In These New Times

A new paradigm for a post-imperial world

Iceland’s Marie Antoinette

Posted by seumasach on February 2, 2009



Dorrit Moussaieff: How to revive Iceland

The first lady of Iceland, and jeweller to the super-rich, has a plan to revive her country – turning it into a cooler version of Dubai



1st February, 2009

In a week when Iceland plunged even further into the grip of political chaos, its currency was binned, everyone in government was sacked and a new prime minister, in the shape of the world’s first lesbian national leader, was hastily installed, one might imagine that the president’s wife would be sitting on a rock, wailing.

Not a bit of it. That is because the Icelandic first lady comes in the zippy form of Dorrit Moussaieff. She is sitting in the splendid drawing room of her Belgravia apartment, which is panelled with wood and decorated with porcelain and paintings by Toulouse-Lautrec and the preRaphaelites. At 59, dripping in jewels and with her nut-brown hair freshly blow-dried by Nicky Clarke himself, she looks closer to 35.

Her husband’s entire government may have just resigned but she seems unruffled by the political turmoil. “He is currently attending to an entirely new administration,” she acknowledges. So why did he not resign, then? “Nobody asked him to. More champagne?”

I accept a glass of bubbly, mixed with pomegranate juice. Five minutes later she is suggesting we go to an art opening at “Charlie Saatchi’s”, inviting me to dinner and urging me to bring my four children to Iceland in half-term. Although she doesn’t take a glass herself, she clearly cares not one jot that the comparisons to Marie Antoinette are starting to loom dangerously large.

She is wearing a selection of goodies that are almost as opulent as the room. Apart from the diamond cubes in her ears, one of her (three) diamond necklaces is set with a dark-green antique mogul emerald as big as a matchbox. Of the necklace itself, she is briskly dismissive. “The diamonds are insignificant,” she comments. “What’s significant is the emerald.”

A scion of the Israeli Moussaieff jewellery dynasty, born in Israel, she came to London at the age of 13 with her parents.

She followed her father into the family business and was, in her jewellery-selling heyday, rumoured to be earning a seven-figure salary. She had been a fixture on London’s party circuit for years before she met Iceland’s president, Olafur Ragnur Grimsson, in 1999 at a lunch party in South Kensington; four years later they were married. Moussaieff has now taken the Icelandic cause to her bosom, splitting her time between Reykjavik and the splendour of her London apartment. She’ll bang Iceland’s drum all right, but not in sackcloth and ashes.

“Because I have a business background and I’m not originally from Iceland, I can see things in an objective way,” she says in her clipped, hard-to-place accent. “And because I am financially independent I can do what I am doing for Iceland. My clients used to be my first priority. Now it’s Iceland.”

Well, in a country at the edge of the abyss, a brain for figures could come in useful. Moussaieff has certainly been successful as a businesswoman: the Moussaieff shop at the Park Lane Hilton is said to have the highest turnover per square foot of any retailer in Britain. She is a smart cookie who says she understands the difference between what is hers and what is not, always flying economy when she’s on company money and thinking nothing of travelling on the Tube. What, even in diamonds? “Why not? But I don’t always walk around in diamonds. I wear diamonds when it’s necessary to wear diamonds.” As if to make the point, the priceless gems around her neck are nestling amid the somewhat homely wool of a traditional Icelandic fisherman’s sweater. The combination is quite perfect.

She is equally level-headed about Iceland’s so-called economic miracle – based mainly on financial services – which fell apart almost overnight last year. “We had warnings about it for so long. What I always wanted was more transparency. There was no clear division about whose money it was, and no one said who was responsible.”

What really gets her goat is the way the world’s banks played with cash. “If you are dealing with other people’s money, you have to take better care of it than with your own. If it’s your own money, fine – go and put it on number 12 on a casino table. If it’s other people’s money, you owe them a duty of responsibility and you have to be accountable.”

She has her own plans for Iceland. Like her, they are somewhat quirky. “I want to develop seven, eight or 10 really top-quality services that Iceland can become known for.” Apart from tourism, her suggestions are eclectic, to say the least. “Omega3 oil pills. Genetic testing and LazyTown [the children’s television show]. And knee operations. Spas. Icelandic water and Icelandic lamb. We would like to make several different niches.”

Indeed, she’s hoping to turn the country into a sort of deluxe haven where cosseted clients from around the world can come and pick up treats: a chillier version of Dubai, with fish and geysers instead of sand. Moussaieff has stumbled upon a disused airbase in Iceland and hopes to transform it into a store for art collections that people will then be able to visit. She has teamed up with her great friend the art collector and heiress Francesca von Habsburg for the scheme.

“We are 4½ hours from America, 3½ hours from Europe and very close to Russia. People are paying astronomical fees to store their work in England or Switzerland. We’d offer storage at half these rates. People can come, look at the art, have massages, go to a spa and eat unbelievable food. I’d do the same for jewellery. People need to come and see it somewhere before buying it.”

According to Moussaieff, the recent collapse may have actually been rather handy for some sectors in Iceland, which in her words was “prohibitively expensive. Now it’s such good value, the country is teeming with tourists”. But aren’t all the shops boarded up? The citizens bankrupt? “No! Sales are on in the shops, but I believe only one shop has closed down.”

She veers between playing the devoted political spouse – who jumps on a plane to Davos to speak for her adopted country – and dismissing the political machine’s dull cogs. Indeed, it’s almost as if she would prefer her husband to go back to his previous career of university academic. “You could say I despise politicians,” she says lightly. “I despise people who have to continuously cater for what the public and the press say and think. Politicians who can make a real difference are so criticised.” Interestingly, she says she was forced into the role of first lady. “When my husband first asked me to marry him, I said, ‘Only when you get another job’.” A state visit to India helped her to make up her mind. “The Indian government was not receptive to ours not being a . . . regular situation,” she explains. “Neither was President Bush. Bill Clinton told my husband, ‘Come with four women, if you like’ – but not President Bush! But I do sometimes wake up at night thinking, could I not have fallen in love with someone . . . simpler?”

At this point the intercom buzzes. It’s a minion, delivering a box containing a ring set with a vivid pink 14-carat diamond, the size of a large pebble. “South African,” she says. “From a royal family. With such a simple platinum setting, it looks like nothing, which is so great.” Can I put it on, I ask. “Do, do.” It looks totally over the top on my finger, as Moussaieff acknowledges. “It almost looks like a piece of plastic!” Well, perhaps. Until you learn what she has just sold it for: $15m.

The credit crunch doesn’t seem to have dented her energy for dealing with the travails of either her adopted country or her wealthy clients. “Everything is affected. People have started asking if I have any bargains! But really fine things are seldom bargains. And they are seldom sold in a hurry. With the exception of the shah of Iran.”

She pauses, mulling over other despots who had gems to sell fast. “And Imelda Marcos. When one has to leave somewhere in a hurry, what do you take with you? Jewellery, of course. Have you ever tried to lift a bar of gold?”

One Response to “Iceland’s Marie Antoinette”

  1. […] square tell of a deep cultural, dare I say patriotic, element. They are not about to become a Dubai of the north and they will resist as they must resist tutelage to the IMF, to global finance. They will resist […]

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