One of the world's most famous jewelers, Madison Avenue mainstay Fred Leighton is now a consultant to his namesake company, which he sold in 2006.
Murray Mondschein was born to a cab driver in the Bronx and went straight into the Army after high school. When he returned to New York in 1959, he bought a Mexican artifacts store on Macdougal Street—which was named Fred Leighton after its late owner—and sold arts and crafts, Mexican dresses and silver jewelry. When a Victorian jewelry dealer gave him some items to sell, he realized that there was money to be made in antique baubles, even though they were unfashionable at the time; within months, Mondschein was traveling abroad and buying jewels that once belonged to European aristocrats. By 1974, he'd started calling himself Fred Leighton and later moved the store uptown, where it flourished selling vintage jewels to wealthy women. He sold his stake in the company in 2006 to Ralph Esmerian, a gem dealer who has worked with Leighton since the early days. (Esmerian has hired former Martha Stewart confidante Peter Bacanovic as the company's president.) Leighton stayed on as a consultant, and has since expanded his line of new jewelry and watches. All is not well at the company, however: In November '08 its major creditor Merrill Lynch filed a bankruptcy motion, saying that money could run out by the end of the year.
Leighton's jewels appear at nearly every red carpet event, thanks in large part to his generous celebrity lending policy. Sarah Jessica Parker, Nicole Kidman, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Dolly Parton, Laura Bush, Jennifer Hudson, and Jennifer Lopez have all borrowed his collectibles for important events. He was also responsible for loaning Judi Nathan the tiara she wore during her wedding to Rudy Giuliani and Melania Trump the diamonds she wore during her wedding to Donald Trump.
In 2005, Fred Leighton Ltd. was found guilty of tax fraud: Rather than charge customers sales tax, the store would make up false out-of-state shipping documents. The company was ordered to pay around $1 million in fines and back taxes.
Leighton—who wears only one piece of jewelry himself, a lapel pin in the shape of a jockey—is still legally named Murray Mondschein. He and his wife, Glorya, live on East 66th Street and have a daughter named Mara.