Many of the most spectacular pieces of art created by famed San Francisco jeweler Sidney Mobell—a longtime Mills-Peninsula Hospital Foundation supporter—are now part of the permanent collection at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. From the world’s most expensive Monopoly set—valued at $2 million in 1988—to a solid gold sardine can encrusted with diamonds, Sidney gained international fame for turning everyday items into golden masterpieces. He was regularly featured on the Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson and Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous with Robin Leach, showing off backgammon and chess sets in solid gold, jeweled yoyos and belt buckles, and even a gold and bejeweled toilet seat. Perhaps his most commercially successful design, the diamond hourglass pendant, was the inspiration of his late wife, Ronni. “One day while making soft-boiled eggs, she challenged me to make something a lady can wear, and held up the three-minute egg timer she was using as an example,” Sidney recalls. “The finished design was a hand-blown hourglass-shaped glass tube filled with 200 diamonds instead of sand, weighing one carat total.”
The glass tube was made by a local Bay Area medical test tube manufacturer. Ronni got the first diamond hourglass necklace produced and Johnny Carson bought the second. Sidney also made one for Christina Onassis, and Hilary Clinton later purchased one from his store in San Francisco’s Fairmont hotel. The design has been sold exclusively through the Smithsonian catalogue for many years.
Sidney, now 95 and living in Hillsborough, knew early on that he had an eye for design and art, eventually turning a career that started as a traveling salesman into his eponymous house of jewelry design.
“It took me a long time to make my mark, because as a successful traveling salesman, my competitors blocked me from offering any of the big brands,” Sidney explains.
His jewelry career took off in the 1960s, when Sidney used his degree in art to design the most expensive Mickey Mouse watch on the market at the time, selling for $450. That item caught the attention of iconic San Francisco writer Herb Caen, who mentioned it in his San Francisco Chronicle column.
“When I got a call from the Disney lawyers in Anaheim, I thought for sure they were going to sue me for copyright infringement, but they asked me to make one of the watches for Walt Disney’s brother Roy,” Sidney says gleefully. From that experience, he knew he had found his niche. Sidney eventually operated two stores in San Francisco, a flagship store on Post Street and a second inside the Fairmont, before selling them to Shreve & Co. jewelers in 1996.
Setting Down Roots in Hillsborough
Sidney recalls that he met Ronni through a setup. Back in the 1950s, one of his Burlingame jewelry store clients arranged to have him visit the store when she would also be there. Ronni, a recent USC graduate, was home visiting her parents. The arranged meeting worked and a year later, Sidney and Ronni were married.
Sidney then spent several years working for a company that was based on the East Coast. At one point, the company asked him to move to New Jersey, to eventually take over the business from the current owner. The move didn’t last long. “I did exceedingly well, but internal family dynamics at the company forced me to leave the job after just nine months,” Sidney says.
Returning to California in 1962, with his family in tow and looking for a place to live, Sidney bought his current home in Hillsborough before he had even secured a job. “My mother-in-law questioned how I could buy a house without having a job, but I just took the risk and worked hard.”
Two children, three grandchildren and three great-granddaughters later, Sidney still calls Hillsborough home and has deep roots in the community. He has endured his share of loss over the years. He tragically lost his daughter Marci in the prime of her life, and lost his beloved Ronni to emphysema several years ago. During the last year of her life, Ronni had kidney dialysis three times a week, receiving care at Mills-Peninsula Medical Center. Sidney and Ronni’s family doctor, Richard Morgan, M.D., helped Ronni through her illnesses and remained close with Sidney over the years.
“I designed a gold and platinum stethoscope made by Littman Industries and gave one to Dr. Morgan,” Sidney says. “He used it to examine me every year for my physical.”
“I cherish that gold stethoscope, which I used the last few years before my retirement,” Dr. Morgan recalls. “Developing a relationship with patients like Sidney and his wife Ronni is one of the true joys of medical practice. I remember Ronni so well and always looked forward to seeing Sidney.”
Three years ago, Sidney suffered a fall during one of his trips on the Queen Mary 2, which has made getting around a little more difficult. After the fall, he received physical therapy as well as hand surgery at Mills-Peninsula. Today, Sidney notes he is grateful to have access to such personal and supportive healthcare, and has included Mills-Peninsula in his estate plan.
“Everyone ends up in the hospital at some point,” Sidney says. “You might not donate, but you’ll end up there eventually. I want to give to Mills-Peninsula to keep them going, especially now with things so hard during the pandemic.”
A Deep Connection to Philanthropy
Sidney’s connection to philanthropy stems from his upbringing, but in a rather unexpected way. As a child he spent four years in an orphanage with his siblings, starting in 1937. His mother needed to travel to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, for orthopedic surgery to repair injuries she’d sustained as a baby, and couldn’t bring her children along.
“We were eventually reunited with my mom, but I wrote a letter to the doctor at the Mayo Clinic saying that I would pay her $360 bill when I grew up,” Sidney says.
Fast forward to a visit of his own for surgery at the Mayo Clinic in Arizona. Sidney told his doctors the story of his mother and his letter, challenging them that if they could locate the letter, he would make a donation to the clinic. They found the letter, in his own writing. By then, the bill had been paid—one dollar at a time—by his mother. Sidney and his brother each made a gift in support of the clinic, launching a continued philanthropic focus on honoring healthcare, and at Mills-Peninsula in particular.
Sidney says he has included a gift to Mills- Peninsula in his will because, “Mills has been really good to me and to my wife and her mother before her. It has been an important part of our family for two generations.”