Jewelry designer Irene Neuwirth, bling's not her thing

Los Angeles Times Fashion Critic

As one of a new generation of fine jewelry designers making the heirlooms of tomorrow, Irene Neuwirth is living the California dream.

In 13 years, she has gone from stringing vintage glass beads together in her Malibu apartment to having the top-selling fine jewelry brand at Barneys New York. Her jewelry sparkles on red carpets alongside that from such heavyweights as Harry Winston and Cartier. (In the last few months, Busy Philipps wore an Irene Neuwirth necklace to the Screen Actors Guild Awards, Julianne Moore a matched set of emerald bracelets to the Met Gala and Julia Louis-Dreyfus onyx earrings to the Critics' Choice TV Awards.)

Her pieces are recognizable for their carefully balanced constructions and bold, rough-cut, semiprecious stones in brilliant surf-and-sea colors, some of which sell for more than $100,000. And her aesthetic has become so influential that imitations have been turning up everywhere from the latest Couture jewelry trade show in Las Vegas to street vendors in Soho.

"She's clever about how she mixes shapes, stones and color," says her friend of 10 years, fellow jewelry designer Nak Armstrong. "Before her, chrysoprase was a relatively unknown stone that you wouldn't see so much in fine jewelry. She made that her own. And she's done the same with opals."

"She's an artist, but she's also an incredible business partner," says Daniella Vitale, chief operating officer and senior vice president of Barneys New York, where Neuwirth will debut her first fragrance next spring as part of the store's ongoing designer fragrance project.

With her perfectly highlighted beach waves, gap-toothed grin and impeccable style, Neuwirth has been embraced by the New York-based fashion cognoscenti. She is featured regularly in the pages of glossy magazines, including Vogue, which devoted four pages of its June issue to her new house in the Venice Canals, which she shares with her boyfriend of six years, writer-director Phil Lord. And Neuwirth has twice been nominated by the Council of Fashion Designers of America for the Swarovski Award for Accessories.

"Irene is very likable," says Los Angeles fashion designer Gregory Parkinson, who has known her for more than a decade and counts her as a fan of his clothing. "She's an adorable, goofy girl who has the mouth of a trucker. And she has great style. She has this whole California, Venice surfer girl thing going on, combined with a 1930s Hollywood moll."

Best of both worlds

Neuwirth's success comes at a time when niche fine jewelry designers are finding an enthusiastic audience with women who prize individuality over in-your-face bling.

"Women want to wear jewelry that expresses their personal style and creativity," Neuwirth, 37, says on a recent morning at her studio in Venice, where she's dressed in a pale rose Vanessa Bruno dress, studded Prada sandals and one of her own necklaces. "Also, they are buying for themselves. When men spend $100,000, they want it to look like it cost $100,000 in diamonds. For women, it's different. I want to create big, bold crazy pieces that they can wear dressy, casual or to bed. Like costume jewelry but ultra fine."

Her studio is in an airy, sun-filled town house on Abbot Kinney, where her pet labradoodle Teddy sits at her feet.

Neuwirth spent her childhood between Bel-Air, where her businessman father, Peter Neuwirth, lived, and the Venice Canals, where her artist mother, Geraldine Neuwirth, made her home. "Opposite ends of the world," the designer says. But part of the appeal of her work is that she manages to bring both sensibilities to it — her jewelry works as well with jeans and a T-shirt as it does with an evening gown.

"I was not a big jewelry person growing up," she says. Generally, she was more interested in horseback riding, which she did competitively, placing fourth nationally in her age group. While in college at the University of Vermont, where she studied environmental science, she sometimes wore hemp jewelry. "It was very hippie-dippy," she says.

After graduating, Neuwirth moved back West. She rented an apartment in Malibu, started teaching horseback riding and made jewelry for fun. That lasted until her parents told her she had to get a "real" job.

So with a $1,000 loan from her father, she designed her first collection using vintage beads. Barneys picked it up after she sent the buyer an unsolicited package of samples, with a handwritten note that said, "Hope you love it!"

That kind of entrepreneurial fearlessness has served her well. "If I put my mind to something, I feel like nothing can get in my way," she says. "I get totally obsessed."

Growing, learning

After the first year, the collection started to evolve. "I think that the hardest part of being a designer is keeping your identity while growing your brand, which a lot of people aren't able to do," she says. "Once they start to grow, they start to make things that are similar to what other people are doing. I don't pay attention to other people."

Neuwirth studied with a professor from the Gemological Institute of America to learn how to make her own findings and clasps, using wax carving and metalsmithing techniques.

She started making flat gold pieces composed of multiple teardrop shapes, which are still the bread and butter of her collection, as well as long chains dotted with tiny stones. Gradually, she began to incorporate colorful semiprecious stones into her work, including shimmering moonstone, otherworldly labradorite and apple-green chrysoprase, playing with the loose stones until she landed on the perfectly imperfect composition of ethereal and elegant.

By visiting the annual Tucson Gem & Mineral Show, she got an education and made connections with stone dealers around the world. "I had no background in stones," she says. "But you learn quickly what's natural and what's not. I learned to fall in love with the natural imperfections."

Neuwirth also fell in love with opals, the most hypnotic of all stones. She began using opals eight years ago and undoubtedly helped to boost their popularity in fine jewelry. "To me, they are finer than diamonds," she says.

When the economy crashed in 2008, she didn't pull back as some other jewelry designers did. "Jewelry started to look more and more the same, but I went in the opposite direction — more bold and more expensive. And that set me apart."

Now, she's seeing increased demand for big-ticket and one-of-a-kind items. "We can't make them fast enough," Neuwirth says, adding that she ships new pieces to Barneys New York every couple of weeks. In April 2011, she launched a diamond collection at the store and sold 70% of it in 10 days.

Neuwirth, whose company is self-financed, won't disclose financial numbers but will say that growth has been slow and steady, enough so that she's starting to think about opening her own retail stores.

Last year, Neuwirth designed a capsule collection of sandals for Barneys in collaboration with L.A.-based shoe designer and friend George Esquivel. Could clothing or bags be next?

"Of course, in my daydreams I would love to do that," Neuwirth says. "But I want to stick to what I have and grow an amazing jewelry business that can't be taken down and become an amazing name that people pass down to their grandkids."

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