Thursday, August 23, 2007

Going down to Chinatown

by Ki Hackney

Chinatown has always been home to a host of delicious treasures.
Some are tasty, such as dim sum and tea or all the fresh food markets. Others are practical, such as lighting fixtures. Still more are colorful -- apparel, accessories, and jewelry. Some, such as prescription herbal remedies, while not especially tasty, work miracles. And, a few are noisy, as in, dare we say it, firecrackers.

But tucked on Howard Street (the 4-block long Westbound street between Centre, where it starts, then requires a jog over to Lafayette, and Mercer) is a T-shaped intersection with the foot of Crosby Street. It’s a semi-secret block where the cobblestone paving and the limited mix of stores bespeaks a European sense of quiet and elegance and where quality reigns. Two doors say it all: De Vera and Ted Muehling.

Inside De Vera, part gallery, part shop.
“We are an enclave of specialty businesses that have like-minded customers,” says David Morsa, Director of De Vera, the decorative arts hybrid at 1 Crosby Street (212-625-0838, and a limited selection on the 7th floor at Bergdorf’s), which is part gallery, part shop in its design. Federico de Vera founded the store originally in San Francisco in 1991 and filled it with objects from an old wrench to photos. It morphed into a store of glass, including some of De Vera’s own glass designs. Furniture and better jewelry were added next. That concept divided into a jewelry store and another for decorative objects.

About four years ago, the decorative arts store closed, the jewelry shopped picked dup a few objects, and de Vera picked up his passions and moved them to New York. The glass-walled store anchoring Crosby and Howard is filled with fine examples of deities and Philippine saints (Federico is actually from the Philippines and proudly collects, preserves and presents his Christian cultural art), vintage Venetian glass, lacquer, metal pieces, and updated Georgian and Victorian jewelry. De Vera finds interesting items, such as an old watch fob he filled with pink sapphires and diamonds. Rare and unique diamonds are another De Vera specialty.

I was lucky enough to have been there to see the special exhibits, downstairs, of the revered Japanese lacquer artist, Onishi Nagatoshi, as well as that of California’s grandmother of enameling, June Schwarcz. Everywhere you turn, there is visual majesty. It’s a treat. Here's a sampling of some De Vera goodies ...
Examples of dieties and Philippine saints.
Lacquer, metal pieces, and updated Georgian and Victorian jewelry; everywhere you turn, there is visual majesty.
de Vera finds interesting items, such as an old watch fob (above, left) he filled with pink sapphires and diamonds.
Dead center on the “T” at 27 Howard Street is Ted Muehling (212-431-3825,, an icon in jewelry and decorative objects. To me, Muehling and Elsa Peretti revolutionized contemporary jewelry design. They distanced it from any resemblance to craft jewelry and produced sleek, modern jewels that were as understandable and wearable as they were refined.

inside Ted Muehling's Howard Street shop.
Based on the organic forms of nature, Muehling has turned shells into bowls, a bird’s beak into hair clips, and grains of rice or Queen Anne’s lace into earrings, to name a few of his classics.  He uses gold and other metals, pearls, diamonds and other gemstones, ceramics, stone, plastic, and wood and filters them through his passion natural objects, then applies his training in industrial design to streamline the simplest rock, even as drop into a much sought after jewel or object.

Collectors have followed the soft-spoken artist from Bergdorf Goodman to his first shop on Greene Street to this practically unidentified shop in Chinatown to sweep up his pussy willow or pine cone earrings and other jewelry made right in the shop, bronze and silver candlesticks made in collaboration with Rhett Butler of E.R. Butler & Co., porcelain spoons, lanterns, and other objects produced with Porzellan-Manufactur Nymphenburg in Germany, and his crystal bamboo vases and wave bowls, produced in conjunction with Steuben Glass.
Clockwise from top left: A display inside Ted Muehling's shop; Tulip Votive, designed by Ted Muehling for Porzellan-Manufaktur Nymphenburg; Coral Lantern, designed by Ted Muehling for Porzellan-Manufaktur Nymphenburg; Tall Bamboo Vase, designed by Ted Muehling for Steuben Glass.
Bronze and Silver Candlesticks, Ted Muehling Collection; Moon Snail Bowl, designed by Ted Muehling for Porzellan-Manufaktur Nymphenburg.
Ted Muehling's modern jewels are as understandable and wearable as they are refined. Clockwise from top left: Pink Opal hand cut drop earrings; green pearl bug cluster earrings; Apatite Pussywillow earrings; Large grey Tahitian pearls with other stones; Mother of Pearl chip earrings.
And, one of the advantages to Muehling is that his stylish aesthetic never goes out of style. I have been carrying around a single long drop earring in my jewelry case for twenty years, as its twin fell out of my ear without my knowing it. Yep, he still makes them, and I not only got a new pair, they will refinish my lonely drop. Or is it time to give it a new mate and have a pair to spare?

Srolling down the ramp in front of Muehling’s hideaway, I decided to walk up the block to explore this shopping jewel a little more. Right next to De Vera is BBDW, Tyler Haye’s simple, sometimes whimsical yet contemporary handmade wood furniture.  Next: a gallery with large-scale photographs of wild horses on Sable Island on exhibit.  Mid-block, in true European style, is the Vespa dealer. Across the street is Lefroy Brooks, a British import that has everything you want in a bathroom, from tiles to taps. And just so you don’t forget you are in Chinatown, on the corner of Crosby and Grand is as fresh fruit and vegetable market.