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Lunch at The Four Seasons with: Monica Rich Kosann

Published by The New York Sun on 2006-03-13

When Monica Rich Kosann takes family portraits, she not only thinks of how her black-and-white silver gelatin prints will look on her clients' walls but also in their lockets, powder compacts and, yes, cigarette cases.

Beyond the aesthetic arrangements, Ms. Kosann has little to do with how those walls, but her clients - blue-chip names like the Speyers and Tisches - appreciate her advice and her artistic sensibility. Her photographs grace homes of the rich and the famous all across America and in many other countries, and her assignment book is bulging.

The lockets, powder compacts and cigarette cases are another proposition entirely. The Connecticut-based portraitist and entrepreneur produces exquisitely designed image cases for small prints of her fine-art photography. She recently launched a jewelry line of antique pendants and brooches that also have compartments for photographs.

"My photographs are intended to be heirlooms," Ms. Kosann said yesterday. "And my cases and jewelry collection are also intended to be perceived as heirlooms."

The idea of creating that collection grew out of her photography career. The Manhattan-born Ms. Kosann was given a German-made Rollei camera by her father when she was 16 and became addicted to taking pictures. She studied photography in Europe, and also took pictures while attending Clark University in Massachusetts.

"I was very influenced by the pictorialist period of the early 1900's," Ms. Kosann said. "Those photographs were taken not for journalistic or documentary purposes but as art for art's sake."

Among the photographers whose work she studied were Edward Steichen
Alfred Stieglitz, and Gertrude Kasebier. She was particularly fascinated by their portraits, all of which were taken in black and white.

Ms. Kosann also started collecting silver cigarette cases - not because she was a smoker, which she wasn't, but out of a love of period pieces.

"If you look at the cases that were produced in the early 20th century, you will see that they were really created to be heirlooms," Ms. Kosann said. "All those accessories were pieces of art."

But while her collection grew, it would be a while before she was able to convert it into commercial use.

Focusing on her photography was a priority. Her business flourished, not the least because her celebrity clients kept referring her to their friends.

One of those she photographed was Maria Bartiromo, the CNBC anchor.

"Monica is a wonderful photographer - her shots are always interesting looking with great angles and depth," Ms. Bartiromo said last evening. "She has a vision before taking the picture, and then creates a rich and good looking shot. I love her black and whites."

Ms. Kosann said that she always felt that she had a keen eye for details and for capturing people's moods.

"I am very sensitive to how people are feeling," she said. "When I photograph them, I am able to bring out what is able to bring out special feelings. I have had an eye since I was a kid. You can use all the technology in the world. But developing your eye is the most important thing."

It was eye for details that led to her second, parallel, career as an entrepreneur. While she and her husband, Rod Kosann, were on a visit to Italy, she espied sterling silver cigarette cases and compacts that had vintage engravings.

She not only restored those fine pieces, but turned them into image cases.

The demand for those items - from stars such as Catherine Zeta-Jones, Michael Douglas, Geena Davis and Madonna, among others - was such that Ms. Kosann developed her own line of sterling silver image cases. They are offered at more than 80 high-end stores around America, including Bergdorf Goodman and Neiman Marcus, as well as couture jewelry retailers. Next month, she will launch a new line at Barneys in New York.

"I'm creating new heirlooms for today's generation," Ms. Kosann said.

Those putative heirlooms are made out of molds created in Italy, much in the manner of the originals some 70 years ago. Ms. Kosann and her husband invented a hinge so that the cases could open to reveal pictures inside.

"I remember that when I first bought the vintage cigarette cases in Italy, one of the sellers said, 'Why are you buying these things? No one smokes in America any more.' I had difficulty in explaining that the cigarette cases were meant not for cigarettes but photographs."

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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