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Diana Dress

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Cristophe, the Beverly Hills hairdresser who coiffed President Clinton, spent three weeks designing the doll's curly flip.
COLLECTIBLES: An Orange doll manufacturer taps into the mania over Camelot -- and winds up hitting it big.

Story by LAURA SAARI
Photos by LEONARK ORITZ
The Orange County Register

The coiffure is by Beverly Hills hair designer Cristophe.

The necklace: a replica of a simple piece of costume jewelry bought dearly at the Sotheby's auction six months ago.

The dress is hand-stitched with more than 200 yards of expensive French embroidery thread.

With their new "Jackie" doll, Michael and Freddie Lam of Orange have joined the legions of merchandisers who have found a way to transform a nation's fascination with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis into big dollars.

Call it the Second Wave. Jackiephiles who couldn't afford to buy into the Sotheby's auction in April will be able to own a reconstituted piece of the Camelot legend.

Joan Rivers is transforming a painting from the auction into a silk scarf. A Connecticut rug maker has reproduced a 19th-century needlepoint rug from the Kennedy White House. At least two jewelers, including The Franklin Mint, are hawking reproductions of Jackie's costume pearls.

And the Lams, founders of The Great American Doll Company, are churning out 35-inch dolls based on photographs of Jacqueline Bouvier as a girl. Since the doll was introduced in late September, there has been $1 million in orders, Lam says.

At $495 a doll, she's a QVC dream come true.

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"This is like buying art," said Michael Lam, 51, sitting in the showroom of his The Great American Doll Company, a room littered with silk roses, a doll form with bubble wrap encasing the head, and a large doll head stamped "Reject." At the end of the room, the Jackie prototype rises from the clutter, smiling mysteriously from a pedestal.

"We're appealing to people who collect dolls for the appreciation value," Lam said. "This is not like buying a Barbie doll, where it's knocked out by the millions in Malaysia."

The typical customer: Female. Age 25-80.

These are not dolls to be dragged around by the hair by toddlers. Cristophe, the celebrity hairdresser who coiffed President Clinton - recall the 1993 Air Force One jam-up spent three weeks designing the doll's curly flip. Italian sculptor, Bruno Rossellini, shaped the body. The doll's head and limbs are made of hard-cast vinyl with a special process that gives it a porcelain texture. The bodies are made of cloth, in the classic European style. Only 5,000 numbered copies will be sold. There are accessories - a pillbox hat and vermillion, silk-lined, wool coat for $195.

These are dolls for serious doll collectors -- and somber Jackie mourners.

"At some point, they (collectors) commune with the doll," Lam said. "You buy a doll because you want to interact with it."

People collect dolls just as the fervent collected religious idols, Lam said. For comparison, he mentioned the cave people who drew pictures on walls. "The picture has the spirit of what they're drawing. The doll has imbued in it something of the living thing."

People want a piece of the spirit of Jackie, whatever they imagine that to be.

"Here was a woman who has a mystique like no one else," Lam said. "There are a lot of unresolved feelings about Jackie. It's like having a friend die early. Nobody has had closure on this. This gives them a sense of closure."

THE NECKLACE STORY
Lam walked through his warehouse, where workers toiled over a dozen Jackie clones, straightening a lace petticoat here, steam ironing a curl there. There is no getting away from the dolls' eyes. They stare, it seems, in eerie likeness to the real Jackie's eyes.

Lam noted the Swiss cotton, the Parisian lace, the hand embroidery that requires 80 hours to complete on each dress.

He noted, especially, the five coral-like beads on a gold chain. The necklace is a replica of an elegant chain snatched up by Lam at the Sotheby's auction in April, an ordeal that he must be coaxed to talk about.

"Actually, the doll is free," Lam said. "The jewelry is what we're charging for."

Lam put in bids on 40 pieces. "I was on the phone every day. Raise this one. Raise that one," Lam said. "Every day the bidding got worse."

Many prices swelled to 40 or 50 times his bidding offer.

Lam is still smarting from losing the bid on the necklace he coveted most, to talk-show host Montel Williams, who bought the "gaudy" bead necklace for $17,000, Lam said. Lam had planned to take apart the necklace into thousands of tiny beads. The idea was, each Jackie doll would be graced with a necklace made with an authentic bead that had touched the real Jackie's neck. That way everyone who bought a Jackie doll owned a piece, as it were, of Jackie.

"I'm a great believer in this thing called magic," Lam said. "Something that a famous person touched has an aura value. It has to do with people wanting to touch greatness. It's a form of admiration. Look at all those people going out to fight in the Crusades to bring back an original splinter from the cross. Think of all the associations with touching. You meet somebody, you touch their hand. Here was a woman who built up around her by fate and by accident a mystique no one could fathom. At the end, people want to touch mystery. Mystery has power. Power has a sense of the immortal."

For all these reasons, the Lams made their peace with the simulated coral necklace they were able to buy. In the end, they believe they may have ended up with the perfect necklace for the doll.

"It was nice," Freddie Lam said, "to see that Jackie wasn't only into things that cost money. The necklace was really tasteful. The little clasp was all worn down, as she must have worn it a lot. We know now that Jackie will feel part of this doll."

THE EYES HAVE IT
Necklace firmly clasped, the doll made her debut Sept. 24 at a famous New York doll store, arriving by black limo and carried as Secret Service agents.

Although she's meant to look like a little girl, the doll looks wise. Old before she's young. A trace of Mona Lisa sadness.

Even given the full petticoat, the hand-knitted anklets and the lambskin shoes, she looks hauntingly post-Dallas. It's in the eyes. They have expression, thanks to a technique using glass and copied from antique dolls that came to Michael Lam in a dream.

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Six year old Jacqueline Bouvier (Kennedy Onassis), East Hampton, N.Y., 1935

The bottom line: Collectors want dolls that look good. But the Lams also believed the doll needed to evoke memories of the older Jackie the world loved. When their Italian sculptor told them that no one would recognize Jackie as a youngster, the Lams sent him hundreds of photos of Jackie as an adult, and he crafted a face that has qualities of the older Jackie.

"We wanted to view the child doll with a higher-level consciousness," Lam said. "We tried to figure out how to make her look like Jackie Kennedy and still be a doll."

Judy Spencer, 36, a collector from Beckley, W. Virginia, ordered a Jackie doll sight unseen.

"When the doll arrived, I felt like a little girl on Christmas morning," Spencer said. "She's mesmerizing. She looks like a real child. She looks like she's looking back at you. The feeling you get from this doll is just heartwarming."

She plans to display the doll on a pedestal in her foyer, she said. "Jackie Kennedy Onassis' body may be gone, but she'll always be alive in this doll. Her presence will always be with us, and this is my way of appreciating her."

BEFORE JACKIE
All Michael Lam's consciousness talk has something to do with his love affair with India, cultivated during a tour of the world in his late 20s.

Lam said he was 27 and a probation officer in Los Angeles when he walked off the job in disillusionment and bought a one way ticket to India.

"People have problems when they fight their destiny," Lam said. His heart told him to travel. The journey led him to an Indian guru with a doctorate in snakes who, at 4 a.m., divined the future from the bumps on Lam's feet. The sage predicted many things but never that Lam would contract hepatitis on his travels and end up resting in Southern California, hawking puka shells to the J.C. Penney catalog. Although Lam had spent most of his life savings traveling around the world, he had made many contacts overseas who would prove valuable to his import-export business.

Lam's mother made dolls on the kitchen table, but she couldn't locate high-quality doll wigs. Lam's attempt to find doll wigs led to a doll-parts business and eventually to manufacturing whole dolls, including one with a diamond embedded in her shoulders and a doll modeled after tennis great Gabriela Sabatini.

Lam decided to create a Jackie doll before Jackie Onassis died. The doll has been nearly three years in the making.

Lam said he hopes the doll will be a tribute to Jackie's memory. And if it makes him a little cash along the way, he's not complaining.

"We don't see ourselves as monopolizing off a dead person," he said. "Dolls have been made after famous people for a lot of years. If we can do a tribute, something that embellishes her memory, we're giving something back. People want to remember Jackie."

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