So what do you get the New Yorker who already has everything? According to Christopher Gow and Jamie Creel, something from their store.
Creel and Gow, which specializes in objects that come from—or are inspired by—Mother Nature, offers a contemporary twist on the Renaissance idea of a Cabinet of Curiosities or Wunderkammer (literally, “chamber of wonders”).
Originating in Europe in the 16th century, these eclectic collections of artifacts and natural objects were a way for wealthy collectors to catalog and explore the world. They also served as status symbols to show off their owner’s erudition, worldliness and social standing. “The equivalent now is having a fancy car or a beach house or ski house, showing off a little bit,” suggests Mr. Gow.
For Creel and Gow’s well-heeled clientele, who already have fancy cars and beach houses to spare, the store’s whimsical, one-of-a-kind wares can set them apart from their Park Avenue neighbors. “It’s supply and demand,” explains Mr. Gow. “And the demand in New York City is huge for the new, for the latest thing that no one else has.”
Tucked away on a quiet, leafy street at East 70th and Lexington, in the former stables of architect Grosvenor Atterbury’s townhouse, Creel and Gow feels more like the private library of an Old World king or emperor than your average retail destination. The intimate space abounds with exotic visual stimuli: majestic stuffed birds fanning their plumage inside glass vitrines, rows of shelves glinting with silver-coated seashells and deconstructed crustaceans encased in bell jars. Multicolored woven tapestries and rich green malachite carvings seem practically to spill off the shelves.
Creel and Gow opened its doors in 2012 as a reinvention of Mr. Gow’s previous business, Ruzzetti and Gow. A British expat who honed his aesthetic sensibilities as an expert in 19th-century sculpture at Sotheby’s, Mr. Gow first entered the natural-wonders market when he began to import silver-coated seashells from Italy in the mid-’90s. “People have such complicated, convoluted lives that something that’s so simple, so pure, so natural and so beautiful—wow—it just evokes that serenity and everyone marvels at it,” says Mr. Gow of the seashells that would become Ruzzetti and Gow’s star attraction when the store opened for business in 1997.
In 2010, Jamie Creel approached Mr. Gow through a mutual friend and suggested that they go in to business together. A high-society fixture related to the Gardiners of Gardiners Island and the Colgates of Colgate-Palmolive—and the brother of Larry Creel, who became Page Six fodder after an affair with designer Tory Burch—Mr. Creel flew the insular Manhattan coop 16 years ago and moved to Paris, where he opened a soap and candle store. An avid collector and traveler, Mr. Creel came up with the idea while on a trip to the Galapagos for a store where everything was from or inspired by nature—as it happens, a store quite similar to the one Mr. Gow was already running on the Upper East Side.
While it took some coaxing to get Mr. Gow to take on a partner, Mr. Creel was ruthlessly persistent. “It works very, very well, because our strengths are completely in different places,” Mr. Creel says with a laugh. “Christopher is very detail-oriented and he has a business background, and I’m much more of an adventurer.”
Although the store’s contents can feel a bit like an eclectic grab bag, there is rhyme and reason to its inventory. Messrs. Creel and Gow focus mainly on things that can be given as gifts, as well as home decor accessories. A large proportion of their clients are decorators who come in seeking that special something. “The common elements are color, texture, form and shape, something almost photogenic,” Mr. Gow explains.
“If I’ve seen it before, I’m not going to be interested in it,” Mr. Creel adds. “It has to be really special and unique.”
Most of the items within the store have been plucked directly from nature, including pieces of coral, minerals, fossils and taxidermy. While some more squeamish animal lovers have been known to object to its menagerie of stuffed creatures, Creel and Gow’s ethos is sustainable and cruelty-free, and the store only sells animals and corals that have died naturally.
Along with beautiful things from nature, the store showcases items sourced from around the globe, evoking a globe-trotting sensibility. “If you don’t have the luxury of time to run around the world and find wonderful things when you travel, we’ll do that for you,” says Mr. Gow.
Mr. Creel does much of his treasure-hunting at home in France, where antique stores and auction houses are a veritable boon for collectors. He frequents Parisian auction house Drouot (“It’s like France’s attic,” he says) on a daily basis, and makes regular trips to places like Morocco to South Africa. “For me it’s fun, because I’d be doing it anyway for myself,” he says. “Now I’m doing it for the store.”
Mr. Gow, who speaks French and Spanish and is in the process of learning Arabic, relishes traveling to off-the-beaten track destinations like Yemen and Uzbekistan. Most recently he was traveling around East Africa looking for blue Celestine stones in Madagascar, textiles in Mauritius and architectural fixtures in Zanzibar. “The way I do it is, I pick a far-flung country that no one else would want to go to, and I pick a remote place where I have an idea that there may be something,” he says. “But not something I’ve found on the Internet that would be easily accessible.”
In Mr. Gow’s view, objects are most desirable when they are not only beautiful and sourced from an exotic locale, but when their sale can help the indigenous population that produces them. And above all, he says, he chooses items that are “not just a pretty thing, but also a great story. We think we’re not just a purveyor of beautiful objects—it’s like we’re bringing the world to our clients.”
Something for Everyone
Christopher Gow leads us on a whirlwind tour of Creel and Gow’s offerings. Prices range from as little as $20 to as much as $30,000.
On the high end of the spectrum, collectors can get their hands on the ultimate conversation piece. “Every curiosity cabinet needs a narwhal tusk,” explains Mr. Gow of the seven-foot white spiraled tusk mounted at the back-left corner of the store. Such a tusk, which is actually the elongated upper-left tooth of the midsize arctic whale, was once presented to Queen Elizabeth I as proof of the existence of unicorns. While the case of mistaken identity was eventually cleared up, narwhal tusks would grow to be a fixture in curiosity cabinets across Europe throughout the 16th century. Nowadays they are extremely rare—this is the last of eight that Mr. Gow bought from a collector in Nashville, and it retails for an impressive $30,000.
The other item hitting the $30,000 mark is not so much a wonder of nature as an impeccable display of human artistry: a detailed replica of the Royal Brighton Pavilion made from 40,000 matchsticks, which Mr. Creel acquired at an auction in France and kept in his private collection of architectural models for a time.
On the other end of the price scale are the dainty pewter wishbones, which retail for just $20 apiece. Mr. Gow recalls that during the 2008 election, as the buzzwords of hope and change were flying around and the recession had put a dent in people’s wallets, many people opted to give these lucky tokens in lieu of regular gifts. In the box, Mr. Gow used to include a note invoking President Herbert Hoover’s promise of “a chicken in every pot.” “It said: ‘this is what is left of the chicken in every pot,’” explains Mr. Gow with a chuckle.
Shoppers whose decorating sensibilities are more National Geographic than Neiman Marcus might be more interested in one of the many wild creatures perched throughout the store. A fez-wearing stuffed lion that was deaccessioned from a museum in Montana was recently sold for $15,000, but you can still get your hands on a majestic white female peacock, which retails for a friendlier $3,800. But shopping for unfamiliar fauna can prompt some unusual urban decorating questions.
“It’s funny, because if it was any other head, it would be a country thing,” suggests Mr. Gow of a $5,000 Zambian zebra head mounted on the back wall. “But the zebra head, because of the black and white, it’s so New York,” he says. “It’s sophisticated enough to be in a New York apartment and adds a little twist to the apartment, but the chicness of the black and white goes with most decors.”
Those looking for something more at home in their beach house can turn to one of the many deconstructed lobsters displayed in glass cases throughout the store. Made by an artist whom Mr. Creel discovered in the South of France, these sculptures utilize a 19th-century technique that was often used in museum displays, in which items such as skulls were deconstructed and held apart with copper wire in order to showcase each individual component. These anatomized crustaceans range from $2,800 to $12,000—the priciest shellfish this side of Le Bernardin.
For those who prefer their dead creatures to be of an older vintage, Mr. Gow points out a 38-by-31-inch 20-million-year-old fossil from the Miocene period, a rare piece in which a whole cluster of sea urchins have been fossilized in one plane. “The thing that’s most fascinating to me is how little it has evolved,” says Mr. Gow, gesturing toward a much more recent incarnation of a sea urchin, coated in silver, in a glass display case. “Twenty million years later, it’s exactly the same,” he says. These more modern urchin descendants, as well as the silver-coated seashells, are designed in a workshop in Rome and range in price from $40 to $1,500.
The seashells, like many of the items in the store, offer a unique decorative twist on a natural object. “With Mother Nature, you can’t order something new from her, and the world has become so small that to find something new that’s acceptable and palatable and presentable is a challenge,” Mr. Gow says, “so we mount it, we embellish it, we modify it in a little way to present it in a different light.”
An item emblematic of the sort of unusual twist that Creel and Gow specializes in is a two-inch skull carved out of a billiard ball, retailing for $280. The Balinese artist who designed the skull usually does his carvings out of North American moose antler, which resembles ivory, but he decided to get creative for this particular piece. “A billiard ball is just such a normal, mundane thing, but to carve a beautiful skull out of it, it’s a little twist and its anecdotal,” Mr. Gow says.
As with most of the objects in the store, the skull has a story behind it. Skulls have long been a fixture of traditional Cabinets of Curiosities, serving as memento mori, symbolic reminders of mortality and the certainty of death. And like any true Cabinet of Curiosities, Creel and Gow has its share of skulls: carved from jet, moose antler and crystal.
Amidst the ceaseless consumerism of contemporary life, in which cars and clothes and technology come in and out of vogue with the seasons, these sorts of memento mori—simple, beautiful objects from the past, from nature, or from a faraway land—can serve as a reminder of the fleeting contingency of our own moment of existence.
“People who buy these objects are showing that they recognize ashes to ashes, dust to dust—we’re just here temporarily,” Mr. Gow says, gently fingering the skull’s smooth top. “And a reminder of that, to seize the day.”