It was the Thirty Years War, a battle for jewelry window supremacy that raged on New York’s Fifth Avenue from 1967 to 1994. At 57th Street, Gene Moore was creating his jewel boxes for Tiffany’s. At 52nd Street, Raymond Mastrobuoni was creating art and whimsy for Cartier. Moore retired in 1994. This summer, Mastrobuoni also retired, at age 67.
For 40 years, Mastrobuoni installed five windows every two weeks and never once duplicated a concept. “Pique their interest, compel them to stop, look and think,” was his guiding principle. “Don’t present the obvious, encourage them to hunt and discover.”
His window themes were eclectic collections of the nuances and subtleties of our lives using an array of everyday props. (He once employed Cabbage Patch dolls, not an obvious association with Cartier jewelry.) His antennae were up 24/7, inspiration was everywhere and everything was a potential subject or medium. If he couldn’t find it, he would make it. He once dissected a kaleidoscope to replicate its magic in a window. An incredulous Moore once wondered how Mastrobuoni created an eerie fog in one of his windows. (Fifty pounds of dry ice and the watering of live plants under the window was the answer.) “Anything can be done,” he told VM+SD, “and you should have fun doing it.”
His career bridged the gap between “display” and “visual merchandising.” With a wide array of tools, ranging from hot glue guns to sophisticated computer applications, Mastrobuoni was part of a grand evolution that ushered the profession into the 21st Century.
Art was his driving influence. To portray a concept, object or thought in its simplest terms, he learned, is to move it into the realm of art. With a degree from The School of Visual Arts, Mastrobuoni often relied on his skills as a painter and sculptor, his love of hand-bent furniture and his knowledge of caning, weaving and macramé. Later, he studied brush painting at a Buddhist monastery in Japan, where his mentor told him to “draw with the least amount of strokes.” This approach became Mastrobuoni’s creative signature.
Another lesson from his art education was to be evocative. “If you are going to create a sculpture,” he says, “consider what you are going to do on one side, and when you think you know what you are going to do on the other, do the opposite. Don’t be obvious.”
His penchant for tinkering and invention was legendary. He was the first visual merchandiser to project a hologram – a hand holding some of Cartier’s finest offerings, hovering over Fifth Avenue. “You have to ask and you have to keep playing until you figure it out,” he says.
Of course, there was always humor and wit. One window showed the cross-section of a kitchen sink, revealing a diamond caught in the drainpipe. Another discovered an ingested ring seen through the eyes of a chest X-ray. He showcased the bullet-ridden car and red beret of Faye Dunaway’s Bonnie Parker character when “Bonnie and Clyde” was a movie of the moment. He nestled Cartier gems into the satin folds of George Balanchine’s ballet slipper.
Mastrobuoni’s brilliant career had him crossing paths with myriad celebrities. When he did a holiday display using carved carousel horses, John Wayne wanted to buy them for his ranch. (Ray said sure, but not until after Christmas.) Not all such encounters were so sanguine. A window in tribute to Salvador Dali’s famous bent-watches painting, “Persistence of Memory,” prompted a warning from Dali’s lawyer to remove the window immediately. Mastrobuoni had a full-scale model of the window produced and delivered to Dali’s suite. Dali called off his attorneys.
But Mastrobuoni did not take “his art” quite so seriously. “Ultimately, ” he says, “I was a salesman.” Although he never collected a sales commission, he knew his window creations enticed people into the store. They were the embodiment of the Cartier image and a three-dimensional representation of the brand.
Fifth Avenue, and this industry, are saying good-bye to an important creative sensibility. His overriding message of his remarkable 40-year journey is: “To impart mind to medium. Don’t be afraid. With a little creativity you can do anything.”
For more photos of Mastrobuoni’s displays over the years, click here.
Photography: Malan Studios, New York, and Courtesy of Cartier, New York