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Midas touches the mundane

Footballs, fish cans, mousetraps - in fact, most trappings of everyday life - turn golden in the hands of jeweler Sidney Mobell, as he gilds the ordinary.

By LENNIE BENNETT
Published May 30, 2006


The symbolic first pitch of a team's baseball season is a big deal for the celebrity standing on the mound.

It was a really big deal for Sidney Mobell, the honored first-pitch man who was poised in Candlestick Park for the Giants' opening game. In his hand was a gold-laminated, diamond-encrusted baseball the famous San Francisco jeweler had created for the occasion.

Did the ball make it across the plate?

"Not even close," Mobell says, 13 years later. "It landed halfway there, in the dirt."

But he still has that baseball, dusted off and glittering, one of three he made. He gave the others to the team's owner and the city's mayor.

It's one of hundreds of objects he designed during a 30-year reign from his store at the Fairmont Hotel as the go-to jeweler for rich people wanting something more than a run-of-the-mill tennis bracelet.

Mobell has sold those, of course, along with status watches and conventional rings, necklaces and brooches. But his claims to fame have been the quirky, glamorous interpretations of the everyday.

Retired now, Mobell, 80, donated 19 of his ordinary-turned-extraordinary objects, valued at $30-million, to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., two years ago. The Smithsonian has loaned many of them to the Florida International Museum, the collection's first tour.

Shimmering in glass cases is the unlikely stuff of high-end luxury: a sardine can, mobile phone, fishing reel, mailbox, garbage pail, mousetrap and pacifier. All are wrought in precious metals and set with gemstones. All but the sardines are fully functional.

Mobell, in St. Petersburg recently for the exhibition's opening, has a story for each one.

"I was in the supermarket one day with my wife, Ronni. I don't like sardines," he said, "but I picked up a can. I got home and opened it with that little key. The next day I took it in and gave it to my shop to make in 18k gold . . . My wife thought I was crazy."

Crazy like a fox.

Every year, Mobell introduced a new item, either one-of-a-kind or in very small editions, to create buzz for his store. Sometimes he sold them, often not. But that didn't matter. More and more clients commissioned special pieces, like the surgeon's wife who had Mobell monogram her husband's name in diamonds on a pair of surgical scissors. Or the woman who wanted her gallstones preserved in a pendant.

His profile rose when Herb Caen, the legendary columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, wrote about his creative designs, and the story was picked up by the national news media.

A charming raconteur, Mobell made annual appearances on Johnny Carson's Tonight show, bringing his expensive gadgets with him. He says that when he brought a $12,000 gold mousetrap with its diamond wedge of cheese, Carson held it up and quipped, "This would even catch Zsa Zsa Gabor."

He made five of those mousetraps and sold all but the one in this exhibition. Mobell says one was purchased by the late Joan Kroc, wife of McDonald's founder Ray Kroc, years ago. She requested the engraving: Happy Birthday, Ray. Thanks for catching me.

"My wife still thought I was crazy," Mobell says.

Probably Mobell's most famous creation is his Monopoly. He says it was his biggest challenge.

The world Monopoly tournament was scheduled to take place in London in 1986, so Mobell called Parker Brothers, its owner, and suggested he do one of his over-the-top versions of the game set for the event. The company agreed, probably, he says, because he didn't ask for financial participation, so he set to work creating a replica, Mobell style. When it was completed a year later, Mobell flew it to London (it had its own seat), where it was unveiled to great reviews. He doesn't even know how much he spent having it made by his craftsmen.

"Yes, my wife thought I was crazy," he says.

It's dazzling, with hundreds of rubies, diamonds and sapphires, the houses, game pieces and dice molded from solid gold, the play money made of metallic gold paper.

No one has ever played an actual game with it. But, he says, they could.

His battered tennis racquet, some strings broken, set with his name in diamonds, has seen a lot of play. And so have the hourglass cuff links, containing cut diamonds, not chips, that he frequently wears. Those, along with a woman's hourglass pendant, are being replicated in larger quantities for sale through the Smithsonian for several thousand dollars, all profits going to the museum.

Mobell, the classic American success story, wanted to give something back to America, he says.

He, a brother and sister grew up in Denver. Their father was a police officer with the national parks service, his mother was a seamstress. His mother became very ill and his parents couldn't care for them so, when he was 10, the children were sent to an orphanage where they lived for four years. He begged his mother to take them out of the place, and threatened to run away.

"She did," Mobell says. "Even though they really couldn't afford to take care of us. She got a friend's son to hire me to wash windows and clean the bathroom at his jewelry store. I was very inquisitive."

He joined the Navy at 18. He left after his two-year tour was up and went back to the jewelry store to earn money for night classes in design and drawing at the University of Denver.

Several years later, Mobell finagled a job as a traveling sales representative for a national jewelry company; he covered Iowa, Nebraska, South Dakota, Missouri and Illinois. He was promoted to the California territory, more lucrative and less far-flung. He met Ronni in a jewelry store, they fell in love and married. Their daughter, Marcie, who suffered from manic depression, died eight years ago. Their son Grant ("His middle name is Edward, Ronni's maiden name, because I couldn't resist his initials, G.E.M. Ha, ha," Mobell says) worked with him in the jewelry business but is now studying real estate. Mobell has three grandchildren.

Ronni died four years ago. The sardine can, which she eventually realized was not the product of a deranged mind, was donated to the Smithsonian in her memory.

Mobell takes the 6 a.m. train almost daily from his home in San Mateo to San Francisco, where he has an office in the Shreve Building, the company that bought him out.

Mobell loves cruises and recently returned from four months of sailing around the world. Being Sidney Mobell, he has lots of stories about the trip. His favorite is about the tour bus taking his group to the Taj Mahal in India. It collided with another bus, and he had a nasty facial gash from flying glass. A doctor suggested he go to the hospital for stitches. Instead, he toured the monument, holding a bloody compress to his cheek.

"Wasn't about to miss it," Mobell says. "It was just great."

His greatest pleasure is in squiring visitors around the precious mundanities now part of a world-famous museum collection.

"Why did these designs come to my head? Mobell asks. "Why would Andy Warhol make a painting of a tomato soup can?"

If you go: "Jeweled Objects of Desire" is at the Florida International Museum, 244 Second Ave. N, St. Petersburg, through Sept. 30.

It's part of a larger exhibition, "A Taste of the Smithsonian," which features more jewelry and decorative objects from the Smithsonian. They are arranged with gorgeous, uncut chunks of jades, amethyst and quartz to juxtapose the materials' natural state and man-made refinements. An example: a "corn cob" made of pearls, gold and silk is paired with an oyster shell in which a pearl has formed."From the Vaults of the Florida Smithsonian Affiliates" displays a variety of art and artifacts from museums that, like FIM, are affiliated with the Smithsonian. A nice collection of self-taught artists, including big names such as Thornton Dial Sr., comes from the Mary Brogan Museum of Art in Tallahassee; paintings, prints and decorative arts, mostly 19th century, from the Museum of Arts and Sciences in Daytona Beach; and historical objects, fossils and rare shells from the South Florida Museum in Bradenton.

Museum hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; noon to 5 p.m. Sunday.

Admission is $10 for adults, with discounts for others. 727 341-7900 or www.floridamuseum.org .

"Jeweled Objects of Desire" is at the Florida International Museum in St. Petersburg through Sept. 30.

Lennie Bennett can be reached at (727) 893-8293 or lennie@sptimes.com.