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One to Watch

His empire may be based on extraordinary diamonds and timepieces but what makes Roberto Chiappelloni tick isn’t displayed in a glass cabinet

William Taufic

Roberto Chiappelloni is a man of contrasts. On the one hand, the Greenwich resident and owner of Manfredi Jewels is a self-made success who breaks bread with some of the biggest names in the jewelry industry in the United States and abroad. On the other, he is a devoted husband and father who loves nothing more than riding bikes with twelve-year-old daughter Bianca, a student at the Convent of the Sacred Heart; whipping up a fresh tomato sauce with wife Roberta, who selects fine jewelry for the store; or tossing a tennis ball to his black Labs Sundance and Breeze. Behind the crisp monogrammed custom shirt resides an understated family man, a well-educated Italian immigrant who, as he explains, rose to the top of the luxury jewelry and watch trade through a combination of hard work and luck.

 Though Roberto has built an admirable career over the past thirty years, his proudest achievement is his family, which also includes Roberta’s two grown daughters, Jennifer, twenty-eight, and Candace, twenty-four, as well as Roberto’s son, Gregory, twenty-nine, and two infant granddaughters who arrived this past summer.

On an early summer night, the Chiappellonis were preparing risotto with fresh porcini mushrooms in their spacious gourmet kitchen, surrounded by framed family pictures and mementos from their travels. Roberta is at the granite counter, sautéing onions in a large pan while Roberto uncorks a bottle of Sassoalloro, a smooth Tuscan red. In the background, Italian folk music wafts through the invisible speakers.

“This is the music that we listen to every year when we visit Italy,” Roberta says. “We stay in a little cottage with the family, and we visit uncles, cousins, aunts and eat, drink and dance. We like to listen to this music here because it takes us back.”

As Roberto grates Parmesan, daughter Bianca comes in from the pool and circles her dad’s waist with a bear hug. The corners of his eyes literally crinkle with pleasure. It’s clear that Bianca, a sun-streaked blonde with a wide smile and rosy cheeks, brings a great deal of joy to her parents. “You got a lot of sun on your face,” Roberto admonishes with fatherly concern. “You need to use more sunscreen.” His gray mustache lifts with a grin, and he says, “She’s such a good girl. She still loves being with her parents, and we cherish every minute that we spend together.”

Mom and Dad are both proud of the fact that they’ve been able to bring Bianca on their annual buying trips to Europe for the past eleven years. “She has her own security pass to get into the shows,” Roberta notes. “People have witnessed her sitting quietly, drawing her own watch designs; she’s been told by two company presidents that there’s an apprenticeship waiting for her when she’s old enough if she’s interested.”

As the risotto simmers, Roberto and Roberta banter back and forth about last night’s U.S. Open match (“Wasn’t Federer amazing?”), the Democratic National Convention (“We’re Republicans and proud of it, but we watch for the entertainment value”) and the family entourage, including Roberta’s eighty-eight-year-old uncle, her two grown daughters and their newborn babies, who recently shuffled home after a day spent visiting poolside (“You should have seen how cute the babies were together!”).

Finally, the risotto is ready. “Okay, Roberto, taste this,” says Roberta, proffering a spoonful. “Let’s see what you think.” He takes a bite. “A little salty, but good,” he confers. “Let’s eat.” Bianca says grace, and everyone digs in.

The Early Years

Roberto, a child of humble beginnings, grew up outside Piacenza, a small town south of Milan, where he worked on the same farm that has been in his family for five-hundred years, gathering eggs, picking fruit, sending cows to pasture. “My whole world revolved around ten miles,” says Roberto of his childhood. “We were a very close family, and we are still to this day.” When it was time for high school, he set out to study languages, a pursuit that took him to England, France, Switzerland and the U.S., foreshadowing a lifelong love of travel.

Though he thought he would go into the tourism industry and spent some time working in hotels and aboard a cruise ship, it was a chance encounter that led to his first career as a restaurateur.

“I came to the United States thinking I would spend six months at New York University and then go back to Europe,” he says. That never came to pass. Instead, at twenty-four, Chiappelloni wound up the proud owner of a restaurant in Queens, New York.

How did it happen? One day, after playing tennis in Forest Hills, he was dining in a local restaurant with a friend when he overheard the owner talking to his accountant on the phone about needing to get out of the business. He says, “I don’t know what got into me, but I asked, ‘How much money do you need to get out?’ When he told me the price — thirteen thousand to buy, seven thousand down — I made the deal. It was too cheap to pass up.”

Though he had some ideas about how to cook and present a meal from his days as a waiter and wine steward, he admits he didn’t know the business side at all. He says, “By luck, I had a good attorney who looked after me and made sure I didn’t make too many mistakes. I couldn’t afford to employ an accountant, and we had to manually input all our credit card charges and wait an excruciatingly long week to get paid.”

Despite a good adviser, he did make his share of blunders. “At first, I priced everything wrong. I had a full restaurant, but I was going bankrupt. A friend told me, ‘You have to meet expenses first,’ so I raised prices and lost about seventy percent of my clients. In a stroke of luck, the New York Times ran a national piece about the restaurant during the U.S. Open, calling it ‘A tiny gem in Forest Hills.’ Soon, Roberto says, “We were getting reservations from California and Texas, and we had a line around the block.”

For the next twenty years, Roberto threw himself into the enterprise, learning the ropes as he went. Alberto Restaurant grew beyond all his expectations, garnering a loyal following and amassing a notable wine list celebrated by the Wine Spectator Award. “There were times when I worked twenty-four hours a day and there were lines out the door,” he recounts. “I used to say it would be a miracle if I could make it for five years.” Some thirty-four years later, the warm and welcoming Italian restaurant, serving home-cooked dishes from the Emilio-Romagna, Lombardy and Ligurian provinces, continues to thrive under the stewardship of sister Silvana. But being a restaurateur was only Act One in Chiappelloni’s story.

Opportunity Knocks

A longtime collector of vintage watches from old jewelry stores, Roberto stumbled on the next phase of his career as owner of Manfredi Jewels. While living in Greenwich in the 1980s, Roberto noticed that the Avenue could use another fine jewelry and watch store selling the big-name watches that were his
passion. “I saw an opportunity, and I set the wheels in motion,” he recalls.

But before Roberto could realize his dream of bringing the world’s finest timepieces to an upscale audience that he knew would appreciate them, he had to bide his time, first opening a jewelry store and establishing himself in the industry. To make it happen, he contacted Giulio Manfredi, a renowned jewelry designer with stores around the world and a lifelong family friend. Ironically, it was Roberto who had helped Giulio to lease and build his first Manfredi store on Madison Avenue.  In a turn of events, it was now Giulio who lent his name and expertise to help Roberto get his store off the ground. Before long, Manfredi Jewels Greenwich became the go-to destination for exclusive, hard-to-find, high-end Swiss watches and sophisticated jewelry.

Greenwich was surprisingly receptive to the new venture. “I’ve never worked in a town that’s more professional and ready to take care of business,” Roberto muses. “They’re there when you need them and don’t make you wait for inspections; whereas, in New York, it’s like asking for charity trying to get someone to come out.”

Though he was new to the jewelry business, he recalls that opening Manfredi was actually fairly simple at the outset. “Initially, I started it for fun, as a collector. It got more difficult when we started carrying all these brands; then it became a whole different ballgame.”

Manfredi Jewels now has more ultra-exclusive watch names — thirty-one at last count — under one roof than almost any single store in the country. “We’re proud that every brand we have is unique to the town, with the exception of Hermès,” says Roberto. What is more, Manfredi is a pioneer, introducing new talent, such as Parmigiani, Franck Muller and Greubel Forsey to its clients. “When someone is looking for a rare or special watch, we get the call,” he adds. Heavy-hitters also entrust their extraordinary and expensive watches — up to $500,000 — to the resident watch-repair experts and jewelers who work on pieces in full view of customers.

For the past fifteen years, Roberto and Roberta have traveled to Switzerland for BaselWorld, in Basel, and SIHH, in Geneva, two of the most prestigious trade events for their industry.  Says Roberta, “It is a fabulous experience, as we are exposed to the latest absolutely beautiful jewelry and watches. Our days there are packed with appointments, and the excitement is just amazing. We not only meet with current brands to place orders, but with the many brands that would like us to consider them.”

Part of the store’s mystique is that it has forged long-term relationships with its customers rather than go for the quick sale. Gary Cohen, a Manfredi customer of ten years, who lives and practices law in Greenwich, recalls his first purchase, a Franck Muller watch. He says, “My most memorable purchase, however, was one that I did not make. I was looking at a watch that I thought I might like, and Roberto told me that it was not a good value because it would not keep its value or appreciate over time, as many of his other watches were likely to do. So, on his advice, I didn’t buy the watch, but, a few weeks later, I bought one that did get his stamp of approval.”

Cohen says, “What’s special about Manfredi is what keeps me coming back: uncompromising integrity, broad knowledge of their inventory and a palpable desire to provide service that will stand the test of time and not just sell something for the moment.”

A New Chapter

On June 11, three hundred guests sipped Veuve Clicquot and ogled the gleaming glass and rosewood cases stocked with the world’s finest watches in Manfredi’s new 3,300-square-foot showroom on Greenwich Avenue. The occasion? The kickoff party for the new space, a sleek European-style salon, with an elliptical layout showcasing walls of watches and an island of sparkling gems, designed by Ron Gushue of ERG Architect in Greenwich. It was a proud moment for Roberto Chiappelloni, a red-carpet event that underscored twenty years in Greenwich and a commitment to take the business to new heights.

Though the store’s glossy ambience does not necessarily reflect the man at the helm, it inspires him. Surveying the spacious salon, complete with an espresso bar, leather sofas, a flat-screen TV and modern grand-father clocks, Roberto says, “I absolutely love coming to work and being surrounded by beautiful things and amazing clients. We sell treats here, pieces of art. Some can take two to three years to make. The passion and appreciation for these pieces cross many boundaries — from the gentleman who’s been here twenty times until he makes a purchase to the actress who comes in two days before Christmas and buys five watches. That’s what keeps it interesting.”

On the Avenue, Manfredi finds itself in good company. The jewelry departments at Saks and Richards are just a short walk away, and first-rate independent jewelry shops line the street. Just next door, neighbor Betteridge Jewelers has drawn an old-moneyed clientele since 1897 for its serious estate jewelry, fine watches and high-end jewelry collections. Roberto says the proximity to world-class purveyors of fine jewelry and timepieces is beneficial to all. “We’ve had a great relationship with Betteridge over the years. We’ve never gone after brands that they have, and we complement one another.”

Manfredi Jewels is proud of its ties to the community and receives a minimum of three to five donation solicitations per week. Though the store cannot possibly satisfy all of the requests, Manfredi’s policy is to donate items to fundraisers of organizations that are affiliated with their children’s past and present schools, as well as Greenwich Hospital and other local organizations.

Life at Home

A few years ago, Roberto realized another goal: building his dream house in Greenwich. “I lived in the same residence for many years before finally getting the courage to build a new home to my specifications.” So he called in a few building industry friends and, together, they created a casual, Mediterranean-style home, complete with red-tiled roof, stucco detailing and staggered peaks.

Instead of going for a monster manse, Roberto focused on creating “a comfortable family home with a great big kitchen that spills into the family room.” Here, he cooks homey Italian favorites, like roast lamb and pasta, three to four nights a week.

Most of all, he says, “We didn’t want a grandiose house. What we created is very livable. We knocked down a house that was over 7,000 square feet and built something around 5,000 square feet, which is still too big! You end up living in three rooms, bedroom, family room and kitchen.”

In his buying trips abroad, Roberto brought home ideas for the house and books for his “cozy and comfortable” library where he and Bianca, an avid reader, can kick back and relax with a gripping tale.

“To be honest,” Roberta says, “our favorite place in Greenwich is our home.  We love the peace and quiet it offers us and we value our time together. Roberto is
a fabulous chef. Having friends over, playing horseshoes, badminton or going for a dip in the pool — these are the simple pleasures we most prefer.”

While the Chiappellonis live what some would consider a charmed life, they have instilled in their children a solid work ethic and a sense of appreciation. “When I took the girls to the circus, the circus was the special event; the junk outside the venue was commercialism, and we just never gave in to that,” says Roberta. “It wasn’t that we couldn’t afford it. The message was to appreciate that they were at the circus and not pine for more.” She also takes down hems, believes in hand-me-downs and prides herself on taking care of the things that are meaningful to her.

“Bianca was amazed when she recently saw the beautiful baby carriage I had in storage,” she says. “It was clean and shiny, in perfect condition, despite it being thirty years old and used for three children. There is an important lesson there. Just because we can afford to replace the old with the new, sentimental treasures kept in good condition, to be used and reused, bring such joy to one’s heart.”

Clearly, the Chiappellonis have their feet planted firmly on the ground. Roberta sums it up, “We basically live a life centered on loving each other, being with each other and giving great respect and value to how hard Roberto works so that we can live the nice life we have. Every day, we pray and give thanks ... mostly for a life where we have been given an opportunity to work hard, give our best and be good and kind while doing so.”