Oscar night to a coronation: "It's where you see the most over-the-top pieces in fashion and jewelry, and actually I'm disappointed if I don't."

Disappointment seems unlikely. The ubiquitous "who are you wearing" no longer refers to just the clothes being donned. Necklaces, earrings, even cuff links and watches now get a shout-out.

The larger jewelry houses have staffers whose sole job is to jet around the world, matching sparkling charms to the rich and famous. (So busy is Cartier's gal, we're still waiting for her call!) The shiny accessories are the last thing chosen for a celebrity's red-carpet ensemble (which itself often isn't decided until days before the big night), so the lending and swapping sometimes continues until the final bobby pin is placed and the limo door opened.

"You never really know how it's going to turn out, we've had situations where an actress had a change of mind and it simply wasn't our day and that's just the unfortunate part of the business," says Rebecca Selva, director of publicity and celebrity liaison for New York-based Fred Leighton, which has lent pieces to Nicole Kidman and Kirsten Dunst. "And other times we're surprised to find out that they ended up wearing us."

Such was the case in 2001 when Jennifer Lopez wore a gray Chanel gown with an eyepopping sheer top. Selva and her team were told at the last minute that Lopez decided to go with yellow diamonds from another jeweler. Yet as they watched the televised broadcast, they screamed with excitement: J-Lo stepped onto the carpet in their white diamond earrings.

Van Cleef & Arpels, in addition to the contemporary jewelry in its showrooms, flies in special, rarely seen heirloom pieces from its museum collection, housed at the company's Paris headquarters, to outfit famous Oscar attendees, explains Emmanuel Perrin, CEO and president of the firm's American division. In past years, Julia Roberts and Reese Witherspoon have worn the jeweler's creations.

Bulgari has a history of decorating the necks and earlobes of Hollywood's elite. Nicola Bulgari, vice chairman of the venerable house, traces it back to Richard Burton's quip about Elizabeth Taylor: "The only word Liz knows in Italian is Bulgari."

Getting the jewels to celebs is also more of a production than ever before. When Gunn provided red-carpet commentary for this year's Golden Globes he was shocked at all the options set up in stars' homes or hotel rooms. "It's like a small department store, where they have dozens of dresses and hundreds of jewelry options laid out and they start playing mix-and-match," he said. "It can be a bit of a circus and I think it's a process that can get rather seamy."

For Van Cleef & Arpels, ensuring its pieces end up on the red carpet sometimes means lugging the same jewelry again and again to a celeb's home for each dress fitting.

"It's really changed in the nine years I've been doing this," says Jay Carlile of Martin Katz, a Los Angeles jeweler that has lent to Patricia Clarkson and Angela Bassett. "An actress used to just come in with her dress or a picture. But now there are so many more people involved in the decision-making process."

It's evolved to include not only actress but agent, stylist, friends, sometimes the dress designer and even hair and makeup artists. Recalls Carlile: "I was once in this room filled with people, and began saying something when someone looked at me like, 'Who are you?' It's crazy."

But does all this exposure pay off in sales? Are those who can afford an $800,000 necklace really impressed that it was once wrapped around the neck of Reese, Cate or Keira?

In short, no. The exception is Fred Leighton -- the company says it often sells the pieces not long after their red-carpet debut. Last year, the firm strung a 19th-century diamond fringe necklace across the decolletage of Best Supporting Actress nominee Michelle Williams's sunshine-yellow Vera Wang gown and sold it "soon after" the show. Then the company began fielding requests for similar pieces.

For smaller jewelers, the exposure can really pay off. But that doesn't make them any less celeb-selective. "While some of the tabloid-fodder girls may make for good press, we're not really interested in lending to them," Carlile says.

Then there's the security. The jewelers dispatch guards in black tie to trail along with each bejeweled celebrity. But do the guards get to hit the after-parties? What time do Angelina, Nicole and Meryl have to hand back the goods?

While most of the houses clammed up at the mention of security, Carlile just laughed. "There's enough guys wearing those little earpieces to make sure everyone is safe."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company