Although Irene Neuwirth’s Abbot Kinney studio contains a queen’s ransom of precious gems and spectacular pieces at various stages of completion, the jeweler herself is adorned with nothing but a simple chain from Mexico. “My life turned around and got really great when I put it on,” she explains, “so I haven’t taken it off in a very long time.”
This detail reflects both her belief in the talismanic power of jewelry, and her down-to-earth vibe. Ten years ago, when the California native crafted her first beaded collection and was immediately picked up by Barneys, “fine jewelry” typically meant gold, diamonds and platinum. Neuwirth thought bigger and bolder. “I wanted to make ultra fine jewelry that feels like costume jewelry,” she says, noting that a “statement piece” for a woman is often more about personal style than the number of carats.
Taking inspiration from nature, she began playing with unusual color and stone combinations – rubies, diamonds and fire opals; emeralds, sapphires, and boulder opals; and, almost always, chrysoprase, the sea green stone that has become her signature. Designing is a “crazy magical process” for Neuwirth, and somehow, filtered through her sensibility a $20,000 necklace can feel almost casual.
Fortunately she ignored early warnings that people were “afraid of color”; Neuwirth’s eclectic brand of opulence is now the top-seller at Barneys and an A-list favorite. Angelina Jolie, Scarlett Johansson and Julianne Moore are fans, and Busy Phillips, a close friend with a daring fashion sense, is seldom seen on a red carpet without one of her stunning creations.
Of course, popularity has its price. Neuwirth recalls walking in New York recently and coming across “a very specific piece that I know I made, in all the color ways that I did it, being sold on the street for $10.” She laughs. “And I was like, I guess I’ve arrived.”
Less amusing is her contemporaries who have started making “similar pieces at a similar price point,” she adds, “but I feel like I’ve been lucky and am always on to the next.”
The recent renovation of her house on the Venice canals sparked a passion for interiors and has gotten her thinking about china and textiles, but nothing’s on the books…yet. “You never know,” she says mysteriously. “Maybe something interesting will come up soon.”
Spoken like a true California girl.