Bernard Passman

BERNARD K PASSMAN Sculptor and jewellery-maker

Born: 22 January, 1916, in Iowa. Died: 10 February, 2007, in Washington DC, aged 91.

BERNARD K Passman has been described as "the world's only master sculptor in black coral". A great favourite of the Queen, his works could be found in Buckingham Palace, Clarence House and the Vatican, as well as in the mansions of celebrities worldwide.

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Passman's objets d'art were carved mostly from single pieces of black coral, a medium he discovered relatively late in life after moving from the United States to the British overseas territory of the Cayman Islands in the mid-1970s. The coral, which, as an environmental activist, he insisted must have naturally broken off and not be "living", is brought up by divers from depths of up to 200ft near his former home on the main island of Grand Cayman.

Hollywood film stars and other celebrities were the most frequent visitors to the nine Passman galleries across the US and in the Caribbean. The latest opened last year on the renowned Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, where two "Queen's guardsmen" in red tunics, bearskin hats and replica rifles "guard" the entrance to advertise Passman's Royal connections.

Passman rings, necklaces, earrings, bracelets or pendants, usually featuring black coral inlaid with gold, diamonds or platinum, can sell for tens of thousands of dollars - his most exquisite art objects for more than a million - but he insisted on carrying hand-made lower-priced items, affordable by tourists or cruise ship visitors in the Caribbean.

While living on Grand Cayman, he was commissioned by the British governor to design and produce the official Cayman Islands' wedding gift to Prince Charles and Diana Spencer in 1981. He produced a grand 97-piece cutlery set for eight, each piece made of sterling silver with black coral handles carved by hand. He later created a miniature, 11-piece version as a gift on the birth of Prince William.

In 1983, to mark the state visit to the Caymans by the Queen and Prince Philip, Passman had sculpted a black coral horse, with gold mane and tail, trailed by two black coral corgi dogs, a gift said to have delighted the monarch.

In 1998, the Cuban ministry of culture enlisted him to design a gift for Pope John Paul II's first visit to Fidel Castro's communist island. Passman was there in person to present the piece, an 18-carat gold Corpus Christi on a black coral cross, flanked by two black coral candelabra, which he entitled A Bridge That Glows for Peace.

Bernard Kenneth Passman was born in the small town of Charter Oak, Iowa, to a Russian musician father, Samuel Passman, and a Polish mother, Rose, but went to school and was raised with his three sisters in Sioux City, 50 miles away. He left school at the age of 14 and worked as a shoe salesman to help bring in some income to his family in the aftermath of the 1929 Wall Street crash.

Drafted in 1942, Passman was in the Philippines when the war ended in 1945. During the voyage home, he found himself tinkering with used military K-ration packs, deftly transforming them into sculptures of cardboard. Throughout his life, he kept his first one, of a remarkably finely-detailed ballerina.

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For two decades after the war, he worked in stockbroking, then property, first in Maryland, later in Florida, where business success allowed him to spend more time doing sculptures in various metals, stone, wood or clay. He opened his first gallery on the Galt Mile in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in 1967, and his 21ft Presidential Tree, carved from teak, was probably the most beautiful sight at the 1968 Republican national convention in Miami.

After moving to Grand Cayman to semi-retire in 1974, and discovering black coral (formally known as antipatharia) from the local artisans, he opened a gallery in the Caymans' capital, George Town, in 1975. As demand for his personalised items grew, further galleries followed in the Virgin Islands, Alaska, in Las Vegas's Venetian resort, in Hawaii, New Orleans and, most recently, Beverly Hills, all of them carrying his motto: "Beauty is simplicity with a dash of daring." Damaged in Hurricane Katrina, the New Orleans gallery hopes to reopen this spring.

Passman liked to tell customers that whenever he saw a branch of raw coral, his mind would conjure up images of more than a dozen types of animal or other figures he could turn it into.

"When most people look at piece of black coral," one interviewer wrote, "all they see is see a piece of raw coral, something that resembles a broken tree branch or a discarded remnant of driftwood, but when Bernard Passman looks at black coral, he sees a sleek panther ready to spring, a rearing stallion with hoofs pawing the air, a graceful ballerina ... "

Bernard Passman is survived by his wife, Bette Anne, and three children.

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