Helen Ver Standig is a rare jewel, even though her fame springs from self-promotion as a counterfeiter.
A native of Washington and an active businesswoman here since the 1940s, Ver Standig is one of the most widely recognized corporate symbols in the country as "Madame Wellington," courtesy of artist Al Hirschfeld's caricature that is a focus of marketing for simulated diamonds sold by Ver Standig's business, Wellington Jewels.
Started here in the 1960s, Wellington Jewels is a firm with gross annual sales of some $10 million, virtually all from selling fake diamonds to Americans. The company has three stores in the metropolitan area, three in the Philadelphia area and one in Manhattan. Two additional units are scheduled to open later this year in Chicago and San Francisco.
Ver Standig's company, M. Belmont Ver Standig Inc. (the name of her late husband, whom she still refers to as "Mac"), also owns a successful motel on Cape Cod to which Madame Wellington repairs on many weekends. In addition, the firm has entered the broadcasting business with the acquisiton on April 1 of WCEM in Cambridge, Md.
In an interview, Ver Standig/Madame Wellington said she would like her company to gain a full complement of AM and FM radio stations, preferably on the Eastern Seaboard.
Ver Standig entered the mainstream of business long before the women's liberation movement, and she has been successful in running a family-owned business because of her "marketing genius" in developing the fictitious Madame Wellington's fame through print advertisements, she said candidly.
Just as important, she cites long experience in the publishing and advertising business with her late husband (at one time, they owned and operated the biggest advertising agency in town, with annual billings not matched today by any Washington ad business).
Finally, there is her philosophy of life. She said she prefers to live day by day, enjoying each moment. "I'm a free spirit," she said, describing how she is constantly called upon by large companies seeking to acquire the business she has built. "I'm almost 50 and I've never done anything I don't like; you can't take it with you," she added.
"I don't need the money. These other firms don't know what they're doing; they are just looking at balance sheets. As long as I live - and my mother died at 95, so my kids have a long way to go - there's no way I'll sell," said Ver Standig, who works out of a small office in an apartment complex on Upper Connecticut Avenue NW and who lives with a collection of dogs of all variety in a huge home in the so-called "Gold Coast" off 16th Street NW, one of few whites in that wealthy neighborhood.
Her philosophy relfects memories of times that were not so good, when she wasn't off for Chicago to inspect the location of her new branch there in a Marriott Corp. hotel, when she didn't head for The Cape on weekends. She remembers growing up in Washington, her father's tailor business, a Northwest home with freezing cold water in the winter, work with artists and writers in the Depression.
Her philosophy of "enjoying your life every day" - as well as a strong promotional talent - is reflected in the company's approach to selling its product.
"Is the price of illusion too high? No doubt about it!" She said in a recent newspaper advertisement.
Going on to claim that, "Since I am not a professional advertising writer," a suggestion that contradicts her firm's success based on marketing, Madame Wellington told her readers/customers: "Why do people buy diamonds? Many buy diamonds for investment and others buy diamonds for beauty. I agree with the latter. Diamonds are indeed beautiful, and thus far nature has never produced a jewel that has mesmerized or fascinated people more since time immemorial. On the other hand, the concept that diamonds are an investment is 'for the birds'."
She warned that middle-class investors are going to get burned if they buy diamonds. Noting that a fine one-carat diamond could cost at least $5,000 today (and the few investment-grade diamonds sell for much more), Ver Standig/Madame Wellington said a lot of small stones adding up to a carat can be worth very little. Much of the cost of purchasing such merchandise is in the setting and mounting, she added.
Of course, Madame Wellington has her own diamond to grind, so to speak. She wants to contiune selling her counterfeits, using her own gold settingsand designs for jewellery that ranges in price from $75 a carat to $35,000 for an elaborate item.
But she also emphasized that gem investments are questionable without a ready resale market. Diamond prices are based on an "artificial market" directed by the international cartel of De Beers Consolidated Mines Ltd. and have been subject to hoarding and speculation in the past year. Prices are marked up at various steps from mining to wholesaling to design to retailing.
Diamond fever has been sweeping the world, and diamonds appreciated at an average annual rate of 8 percent from 1946 to 1976. Retail diamond prices have jumped 50 percent in the U.S. since November. Some European banks take diamond deposits. Five selected diamonds at Sotheby Parke Bernet jumped 29 percent above presale estimates at a sale in New York on April 12.
But what is truly deceptive, Ver Standig said, is the talk of investment when there is a continued supply of the gems. "If you own a Picasso, he's dead, it's the end of his productivity and that's an investment. But there is no shortage of diamonds, and DeBeers sells whatever it wants. Just try and sell back a diamond."
An estimated 200 American diamond investment firms are seeking to convince people to buy diamonds for appreciation, but there is no ready source of information on diamond prices (as with the stock market) and no ready access to the international diamond exchanges.
"Now how in hell can that be an investment? I'm amazed the Federal Trade Commission hasn't got after the investment promoters," she stated.
Apparently she has convinced many people that they should invest in something else besides diamonds, while using the Wellington counterfeit variety for everyday jewelry - rings, earrings, pins, pendants, bracelets and necklaces that she said "could be worth a king's ransom. If they were the real stuff."
As you probably guessed by now, Ver Standig once was Advertising Woman of the Year. She was cited at the time for giving "dignity and prestige to the position of women in executive positions in advertising through personal example, without surrendering in the name of business expediency any of the obligations and privileges of womanhood or motherhood."
The year was 1960, when Ver Standig was executive vice president and media director of the agency she and her husband started in 1944. She also was chairman of the Chesapeake Council of the American Association of Advertising Agencies, the first woman in that position. The Ver Standigs had a son and daughter, now active in the business.
Ver Standig describes the caricature of Madame Wellington as having developed from a desire to paint the picture of "rakish old broad." That doesn't represent the truth about the real Helen Ver Standig, however.She has done volunteer work on behalf of retarded and emotionally disturbed children and has fought for unemployment aid for persons over 55 years of age.