An Accidental Jeweler

How did Terry Betteridge go from guiding hunters in the Canadian wilderness to heading up one of the most prominent jewelry stores around? One phone call from Dad



Photograph by William Taufic

I had the Hope Diamond dropped in my hand as a little child,” Terry Betteridge, owner of Betteridge Jewelers, says. “This was at Harry Winston. My father would leave me there while he ran errands, and I would pass the day at the jewelers’ bench, watching the world’s best setters and cutters work with the world’s most fabled stones.”

Terry seemed to be building toward some sort of climax. Had the Hope Diamond’s crazy power fixed his life-destiny at the tender age of four? “I had experience in the business that you can’t conceivably buy,” he goes on. “But no—I never expected to be a jeweler.”

Herein lies the twist. All known Betteridges are jewelers. It’s in their blood. Terry’s lineage shoots straight back to the silversmithing Betteridges of eighteenth century Birmingham, England, a city famous for its silver craft. Terry’s great-grandfather, Albert E. Betteridge, emigrated to Connecticut in the 1890s and worked as a shop foreman for International Silver in Meriden, a town then known as Silver City. And Terry’s grandfather, also Albert E., opened topflight jewelry stores in Manhattan and Coral Gables. (He had upwardly mobilized past silver. “Grandad wouldn’t eat on a silver plate,” Terry said. “He hated the stuff. Claimed it made food taste bad.”) Albert’s art deco pieces were especially prized, and they still turn up in fine collections. But the Great Depression nearly wiped out his once-flourishing business. After World War II, Terry’s father, Bert, reestablished Betteridge Jewelers out here in the provinces, in the clapboard townhouse at 117 Greenwich Avenue that had been home to Webb Jewelers since 1897.

 

Despite a youth spent among elite jewelers, Terry found a different calling. His passion was the great outdoors. “He was so curious and adventurous,” says Terry’s friend Dan Barrett, who taught him oceanography at Greenwich High School. “We’d go snorkeling in tidal ponds, or we’d go to the woods and turn over rocks, looking for salamanders—spotted salamanders. He was my naturalist and he still is.” (Last year the National Fish & Wildlife Foundation gave Terry its Chairman’s Award for his conservation work; previous awardees include Jimmy Carter, Ted Turner and Clint Eastwood.) At Connecticut College Terry studied botany—sort of like outdoor jewelry, if you think about it long enough—and then took a hiatus in British Columbia, guiding anglers and hunters into the Canadian wilderness. It was during this period, in 1975, that Bert suffered a heart attack. He phoned Terry from his hospital bed. “If you’ll spend three years with me,” he said, “then you can go off and do your own thing.” Bert never really went back to work despite a stupendous recovery; he died only a couple of years ago at the age of eighty-eight. As for Terry: “About fifteen years later I was married and had two kids, and I noticed that three years was up.”
“I’m not sure that he would have chosen this business, but I know that he loves it,” says Warren Lagerloef, a senior salesman who has worked at Betteridge for thirty-one years. “Even after all these years, he’ll still stop to show you something cool.”

The New Rockefellers

Albert E. “Terry” Betteridge III was born in Greenwich fifty-nine years ago. He is athletically lean with chestnut brown hair, and he dresses smartly, if a bit professorially, in patterned blazers, roundish frame glasses and bow ties. A snobby relative once sniffed at his bow tie and remarked, “How very Cincinnati.” It’s a measure of Terry’s hardheadedness that he vowed to wear them forever after. Within the jewelry business, Terry is known as an old Yankee, a raconteur, and a man who’s “as comfortable on a farm tractor as visiting royalty in Europe,” says Randy Lapointe, Betteridge’s longtime chief operating officer. Terry’s eloquence is tinged with a not always intended irreverence. “He’s just very honest, for good and bad,” Lagerloef says. “But his honesty makes him transparent. You see him for who he is and you trust him. To me, trust is the cornerstone of any business.”

On this day, though it was not yet noon, Terry had already shed the blazer and undone the gold bow tie, which dangled a touch rakishly about his neck. He was talking about Fairfield County as a happy hunting ground for any astute jeweler. “We’ve had little bits of Faberge show up out of nowhere,” he says. “There’d be jewelry and antiques and collectibles accumulated at the turn of the last century that were really some of the prizes of the world. We’ve had Morgans and Mellons and Rockefellers all living in this area, putting this stuff together before there were income taxes.”

Under Terry’s leadership Betteridge Jewelers has expanded to three stores—there’s one in Palm Beach and one in Vail—and its reputation has grown extravagantly. A couple of years ago, Vanity Fair identified Betteridge as “Wall Street’s jeweler.” “I’m a firm believer that any business is a shark,” Terry says. “And if you don’t keep swimming forward, you will die.” Greenwich remains the flagship store. It’s also a self-contained jewelry empire. Unknown to passersby on the street, a workshop full of master craftsmen trained in French technique buzzes away on the second floor, fashioning Betteridge’s proprietary jewelry from scratch as well as making the usual alterations and repairs. The third floor, called “the tower,” is the quietly hectic warren from which managers, buyers, catalogers, bookkeepers, webmasters and photographers keep the enterprise humming.

Old money New Yorkers with country homes were once Betteridge’s bread and butter, both to buy from and to sell to, but now they’re a dying breed. The new breed has a decidedly global flavor. “Our single best customers are outside the United States,” Terry says. He is naturally circumspect about naming them, though he did mention a “famously wealthy Mexican family” that shops at the Colorado store, calling to mind, rightly or wrongly, a certain telecom billionaire whose surname rhymes with “hymn.” Other customers include Greek and Norwegian shipping tycoons, Chinese industrialists and (closer to home) hedge- fund pioneers and investment banking all-stars.

Terry refrains from telling humorous stories of the nouveau riche, perhaps because the new money has been great for business. “My dad used to bemoan that we were kind of losing our Carnegies and Rockefellers. I said, ‘Dad, to some extent, good riddance.’ They’re lovely people, many of them, and it’s almost as if taste came with money in the old days. But your newer customer made his own money, and he’s a really interesting guy. I think it would be just like meeting John D. Rockefeller or Andrew Carnegie, guys who developed businesses where there were none before. Carnegie’s developing new smelting methods. Henry Ford’s developing a factory assembly line. It’s exciting as hell. That kind of genius is what a lot of these new guys have. The other thing is, they didn’t inherit everything. They need to buy it. And that’s glorious for a jeweler.”

The only inglorious patch was the economic implosion of 2008. “That was the first time I’ve seen my best customers suffer—and mightily,” Terry says. “For us it was devasating. We were expecting to do $20 million that December, but once Lehman Bros. fell, I think we did $7.8.” This was the first and only time that Terry feared for his business. He responded aggressively, liquidating heirlooms and oddities—including a rare elephant gun—in order to pay bills and buy top-notch pieces that are unaffordable in better times. Sure enough, things turned around: “Now we’re setting records again.”

Every Gem Has a Story

One of the shop’s specialties is estate jewelry—exceptional jewelry that used to be somebody else’s. At Betteridge one can buy the most extraordinary of such pieces available: a Harry Winston sapphire and diamond necklace “of royal provenance” ($450,000), for example, or a Van Cleef & Arpels bracelet whose diamonds, sapphires and emeralds form a glittering chain of dandelions ($155,000). Pieces like these appeal to the history buff in Terry: Their beauty withstands the vagaries of fashion and their provenance bespeaks a certain people, time and place. “Quite often the very best jewelry tells a story. It might have belonged to Marilyn Monroe, or a queen, or the Duchess of Windsor. Those things count.” Then again, in an age of degraded celebrity, questions of provenance have become tricky. “Suppose the provenance was that it was J. Lo’s. It’s got a lot of currency right now. But in twenty years?”

Finding and buying great pieces—the thrill of the hunt—remains one of the great pleasures of Terry’s job. Indeed, he and Simon Teakle, his director of estate jewelry and the former head of Christie’s jewelry department, always seem to have an inside track on the great jewels that come to market, whatever their country of origin. One cache they were called to bid on belonged to the notorious billionaire playboy Prince Jefri of Brunei. “I’d taken with a grain of salt what I was told to expect, because people blow these things up,” Terry remarks. “Well, this was literally the best of the best you can buy. Five engagement rings in it, each of them twenty to thirty carats, each of them D color and flawless. A Cartier necklace with a pair of 100-carat emeralds in it. A Van Cleef & Arpels emerald and diamond necklace that had five flawless pair-shaped emeralds in it. Emeralds are always imperfect, that’s the story—but these weren’t. Five of them together! The craziest thing you can imagine. We wind up buying many millions of dollars of this jewelry and transferring the money as they deliver it—and it’s delivered by old special ops agents. They have their own mercenaries who protect this stuff.”

Terry himself is most comfortable dealing in older and high-end jewelry and watches—brands like Cartier, Tiffany, Raymond C. Yard, Bulgari and Patek Philippe. Historically, Cartier is “flat-out” his favorite jewelry maker. “They still make the best jewelry on the planet, but from the turn of the century through the thirties, they were always the surfer with their toes over the edge of the board, doing daring, wild stuff. They were the extreme stunt driver of the jewelry business.” Lately, both Terry’s customers and his younger hires have nudged him toward so-called “fashion jewelry.” Not the cheaply made kind, which is most of it, but tasteful, moderately priced accent pieces designed for the season rather than for the ages. “A lot of my best customers have already bought the big diamond, the great necklace,” said Terry, “and then they want more or less disposable jewelry.” Terry sounds almost comically allergic to this trend. “If it’s out of fashion next year, that’s kind of a bad sentiment,” he said with a frown. “You know, ‘My dearest love gave me this, but eh, it sucks this year.’”

This goes to the core of Terry’s jewelry philosophy. “I don’t think jewelry should have an expiration date,” he says. “I like the stuff to have real lasting significance. These pieces have to have meaning. Even the big diamonds are just rocks out of the ground until someone fashions them and they acquire their stories.”

Terry possesses objects that are either too dear or too quirky for him to part with. “I’d be the world’s baddest pack rat if I didn’t have to sell things,” he admits. His varied collection includes pre-Colombian gold artifacts; a drawing by Georges Barbier, who designed for Cartier circa 1913 (“Doesn’t it look like Dr. Seuss, basically?”); a Victorian fur-lined dentist chair; his father’s stickpin collection; and his grandfather’s silver dinner pig. Well, the pig is gone. “You pressed his nose or his curly tail to call the help. As kids we played with it all the time. It was just fun. Twenty-five years ago, I had two of the most preeminent silver dealers in the world offer up to $10,000 for this silly little pig. I wouldn’t sell it for anything.” One good friend who coveted the pig was Norman Hascoe, the late semiconductor materials tycoon who lived in Field Point Park. For years Hascoe tried to buy it. Terry wouldn’t sell. But when Hascoe, who Betteridge calls “the coolest guy on the planet,” was found to be gravely ill with cancer, Terry simply gave him the pig—which then acquired a new story, and greater meaning.

Betteridge Jewelers is in the midst of an inevitable generational change. Terry’s son, Win, heads the website operation, and his daughter, Brooke, is a forward-thinking jewelry buyer. Terry’s stepdaughter Amanda Siebert, having received her graduate gemologist certificate, has joined his sales staff. (Terry has been married to Diana Siebert Betteridge for fifteen years; his other two stepdaughters are Veronica, an architect, and Coco, who’s at Yale.) This new generation will leave Terry free “to be a bigger bum than ever.” By this he means taking off on pursuits that lead some to judge him “quixotic”—the foot races that keep him uncommonly fit, the camping and bow-hunting out West, the fishing and birding at his farm in Litchfield County, the African safaris. “As a jewler,” Terry says with some understatement, “I’m probably not like other ones.”

Let’s remember that Cervantes’ old gentleman—one of Terry’s fictional heroes, as it happens—mourned the passage of courtliness, of social graces, of good old ways. By this definition, Terry is quixotic indeed. “I think there are battles that have to be fought and you’re not going to win them,” he says. “They become windmills. Trying to keep the town neat. Manners. I like those forms of respect, and a lot of them seem to be disappearing. So here I am, tilting still.”

 

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