Diamonds (Fake Ones) Are This Girl's Best Friend—Just Call Her Madame Wellington
11/23/1981 at 01:00 AM EST
My customers love it when they are robbed," beams Helen Ver Standig, better known as master jewel counterfeiter Madame Wellington. "They can say, 'All the thieves got were the Wellingtons.' " Ver Standig, 61, has built a $10 million-a-year business on such happy duplicity, making imitation diamonds that look so real not even thieves can tell the difference. With diamonds selling for up to $50,000 a carat (Wellingtons are a mere $150 per), she has found a ready market for her fakes among the affluent who would like to look truly rich, the truly rich who duplicate their diamonds (putting the real ice in vaults), and just plain folks who can't afford the genuine article. "Everybody has a peacock syndrome," says Helen. "They want to look wealthy, but without the risk and the money. The only people who won't buy fakes are the hookers—they want the real thing."
Flashing fraudulent diamonds, set in real gold mountings and perhaps encircled by minor authentic gems, is more prevalent than one might think, Madame points out. She has simulated jewelry for the crowned heads of Europe as well as for TV and movie stars and social moths.
"My dear, you must understand," explains Helen evasively when pressed for the names of her clients. "When the Wellingtons leave my store, they become diamonds." Even so, actress-model Lois Chiles is sporting Wellington earrings on the newest TV spots for Revlon's Scoundrel perfume. Stylist Iris Bianchi decided to use Wellingtons in the commercial for artistic as well as practical reasons. "They look as beautiful as the real thing—sometimes more beautiful," says Bianchi. Off-camera, too, she says, "I think women who buy Wellingtons are very smart. I see lots of rich girls wearing them these days, and why not? They invest their money in something else and still look fantastic."
Making fabulous fakes has been Madame's specialty since 1966. Two years earlier she and her late husband had sold their ad agency in Washington, D.C. They wanted to invest those profits in a new venture with, as Helen puts it, "pizzazz." On a trip to Switzerland in 1961 she met a laser scientist who said he was trying to develop simulated diamonds with a chemical formula and needed $10,000 to continue his work. Helen gave him the money. "I never thought it would come to much," she admits. But one day she received a packet of cut "diamonds" in the mail—and she knew she was in business. (The diamond-faking technique remains a closely guarded secret.) After some preliminary research, she took a full-page ad in the Wall Street Journal offering 500 stones at $40 a carat. She got 20,000 replies and decided to pull out the stops.
She searched six weeks for jewelers who could replicate the settings of famed jewelers Harry Winston and Cartier, then test-marketed "classy" names, choosing Wellington over other candidates like Mona Lisa and Afrique. Helen became the symbol of the new company (Madame was her husband's nickname for her), and they commissioned New York Times artist Al Hirschfeld to draw her portrait for the firm's ad. Because of the caricature, which runs frequently in the Times and Parade, Helen is sometimes recognized by strangers. "People on airplanes ask me if those are real Wellingtons or real diamonds," she says. "I tell them if these rocks were real, I'd own my own plane."
Nevertheless, the Washington-born businesswoman has come a long way since selling classified advertising for the Scripps-Howard newspapers in 1936. Three years later her future husband, M. Belmont Ver Standig, spotted the similarity in their monikers (her maiden name was Von Stondig) while leafing through the D.C. phone book. He called her up, and she says they married four hours after they met, using a $15 pawnshop ring she still wears.
They operated a chain of weekly newspapers around the country before settling down in D.C. to their advertising agency in 1942. Now, nine years after her husband died of an aneurysm, Madame carries on their jewelry business, running the stores in Washington, Philadelphia, New York and Chicago and a thriving mail-order operation. She divides her time between a Cape Cod retreat and her white frame house in the Rock Creek Park section of Washington. "My three children were born here, and I buried my dead here—I'd never move," she vows.
Nor would she ever voluntarily retire. "These people who are going off to Florida are making a big mistake," says Madame. She occasionally lectures at the University of Pennsylvania's prestigious Wharton School and is determined to imbue the business students with her personal philosophy. "Recently," she says, "I saw Diane von Furstenberg on TV, lounging in her balloon pants, saying all these unreal things about her desperate drive to succeed. You don't need to live that way. You can accomplish everything you want and still have a complete life."
And what does she consider one of her notable achievements? Well, duplicity of another sort. Ver Standig explains that she often sells her jewels to men who, of course, give them to women claiming they are the real goods. Says Wellington with a wink, "I have sold more cheap weekends than any other Madame in town."