Having lunch with jewelry designer Loree Rodkin is like devouring a juicy Hollywood novel. First to be discussed are her famous affairs -- with Don Henley, Bernie Taupin and Richard Gere. Then her lifelong friendships with Cher and Elton John, and her extraordinary once-in-a-lifetime experiences, such as being introduced to Paris by Salvador Dali and propositioned by Jimi Hendrix (she turned him down).
It's no wonder that she's had two offers to option her life story.
Not that Rodkin is a party girl. Far from it. Arriving on the L.A. scene in the early 1970s, she's gone from being a rock 'n' roll interior decorator to a talent manager to a fine jeweler. But she says she's never been into drinking or drugs. In fact, she's baby-sat her fair share of addicts, including Robert Downey Jr., when he was a client.
"They could call my book 'Designated Driver,' " she jokes.
Her medieval-meets-modern jewelry is worn by just about everyone in Hollywood. But it is First Lady Michelle Obama who has been the biggest booster lately, choosing Rodkin's designs for election night and the inaugural balls, where she wore 61-carat white gold and rose-cut diamond earrings with garland drops, a 13-carat diamond cocktail ring and a wrist full of diamond bangles.
The pieces were a statement, to be sure, but nothing like Rodkin's bestselling "bondage ring," which covers most of the finger, with a joint that bends with the knuckle. She's sold hundreds of them, starting at $16,000 for a simple diamond and white gold style, to much more for those with rough-cut diamonds and other stones.
Which is probably why the telephone call to design for the first lady came as such a surprise. "I said, 'Are you sure you have the right jeweler?' " Rodkin says over lunch at a cafe below her office in Beverly Hills. As it turned out, Obama was familiar with Rodkin's work from Ikram, her favorite boutique in Chicago. "They told me not to go as far as I usually go," the designer says. "And gave me possible colors and necklines."
In March, the pieces will be installed in the permanent collection at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., along with Obama's Jason Wu inaugural gown.
Even in the recession, Rodkin says her business is holding steady, thanks in part to sales in emerging markets. She has 45 retail accounts and $15 million in annual revenue. The Japanese "found her" 12 years ago, she says, and now her collection is sold in 31 stores there, including two licensed flagships. The Russians followed in 2004. Next up: Kazakhstan, where her collection will debut in December.
"There's big Russian oil money there," she says. "In the past few years in Russia, anything was possible. You could sell them anything at any price. If I made a piece for $1 million, they would say give me another. At my first trunk show there, they were 20 deep at the cash register."
Jewelry making started as a hobby for Rodkin, who grew up in Chicago and followed a wannabe rock star boyfriend to Los Angeles when she was 19. She was fired from 18 jobs in one year, she says, mainly because she lied her way into them, claiming she had the experience to be a script supervisor, a showroom manager, a receptionist. (She did not.)
One job that did stick was at a rock 'n' roll management company. While planning parties for her bosses and their clients in the mid-'70s, Rodkin fell in with L.A.'s rock crowd. Don Henley pursued her, and she moved in with him in Malibu. (The song "Wasted Time" is reportedly about their relationship.) Then, in the late '70s she met Taupin. The two were together for five years, and Rodkin set about transforming his oversized, under-furnished bachelor pad into a luxurious home with Art Nouveau lamps and gothic-looking furniture.
The songwriter's friends were impressed, and Rodkin started decorating for them too. While working on Rod Stewart's house, she bought an auction lot of Cartier accessories. They were mostly clocks, but there was one Art Deco ring that the singer let her keep.
Rodkin took it to Ben Besbeck in Beverly Hills, a jeweler who specialized in vintage restoration, and he became a mentor, giving her old settings to play with after he removed the center stones to use in more modern settings. Rodkin would turn a vintage brooch into a pendant, a clasp into a buckle for a bracelet.
Sometimes where Besbeck had removed a large diamond she would add onyx or pearls to make a more eclectic statement. She would even sell a piece now and again. But mostly it was a creative outlet while she was focusing on her second career: managing actors.
"I used [jewelry making] to keep myself awake at night with Robert Downey Jr.," she says. "It's how I managed to be a glorified baby sitter. I would pick him up at parties and take him to work. He knows it too. I tell him, 'This is the House of Downey.' "
In 1989, Tommy Perse, owner of the influential Maxfield boutique in West Hollywood, noticed Rodkin wearing a diamond skull ring and suggested she launch a formal line. He put 20 pieces in his store, and they sold out. "I owe him my career," she says.
Soon after, she opened her own studio and workshop, which now employs 28.
"I wanted rock 'n' roll jewelry, and there wasn't any," she says. Rodkin's gypsy Gothic look is all about layering. The designer herself wears several mala bead bracelets on her arm, each one with a tiny diamond charm.
She still designs skulls but recognizes their ubiquity. "When everyone started making skulls, and they were on underwear sold at Sears, they lost their allure," she says. "What started it for me was in 1913 Cartier made a diamond skull pin for a duchess, and I saw it at a museum somewhere. I wanted a giant skull ring, so I made one."
Finishing her iced tea, Rodkin laments the waning days of summer. She'll spend most of them at a rented house in Malibu, before heading to New York and Paris to show buyers her new collection.
And contrary to recent reports, she does not want to sell her company. "That is the ultimate endgame, sure, but it's not something I'm actively pursuing right now."
In the last few years, Rodkin has launched eyewear, fragrances and candles. Her bath and body product line recently expanded to include roll-on oils, talcum powder, bath oil and cream, all with a patchouli base and top notes of vanilla, incense or gardenia. Named Gothic I, II, III, IV, V and VI, they are inspired by the Far East. Rodkin hopes to add home accessories next.
"Business in America is down 30%," she says. "In January and February, people did not leave the house. My millionaire clients were buying Gap T-shirts for their babies because they needed to see where it was all going to land," she says.
"But I've been lucky. I've never had a sales rep; I'm not a smart business woman. I figure if they're great stores, they will find me."