Fashion jewelry design is in the midst of a renaissance the likes of which we haven't seen since the 1980s. And Alexis Bittar blazed the trail. In the last two decades, the New York-based jewelry designer has gone from selling his signature colorful, hand-carved Lucite pieces on the streets of SoHo to bejeweling leading ladies in Hollywood and beyond, including Lady Gaga, First Lady Michelle Obama, Madonna, Cameron Diaz, Meryl Streep and Rihanna. At the same time, he's managed to keep the core of his collection in an accessible $225-to-$645 price range.
Photos: Alexis Bittar's spring / summer 2012 collection
Bittar has also challenged the definition of fashion muse by eschewing prepubescent models in his ad campaigns in favor of women, such as eccentric octogenarian Iris Apfel, "Dynasty"diva Joan Collins and, most recently, "Ab Fab" stars Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley.
And now, with a recent influx of cash from private equity firm TSG Consumer Partners, Bittar is ready to expand his vision globally and to introduce a new, higher-priced line of jewelry in sterling silver and gold that will debut next year.
He's already one of the most prolific jewelry designers in the business, turning out hundreds of pieces each season that incorporate innovative materials such as molten metals, reconstituted coal and Lucite, which was big in the 1950s and is currently having another moment in fashion but which Bittar has built his brand on since the beginning.
For spring's O'Keeffe collection of bold, Southwestern-looking Lucite cuff bracelets and collars, he took cues from the artist's skulls and Native American textiles, then layered on Art Deco-ish crystals. Another spring group, Dark Garden, features Lucite beaded necklaces and carved floral brooches with crystal-encrusted thorns, movable blooms and pollen pods. The younger sister collection of the family, named Miss Havisham, includes "man-made druzy quartz" cocktail rings carved from crushed glass embedded in resin.
It's no wonder that art museum shops caught onto his talents first, followed soon after by high-end boutiques and department stores, including Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue and Bloomingdale's.
"[Alexis] is responsible for elevating the status of costume jewelry and making it a category that is taken much more seriously in fashion," says Brooke Jaffe, fashion accessories director of Bloomingdale's. "He draws in a broad range of customers."
He understands the need for one-of-a-kind fantasy pieces for photo shoots, as well as commercial pieces for women's everyday lives. "Most designers get one or the other but not both," she adds.
Along the way, Bittar has created spikey Lucite masks, floor-length necklaces and oversized cross earrings, for the likes of Lady Gaga, Rihanna and Madonna. His work has been shown on the covers of countless magazines, including Vogue, V and W. He's also collaborated on jewelry design with other brands, including Burberry, Michael Kors and Jeremy Scott.
Bittar "has a design intelligence," says stylist and costume designer Arianne Phillips, who has known him for eight years. "No matter what he chose to do, whether it was design a car or clothes, he'd be capable of it."
Phillips relies on Bittar to create custom pieces for magazine spreads, music videos and films (he made several pieces for "W.E."). The more classic pieces she wears herself, including crystal-studded Lucite bracelets and pyramid studs.
"He created a niche that opened the door for so many other people," she says, pointing to the new class of cool, young jewelry designers that has emerged in recent years, including Pamela Love, Eddie Borgo and Justin Giunta of Subversive.
Michelle Obama has worn several Lucite brooches by Bittar as well as statement pieces by other brands in his league, including Erickson Beamon and Tom Binns. She has undoubtedly helped put the spotlight on fashion jewelry (and taught women to take risks when wearing it). But Bittar says business has really been on the upswing for the last 12 years.
"When I started in the early 1990s, jewelry was at a real low point," Bittar, 43, said recently over coffee at his showroom in Soho, which is a wonderland of glass cases full of jewelry, a rustic wood table, antique mirror, bird cage and taxidermy ferret — and not far from where he used to work as a street vendor when he was in his 20s. "It was the age of Jil Sander minimalism. People didn't know how to wear jewelry, or they were brainwashed that it wasn't cool. Now, that's completely changed. What is selling are the most artistic pieces, the more interesting the better."
Bittar has been nurturing a love of jewelry since he was a child growing up in Brooklyn. On his 13th birthday, his parents, who bought and sold antiques, gave him a tangled mess of jewelry as a gift. He started playing with it, and he was hooked.
When he was in his late teens, he bought a box of vintage chandelier parts from the 1920s, all made of Depression-era glass with handmade brass and wire tassels. He started making and selling his own pieces from a table he set up on the corner of Prince and Greene streets.
What hit it big were colorful Lucite button earrings. "I was looking at a lot of Lalique and Bakelite," Bittar explained. "I was obsessed with clear plastic sheets of acrylic and saw a way of manipulating them, carving them and hand-painting them."
Today, Lucite is 60% of his business. Everything is still handmade, only at his factory in Brooklyn, which employs some 250 artisans, instead of on his kitchen table.
"When jewelry first started trending in 1999, there was such a naivete in terms of what was tasteful," Bittar said. "You could just put a big pendant with a string on it and people would buy it. But now, the sophistication and expectation is higher. People are increasingly wanting to be more individual, and part of that has been driven by the celebration of individual style on blogs."
Individual style is something that Bittar has a particular appreciation for, as seen in the subjects of his recent ad campaigns, Joan Collins and Joanna Lumley among them.
"When you look at the models in fashion magazines, it's one young girl after another," Bittar said. "I find it disturbing. That's not who is buying [fashion]. And I feel like there's a message that if you are not young, you're not beautiful.
"I don't want to get typecast for doing this," he said. "But I'm like a kid in a candy store. And I think it's a cool political message."
Bittar opened his first namesake boutique in 2004. Now he has seven, including three in New York and two in the Los Angeles area. He's looking forward to two more by the end of 2012, now that he has a new business partner to help.
And he's not ruling out launching a few new product categories either. (Home furnishings, perhaps?) But first up next year, he'll debut a still-unnamed, higher-priced jewelry line. "I already design three collections, but I live and breathe jewelry, and I have forever."
Indeed, Bittar has amassed such a large personal collection of antique jewelry (which he lovingly discusses on his blog at AlexisBittar.com) that he's started selling it in his boutiques. "I used to hoard it and keep it rolled up in an old quilt. But now I buy and sell it. On my birthday, on my day off, I go buy antique jewelry. There's nothing I would rather do."