By Jennifer Heebner, Editor in Chief
Internationally respected jewelry designer Henry Paul Dunay, a pioneer in the U.S. designer jewelry market, died on Nov. 10, 2023, at the age of 88.
His wife, Frinette Dunay, shared news of his death on Facebook over the weekend. “It is with deep sadness that I announce the passing of my beloved husband … brilliant star, master jewelry designer,” she wrote. “He left us peacefully in his sleep surrounded by his wife and stepchildren.”
Dunay was born on May 1, 1935, in Jersey City, N.J., the second of three sons to Polish Americans Henry and Helen Loniewski. At 14, he started his apprenticeship in fine jewelry as an errand boy for New York City jeweler Rudolph Cacioli, quickly learning all aspects of manufacturing—from model making to gem setting. At 18, he changed his name to his mother’s maiden moniker for its brevity and memorability.
At age 21, he struck out on his own, taking on projects from high-end brands like Harry Winston until he established himself as one; after winning his first De Beers Diamond International Award in the late 1960s, his name gained recognition around the globe.
Dunay was a pioneer in the American jewelry design landscape, creating a recognizable signature style that would put his jewelry in myriad retailers’ cases worldwide. His Sabi finish, influenced by the Japanese wabi-sabi style of design, featured fine lines etched in matte-finished bold and sculptural gold silhouettes with graphic cuts of gemstones like cabochons of Coral and Diamond pavé. This dynamic and recognizable look made Dunay an important figure in the wholesale jewelry market given that it was unmistakably his.
He eventually amassed more than 50 jewelry design awards, including some AGTA Spectrum Awards, and attracted international collectors, including some in Japan. His pieces today can be found at auction houses and in some of America’s most prestigious museums. He designed for celebrities, including Elizabeth Taylor—for whom he made the “Lachrymosa Diamond Mask” for charity—as well as Hillary Clinton and others. His biography, Henry Dunay: A Precious Life, published in 2007, featured a foreword written by Marion Fasel and Penny Proddow. He had his own fragrance, not surprisingly named Sabi by Henry Dunay, and was a founding member of the American Jewelry Design Council (AJDC).
But for all his success, Dunay was not immune to economic woes of the Great Recession. He filed for Chapter 11 in 2009, ultimately shuttering his business. Because of limitations on use of his name in the legal proceedings—his intellectual property had been purchased—he debuted HDD., Inc., to keep designing. After this point, he largely worked on private commissions.
Upon learning the news of Dunay’s death, industry remembrances mushroomed on social media, and figures from his heyday spoke to AGTA about his impact in the industry.
Susan Helmich of the eponymous design firm joined the prestigious, invitation-only AJDC at Dunay’s behest. She knew of him from his two-story booth at Baselworld and was intimidated by his reputation as a master jeweler.
“I was a designer coming out of the lapidary business,” she recollects. “I just started creating my own jewelry and selling to stores. He took me under his wing and was a mentor. He gave me important advice like, ‘Don’t hang onto things that aren’t working—melt them.’ And, ‘Don’t mimic what others are doing, follow your own direction.’ He was a phenomenal hands-on designer and an inspiration to the designer movement in America. People recognized his work because it came from his mind and his heart.”
Fellow AJDC founding member Michael Good met him through their group and also knew of him from his exhibitions at Baselworld.
“He was incredibly encouraging, a risk taker, and an innovative designer within a fairly conservative industry,” he says. “Though he came from a traditional background, he went on his own with a strong design sense in the high jewelry world. He also had no secrets.”
Longtime retailer Scott Cusson, now retired, agrees, recalling Dunay’s openness and generosity at the beginning of his career.
“I met him at a trade show in New York City,” he says. “I was nobody, but he was nice to me, showed me around, showed me his work and explained how and why he did it. I barely knew an Emerald from a banana, but he gave me time! He taught me to appreciate and sell luxury items and was interested in leaving a legacy of his jewelry living on with future generations. While his jewelry remains, it’s hard to describe his personality, vision, and heart in print. The last time I saw him, though, was at a conference where he spoke. He got up to the podium and flashed an image of one of his major art pieces on the screen. People stood up and clapped—he didn’t even say a word. That was a great tribute.”
Dunay is survived by his wife; biological children Valerie Dunay Corvin and Paul Dunay; stepchildren Sharon Bella Simon, Frinette Susan Lupo, and Robert Valenzuela; myriad grandchildren, step-grandchildren, and great-grandchildren; and a brother.
Details on his funeral can be found here.
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