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Designer Takes Artist’s Tact With Buckles

Times Staff Writer

Barry Kieselstein-Cord never wears a cummerbund with a tuxedo. Instead he straps one of the 18-karat-gold belt buckles he designs. He also wears a solid gold buckle with business suits (Armani) and sport jackets, although he prefers the sterling version when he’s wearing his “farming clothes” in the country.

“What I try to say in my work,” the Coty Award-winning designer explains, “is that my belts have a great deal of wearability.”

In 1976, Kieselstein-Cord emerged with a chunky, sculptural, Western-inspired sterling buckle, belt tip and two “buckloos” (belt loops) all affixed to a handsome leather strap. He called it the Winchester. He also patented the design because he believed his work had artistic merit, and he wanted to protect it. Subsequently, the belt, as well as the patent, became something of a semiprecious-jewelry sensation.

Not only did Kieselstein-Cord win a lengthy court battle against a New York-based manufacturer that was making $12 copies of his buckles, but the real McCoy began to surface on all the right waistlines.

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Although the price for the large sterling version has jumped from $147 to its current tag of $950 (a small sterling Winchester is $350), the demand for the Winchester--now owned by Michael Jackson, Giorgio Armani, Eddie Murphy and Yves Saint Laurent--exceeds that of every other style Kieselstein-Cord creates.

He describes his newest collection, available at Neiman-Marcus in Beverly Hills, as “my ode to my favorite artists"--Matisse, Gauguin, Leger and Braque. The Matisse buckle, for instance, has “soft flowing lines,” while the Leger is linear and graphic. For the first time, buckles are available in vermeil (22-carat and 24-carat gilded silver).

Kieselstein-Cord hardly looks the part of a jewelry designer. He dresses in banker’s navy with jewelry inconspicuous to the point of being unnoticeable, save for the gold belt buckle, which is obscured by a necktie.

Men, he believes, should limit their jewelry to a signet ring (“they’re fine”), which he wears next to a thin gold wedding band. “If you’re going to wear something around your neck (he doesn’t), it should have major significance. It could be a religious affiliation or a medallion. A correct set of evening studs for formal wear is a must--anything from plain black onyx to a diamond stud very subtly done or cabochon ruby or sapphire. I’m against filigree.”

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Last year, a Kieselstein-Cord salon opened at Bergdorf Goodman in New York, where the designer’s gold jewelry is sold exclusively and where his new line of “collectibles” for the home is also available. The collectibles run the gamut from sterling boot pulls with stag-horn handles to sterling shot glasses.

“As a matter of fact,” Kieselstein-Cord injects, “a Californian bought the first piece in that collection, one of the shell-shaped minaudieres, " he says. “It was one of those poor people who live in San Francisco. . . . What’s her name? One of the Gettys. No, not Ann. I guess it was her sister.”

Due out this fall is a line of home furnishings and lighting pieces. Not lamps, but lighting pieces. Kieselstein-Cord noticeably bristles at the word lamp .

“It is sculpture, " he says. “It just happens to glow.”

Indeed, sculpture is what makes Kieselstein-Cord tick. He studied sculpture in college (“Parsons, New York University and American Craft-something-or-other, which is defunct, I think”). And it is the sculptural quality of silver, he says, that originally attracted him to his medium.

Above all, he believes that jewelry should be understated. “The unfortunate person who covers himself in jewelry is not sure of himself,” he says. “A strong person always wears less.”


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