So much of the conversation about holiday gifts has to do with novelty (What’s the toy of the year? What will sell out?), but one surefire way to give a successful gift is to simply give the same excellent gift year after year. To find out how to pull this off, we tracked down seven New Yorkers known for both their discerning taste and for giving the same gift (or some variation on it) for 10, 20, and even 40 years. Below are the comestibles, books, and caviar they keep going back to.
Deeda Blair gives a binder of recipes
Philanthropist; author of Food, Flowers & Fantasy (Rizzoli)
“For probably 40 years, I’ve made loose-leaf cookbooks for people. They’re usually for those who have come to me at some point and asked for recipes. Most years, I add a new recipe to the binders. And, since the binders with clip rings aren’t the most attractive things in the world, I also add Italian papers and things from natural-history books. This year, it’ll be the Bellini portrait of Leonardo Loredan, the former doge. In terms of this year’s recipe, I just discovered something called ‘cloud cake,’ so a few people are getting that. There are maybe two or three people I do this for annually. I find I have friends who are so definite in their taste. At least this gift is somewhat innocuous, and you can’t disturb someone by giving it to them. And, I mean, there’s nothing more boring than having to take presents back after Christmas, don’t you think?
“For plant people, I give a maidenhair fern. I adore flowers, and I frequently have three white roses on my table in the front hall. But I’ve always loved maidenhair. They last fairly well, though, of course, nothing ever lasts long enough. I live near a wonderful florist, Zeze Flowers, and they know a fern person who gets particularly beautiful ones. I like maidenhairs for their float — they sort of drift more than any other plant. And I dislike poinsettia, the Christmas flower. I’ve never been terribly engaged with the color red. It’s too loud.”
Deborah Willis gives books by Black photographers
Photographer, professor, and author
“In 1996, I was in California giving a talk on one of my books on Black photographers. I received a copy of Paula L. Woods’s book Merry Christmas, Baby. It’s a Christmas and Kwanzaa book by her and her husband, Felix H. Liddell. It includes paintings and some writings by Martin Luther King Jr. and W.E.B. Du Bois, and I got so excited about it I decided to buy the book and give copies away to friends and family. I went to a bookstore called Eso Won; it’s an old Black bookstore in Los Angeles that’s actually closing at the end of this year. I just thought, I want everyone to have a copy of this. After that, I decided to continue to give books every year — books about Black art, art history, and contemporary art. More specifically, I began to buy 20 copies of the same book. In 1999, I gave To Conserve a Legacy, by Richard Powell and Jock Reynolds; another year, Pamela Newkirk’s A Love No Less, a compilation of African American love letters. I’ve given Carrie Mae Weems’s Three Decades of Photography and Video. I’ve given Mickalene Thomas’s photography book, Muse.”
Martine Assouline gives silver seashells
Co-founder of Assouline
“Four years ago, Prosper, my husband, gave me the Elsa Peretti Heart Paperweight. I absolutely love the color and the form. To me, it’s more like a jewel that I can keep on my desk or on the table where I work. I’ll put it here and there, and it catches the light. I gave it to some friends in Peru: Ines, Rosario, Monica, and Yola. I decided this Christmas to buy several to give to each person around the table. There are going to be 16 of us in the south of France, in Nice. Everyone will get one. I love Buccellati jewels. Prosper took me to Mr. Buccellati’s shop when he wanted to offer me a ring for marriage. Everything from Buccellati is absolutely gorgeous, but if you want to get a gift from them that’s not $1 million, they carry these beautiful silver seashells. It’s an object of decoration. The first time I bought a shell was for a childhood friend, Barbara Bismarck. The second time, I bought one for a friend of my son, Alexandre, who was engaged. By the way, all my Buccellati jewels were stolen some years ago. I was just coming back from New York around September 11, and maybe my mind was elsewhere, because at the airport, my bag of Buccellati jewels disappeared in one second.”
Millard “Mickey” Drexler gives monogrammed scarves
CEO of Alex Mill
“It’s very hard to find a cashmere sock; there’s just not that many nowadays. Corgi used to make one, but they aren’t what they were — they’re not hand-done anymore. But Johnstons of Elgin are excellent. The quality is there, they stay on your feet, and they’re a good price. A made-in-Scotland cashmere sock for $95? I expected to pay at least $125. And people love that you can get them monogrammed. I sent these once to a good friend who collects beautiful things like cars; he’s a high-taste person. Nice guy. And I give them to my son and daughter.
“Ever since I found the socks, I’ve also been giving Johnstons of Elgin cashmere scarves. I do the same color for everyone every year, and this year, it’s the yellow tartan. I love the plaid; I love the fact that it’s happy and yellowish. Most tartan scarves are dark, so I love this. And a lot of scarves can’t be monogrammed, but these can, and I put people’s initials where most people wouldn’t: on one of the corners of the scarf.”
Louise Neri gives bundles of spices
Gagosian senior director
“Kalustyan’s is the greatest food emporium I’ve ever encountered, just in terms of its sheer diversity. It’s the most well-researched store. To think that you can buy a 20-pound sack of turmeric or a little packet. Maybe ten years ago, I started putting together boxes of comestibles from them to give as gifts. It’s always a different combination, because there’s just so much. For example, Kalustyan’s sells this smoked basmati rice. I’m of Indian origin, and cooking has always been important in our family’s house, but I had never come across smoked basmati rice before. I gave some to an Indian friend of mine, and he had never heard of it either. Sometimes I’ll put spices together according to color or in terms of what you would need to cook a particular dish. So maybe I’ll make a small bundle with powdered cardamom, cloves, fennel, turmeric, and a bulb of fresh ginger. Or if I don’t really know how someone cooks, there’s this macerated garlic and ginger sold as a combination. Anyone who cooks knows it’s a pain to peel ginger and chop it and pulverize it, but they have it ready-made; you can use a couple dollops, and it saves you 20 minutes. They also have these beautiful flower infusions, and you can match an infusion to a person. Someone I know loves peonies, and they sell peony-bud infusions. I’ve done some variation of this probably 100, maybe 150 times.”
Suzanne Demisch gives collectible silverwork
Co-founder, Demisch Danant gallery
“The artist Maria Pergay started her career by creating ornate metal pieces for window displays in Paris and, two years later, began experimenting with silver, producing items like Champagne buckets, letter openers shaped like belts, trays with silver tassels, and sleek cigarette cases. When I met Maria in 2004, she gave me one of her silver boxes, and I still have it. In 2006, after we presented an exhibition of new productions from Maria, I started to give the boxes as gifts. The first one I found was at a Paris flea market. I gifted it to a client. Since then, I’ve looked everywhere: auctions, flea markets, and dealers — mainly in France. It’s not something I can do every year, but I do it when I can.
“I started collecting Sheila Hicks’s exhibition catalogues, books, and postcards sometime around 2010. She has always been very prolific and often creates printed catalogues to document her exhibitions. Usually, I find these materials in bookshops or museum shops. I have a lot of this ephemera — duplicate copies and rare editions — so around ten years ago, I started giving some of it away as gifts. I’ve probably done this 25 times. In 2014, I ordered 40 copies of a Sunbrella pamphlet about Sheila’s works from the Whitney Biennial and gave a few of them away. Historical documents are interesting and unusual, and they are a delight to share.”
Harold Koda gives less expensive caviar
Former curator-in-charge of the Met’s Costume Institute
“So many people in New York have these hyperevolved aesthetics, so our first rule is that you don’t give anything that’s not perishable; it’s why we frequently give food. About ten years ago, our friend shared her caviar source by giving my partner a gift certificate to Kelley’s Katch Caviar in Tennessee, which sells farm-raised paddlefish caviar meant more for cooking. It has the same consistency and grain size as sturgeon caviar, and it’s delicious. So now we send it to people yearly. You give this to people you’re intimate enough with that you know their schedule, because Kelley’s delivers within a time frame in a refrigerated box. It’s never good to give less than five ounces, because then it’s nothing. The idea is, really, you get this luxurious thing, and you get to slather it on everything, and it’s delicious.
“For maybe 30 years, my partner and I have given each other pieces of late-18th- and early-19th-century china. There’s one design called “Lag and Leaf,” which Bill Blass had and I always admired. But our favorite are these plates that are red oxide and blue and white with Chinese mythological creatures. They’re beautiful.
“Once, at Bardith — a shop that used to be on Madison Avenue — we spotted a soup tureen and two sauce boats, which had that red-oxide color and similar motifs from a slightly earlier Regency era. I thought it would be great to have these, because you never want your set to match exactly. So I went back to Steve, the proprietor, and asked to buy them. He said they’d sold, and I said, ‘In just one day?’ On Christmas Day, I opened them. Alan had beat me to it.”
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