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Fashion

No Age Limits

77-Year-Old Houston Pioneer Keeps Reinventing Her River Oaks Empire — and Fashion is Better For It

BY // 12.10.15
photography Max Burkhalter

Before there was a fashion or accessories industry in Houston, there was Mariquita Masterson, who improbably began what would become a booming family bijoux business on an inspirational lark while chairing the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston’s Grand Gala Ball in 1982. While planning her MFAH fête with a Calder theme, she improvised table design, which called for glass creations.

Finding herself in the Montrose studio of artisan Drew Ebelhare, she was struck by the beauty of the chunks of glass, and the idea for making jewelry came like a lightning bolt. Within five years, it incubated into a thriving business, and soon socials were accessorizing ’80s-era ball gowns and power suits by Oscar de la Renta and Arnold Scaasi with dramatic Mariquita Masterson necklaces and earrings of melted dollops of glass cradled by vermeil, silver or gold.

The designer’s delightful life in Texas began in 1957, when she moved from Mexico City to Houston after being match-made and married into the Masterson family through the machinations of Carroll Sterling Masterson, a one-time neighbor in Mexico City (before her own marriage to Harris Masterson). Mariquita and future husband Stewart Masterson met at Rienzi during the deb party for Isla Reckling (nee Winston).

A happy, rollicking marriage of 47 years followed, along with five children and, to date, 18 grandchildren. As her children grew up, so did the business, and as of today, all five children — Stewart Jr., Charles, Harry, Libbie, George — and one granddaughter, Nina, participate in varying aspects of the Mariquita Masterson biz.

The jewelry is designed and made in Houston, and stocked at the matriarch’s eponymous shop on River Oaks Boulevard, as well as at Tootsies. On a recent visit, her boutique was charmingly decked out for Day of the Dead festivities with his-and-hers life-sized papier-mâché skeletons in classic Mexican garb and walls painted an optimistic shade of marigold. Signature glass creations fill the shelves, encircled by white branches, evoking a tableau straight out of a Joseph Cornell box.Screen shot 2015-12-09 at 11.58.37 AM

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Mariquita Masterson at home, surrounded by collections that encompass European and Latin American history while bowing to the rich Dia de los Muertos tradition of her homeland. Other inspirations she cites are artists Louise Nevelson and Georgia O’Keeffe, and designer Tony Duquette, whom she knew and occasionally visited.

While her brand is indicative of the Mariquita touch, where the glamorous and the unexpected frequently collide, and Masterson herself cites Picasso as touchstone for entering new territories (“‘I am always doing that which I cannot do, in order that I may learn how to do it”), this is a story of reinvention. The jeweler says of the impetus for a big move,

“At 75, it was time for the beginning of my new chapter.” That was two and a half years ago, when she put her long-time River Oaks home — where she and her late husband had reared their brood of kids and grandkids — on the market. She found a new receptacle worthy of future adventures in a cozy English Tudor, which needed almost a year-long renovation. After residing in temporary digs, she moved into this redone abode in early 2014, earnestly entreating designer and dear friend Richard Holley to speed up the workmen and get the new nest ready. His only condition, Masterson laughingly recalls, “was that I leave town” while the interiors were finalized and the furnishings installed.

While some of Masterson’s antiques and art made the cut, other pieces were divvied up among her children. The resulting rooms devised by Holley cannot be described as spare, but as a perfect balance of talismans —a collection of European silver vessels here, an 18th-century portrait there — and treasures that seem anchored in a time period approaching 1690 to 1730, the era of William and Mary, throughout the living room, with a few touches of Queen Anne in the dining room. Stalwart wooden chairs with flourishes of turned baluster arms and rails, and, in many cases, original needlepoint upholstery, cozy up to gate-leg turned tables. Paintings of the era — a brooding landscape or still life throughout the main hub of the house — are enlivened by works such as an early Mexican colonial embroidery, inherited from her own family.

At a spry 77 1⁄2, Masterson is poised for her next endeavors, all hatched from this casa or her adjoining garage, which doubles as a design studio — planning a Society for the Performing Arts dinner party after the original one was rained out; experimenting with fresh freeform designs in which the glass is flecked with gold leaf; searching for tequila cocktail recipes based on one featuring tamarinds she imbibed years ago in Taxco; perfecting chile relleno and cheese soufflé in time for holiday entertaining and a guest list that includes the discerning Jackson Hicks as well as hoards of grandchildren; contemplating a new Dallas retailer for her exuberant necklaces, earrings and rings; and above all, savoring con gusto “my new chapter.”

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