Standing Room Only at Craig Drake’s Memorial Service

The legendary jeweler to Center City's rich and famous is one of the last of a dying breed.

drake-400x400“He’s a character out of a Tom Wolfe story.” That’s how a friend of mine describes Craig Drake, who died on March 15th at age 79. The metaphor is apparently apt: One of Drake’s oldest friends, speaking of him at a packed memorial service yesterday at The Church of the Holy Trinity on Rittenhouse Square, also compared Drake’s life to a novel, with one important caveat: “It would all be true.”

Indeed, he led a colorful life. The son of a Germantown watchmaker, Drake went to Penn Charter and then to University of Pennsylvania. His professional career started with a job selling soaps for Proctor & Gamble and progressed to his making and selling jewelry both for other retailers, like Tiffany’s, and for his own eponymous business on Walnut Street. He crafted custom designs for the wealthiest, most connected Philadelphia residents, who came to him to be dressed for major events, or have thematic jewelry made to match their interests. An appointment with Drake was highly coveted; one had to get a referral from an existing client just to meet with him. He thrived in the 1980s and ’90s, when Philly’s Old Money crowd — well known for its Quaker distaste of conspicuous consumption — made way for New Money exuberance. Jewels, gold — all that glittered was in high demand.

But he didn’t just cater to a rich clientele. He became one of them. He was famous for his lavish parties, whether at Le Bec Fin, his home away from home, or in far-flung playgrounds of the wealthy, like Basel, Switzerland. As Philadelphia magazine’s Michael Callahan wrote in 2010:

He smoked expensive cigars in expensive bars with his chum Julius Erving. He regaled Mick Jagger with jokes on the Concorde; he got invited to the birthday beach bash of the son of Libyan dictator Moammar Khadafy in St. Barts, where singer Enrique Iglesias admired Drake’s young, sexy wife. There were dinners at “21,” late nights at Studio 54, jaunts to Mykonos and Monte Carlo. Chicago socialite Candace Jordan, a former Playboy Playmate, encountered Drake while in St. Tropez with tennis ace Jimmy Connors and his wife. “The first time we met him, he had all of these fantastical stories about celebrities and all of these high-profile people. And my husband and I just looked at each other and raised an eyebrow,” she recalls. “And sure enough, the next time we were there, he’s with all of these people he’s just talked about.”

He met people easily because he was gregarious, generous and laughed easily. “He was easy to love,” says one person who remembers him from the headiest days of his success. But, she says, his desperation to be admired was obvious. “You saw the insecurity. And he worshipped every wrong god that there could ever be.”

Was it the pursuit of false idols that got Drake into so much trouble in later years? The recession did hit independent jewelers hard. Whatever the root cause, Drake’s business closed amid controversy in 2010, and later that year the property manager of his Center City penthouse — which had been included on the “Lifestyles of the Union League Rich and Famous” tour in 2008 — sued him for $15,000. There was a fall from from grace, as there so often is.

But at yesterday’s memorial service, no one talked about this history — at least, not directly. The Episcopal service, led by Rev. Mark Smith, included passages from both the Old and New testaments as well as a few hymns the large crowd sung together. Many people were graying or grayed; it was definitely an older crowd. There were plenty of fur coats in evidence but also a number of baseball caps and even a windbreaker with a firehouse name on it. Drake’s old classmates greeted each other with hearty handshakes.

Former chum Erving was the biggest name in attendance, but other boldface attendees included law-firm owners, entertainment managers and at least one federal judge. There were many women whose necks — pre- and post-plastic surgery — have showcased Drake’s baubles over the years. One of the speakers at the service said there was probably a good deal of Craig Drake jewelry on the crowd today, and from the way women looked each other up and down, I’d guess they were sussing that out.

In addition to Drake’s daughter, who tearfully read a poem, the speakers included two of Drake’s closest friends, both of whom talked about Drake’s bonhomie. “The ultimate salesman became the ultimate entertainer,” said the first. “No one loved hosting a party more than Craig. He was generous with all he met. Everything Craig did was always with enthusiasm. The glass was always half-full. He was consumed by anticipation of the next adventure.”

His other friend remembered the days when Drake would throw parties at Bar Lyonnaise downstairs from Le Bec Fin. “Le Bec Fin, that was his restaurant. Downstairs, that was fast food. That was his bar.” In the middle of the parties, his friend recalled, Craig would turn and say, “Hey, are we all lucky or what? Is this fun? Is this great?”

For most of his life, Drake was lucky. He was having fun. And what more can most of us ask, really? It was great.

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