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Designer Profiles

Designing Lives: Alex Sepkus

Award-winning designer conjures up nostalgia and ancient techniques in his distinctive, instinctive take on jewelry.

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AN ARTIST WITH A DRY WIT and a unique style that can’t be duplicated, Alex Sepkus never wavers from who he is or what he believes in. Self-taught, Sepkus has mastered the art of creating mosaiclike sculptures of jewelry in high karat gold and refreshingly unexpected mixes of gemstones, cultural influences and natural forms. There is always a surprise or secret that lies within a Sepkus design, which is part of his humor and his aesthetic: “Always leave them wanting more.”

THE BEGINNING: “I came from an artistic background. My father was an architect and a graphic designer in Kaunas, Lithuana, where I was born. He taught me drawing and calligraphy at a very young age. I was also introduced to all forms of culture from being dragged to the symphony and opera (which I now appreciate so much more). As a child, I had Polish, German and French lessons, and was also given an education in art and old books, as my parents believed that children should grow up with culture around them.”

VENTURING INTO JEWELRY: “I studied industrial design at the Vilnius Art Institute and found it very boring. I was more intrigued by painting and other more creative subjects. I began making jewelry in my third year as a hobby, but I found that I was pretty good with my hands, especially while designing more simple pieces. I am mostly self-taught; I learned from books and by trial and error (and there were plenty of those). Once I graduated, I made jewelry, little painted and thematic sculptures, spending a month or two on one piece — some whimsical and some with more dramatic themes.”

LAUNCHING THE COLLECTION: “An older jeweler friend said that I was born a jeweler. So it seemed that making jewelry, for me, would be the easiest way to make a living. I started my own business in 1990 with an idea to make handmade jewelry that would completely be identifiable as an Alex Sepkus piece and to sell those pieces. My collection is a mosaic of elements from various cultures, time periods, nature, and what I find beautiful. I continually want to revive something familiar yet something totally new so that when a potential customer or collector looks at a piece, it evokes feelings and a lasting impression. Personally, I love putting together interesting collections of elements — like keys on a wall or medicine bottles on shelves, but in a totally unique and evocative way.”

THE WOMAN HE DESIGNS FOR: “She is artistic and sensitive. Could be any age, but well educated and cultured. And, I like to say that I don’t want customers who don’t read books.”

IN JEWELRY SPEAK: “A woman’s jewelry says so much about her taste, even more so than her clothes. I think it’s because with jewelry, you are making more of a commitment and have to think about it more. With fine jewelry, women get to tell a whole story about themselves.”

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INSPIRING STYLE: “Anything can influence me and a collection: a book, a movie, an illustration, oddly shaped rocks, even good wine.”

EVOLUTION AND GROWTH: “My collection does not really evolve. I go from intricate shapes to simpler ones and then back again. And, I have no idea what I will make next year, or even tomorrow. Design to me is an adventure.”

DESIGNER’S PICK

“This 18K gold round pendant is a study of circular shapes, textures and colors.”

“Every single circle in metal or gemstone has its own purpose in the composition.”

“I have planned it as a piece of chamber music, with two or three tiny lines between the round notes, like small scratches on an old LP.”

Q&A with Alex Sepkus

Favorite Piece of Jewelry To Wear?
“I only wear a wedding band, and only because I have to.”

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Favorite Vacation Spot?
“I’ve been to very few. The eastern Baltic coast was great in my childhood, but now we go to Lake Garda in Italy every summer. I traveled on a road trip with my wife from Phoenix to Las Vegas when the Couture Show used to be in Scottsdale. It was truly beautiful, and I would recommend this trip highly.”

If You Could Have Another Career?
“A painter, a printmaker, a writer, even a singer if I had a better voice.”

Something About Yourself that No One Knows?
“There is a large pink rabbit in my bathtub. And that is all I am giving away.”

Any Hobbies?
“I sing in a choir in church. I am a total amateur, but I continue to learn more and it’s an extremely satisfying experience.”

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Beth Bernstein is a published author of three books and jewelry and fashion expert with 18+ years experience. A broad knowledge of the history of jewelry and fashion coupled with a background in "the story", writing, trends, design concepts has earned Beth a proven track record.

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Designer Profiles

Victor Velyan: Rock-n-Roller Still on a Mission to Shake Things Up

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Since his youthful quest for rock ’n roll stardom in Hollywood, Victor Velyan has shaken up his life many times.

To supplement the rock ’n roll career, Velyan ran errands for a jeweler. He had an artistic inclination, so after the idea of a music career had run its course, he signed on as an apprentice for the master jeweler for two years. The jeweler was a tough teacher, telling Velyan he would never amount to anything and not letting him even touch anything for months. Still, the first time Velyan made a piece of jewelry with his own hands, his teacher cried.

Velyan became very successful as a designer, diamond setter and bench jeweler, but his early career was spent making jewelry for other designers. His business was growing rapidly but — still in his 20s — he was both bored and burned out, when he went on a safari with friends in Africa. When he got home, he was compelled to go back. “I had fallen in love with Africa, which happens to a lot of people the moment they set foot on that continent,” he explains.

He left a partner in charge of the business, bought a one-way ticket to Zimbabwe and spent the next 12 years leading safaris.

Eventually, he returned, got married, and tried to behave like “a responsible adult.”

The turning point in his relationship with jewelry came the moment he perfected a proprietary patina technique he had experimented with for some time. He diluted metals like copper — often waiting a year or two for the copper to dissolve in acid — and then painting that copper and acid mixture on silver. He discovered that it brought the copper back to life from mineral to metal and created interesting stains on the pure silver he loved to work with. He uses a green patina, a brown patina and an antique ivory patina. The green patina in particular is called a “living” patina because it continues to evolve with the wearer. “It’s an Old World line made with simple, handmade tools and that patina on top of everything,” he says.

“Finally, I had created something I was proud to put my name on. That was the drug I had been searching for.”

“I wasn’t sure how the industry would receive that — fine jewelry with green stains all over it. Literally, it looks like it came out of a shipwreck.” But it caught on quickly after one jewelry storeowner took a chance on it.

Once it did take off, the sky was the limit as far as his imagination was concerned. “I went nuts with it,” he says. “I came up with so many designs that I couldn’t keep up.”

“Finally, I had created something I was proud to put my name on. That was the drug I had been searching for. Since that day, I have been super-excited about work. I can’t wait to get up in the morning and get my ass to work.”

He also adapted his designs into gold for people who didn’t get the shipwreck vibe, or said they don’t wear silver.

“But my passion is still for the really cool lady who will wear that piece — that looks like it came from Cleopatra’s jewelry collection — with jeans and a T-shirt.” 

By crafting his own unique pieces with the quality of timeworn relics, the restless artist had at last found the key to his creative passion and a cure for boredom and burnout.

“I love colored gemstones,” he says. “But I’m still a bench guy. I love to sit at the bench and pound things. Everything is handmade. There are no CAD/CAMS, no programs. Everything looks like it’s a thousand years old. Metalsmithing is probably still my favorite part.”


Ring with 14.80-carat cabochon paraiba tourmaline with diamonds (0.88 TCW) in 18K gold, $92,400

Bracelet with pearls and diamonds (3.19 TCW) with 24K gold and 18K gold, $38,500

Ring featuring a freshwater pearl surrounded by diamonds (0.33 TCW) in 24K gold and sterling silver with green patina, $11,000 


Q&A With Victor Velyan: Expanded Online Content

What is your secret talent?

 I cook. That’s my talent and my hobby. I only took one cooking lesson in my entire life, but I can come and find whatever is in your refrigerator – old vegetables – and create a gourmet meal. I can also eat in a restaurant and identify seven out of 10 spices in a dish mankind of come close to it and make it.

What other hobbies have you pursued?

I’m an avid scuba diver and I have dived around the whole world, remote places where you use a dugout canoe and have a 12 year old as a guide. I have always wanted to see the migration of hammerhead sharks, where there are thousands in the water. I tried it for many years unsuccessfully and finally found them seven or eight years ago in Mexico. I found the entire migration, and I got bit by one of those hammerheads. It wasn’t the end of the world. It was a scratch. But when I surface, my arm won’t stop bleeding. I take a picture and send it to my agent and her first reaction is not how are you, but what happened to all the artwork (on my tattooed arm.) I did enjoy that experience.

What piece or pieces of jewelry do you wear all the time?

 I wear a leopard claw around my neck that I made a gold cap for many years ago. My life has been very interesting and Africa was a big part of it. I also wear a rosary that I made with red spinels that is so freaking unique. Twenty one matching red spinels from Burma; it took me seven years to collect those. I wear that at least once a week.

What do you like to shop for?

I collect other artists, other jewelers, paintings. I also paint and sculpt myself. I’m very involved in the art world from performing arts all the way to still life.

What are some of your inspirations?

Architecture, music, nature, travel, unique cultures, history and fine art.

Are you the most interesting man in the world?

My life has been very interesting, and I do drink Dos Equis.

When did your artistic talent first make itself known?

When kids were making snakes out of Play-Doh in kindergarten, I was sculpting an elephant.

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in Hollywood. You’d see me walking down the Sunset Strip with a bottle of Jack Daniels. That’s what I was doing in the ’80s.


This article originally appeared in the November 2017 edition of INSTORE.

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Designer Profiles

Lori Friedman: Feel-Good Pieces for Customers Seeking Something Different

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When Lori Friedman designs jewelry, she shows her true colors. The signature of her line is the carefully chosen, custom-cut gemstones she uses in her elegantly organic pieces, which reflect natural themes in eclectic color combinations.

Friedman took a break from her career as a graphic artist to raise three children. During that hiatus, she also designed a line of jewelry, which was picked up by Saks Fifth Avenue and Mitchells.

When her youngest went to college last year, she launched  her Water & Ice line in gold and made her trade-show debut at JA New York in July, where she won the Mort Abelson New Designer of the Year award. She also exhibited at Metal and Smith in August.

“My designing is not based on a trend but on a lifestyle,” she says. “I like to design feel-good pieces that define a unique sense of style for people who are looking for something different.” 


Amuleto Collection lapis horn pendant with Ethiopian opal, fire opal and diamonds set in 14K yellow gold, $3,100

Provence Collection 14K brushed yellow gold hoops with tanzanite, moonstones and diamonds, $2,860

Organic-shaped chalcedony drop pendant with ruby, pink sapphires, blue sapphires and diamonds set in 14K rose gold, $3,800

Stacking bands in brushed 14K yellow gold with moonstones, diamonds and tanzanite, $925-$1,350

 

 


Q&A With Lori Friedman: Expanded Online Content

How does painting influence you?

Painting in watercolors has taught me to try colors that I never would have thought would work together. I found in juxtaposing the unexpected that the natural beauty of the gems is highlighted; they catch a woman’s eye and draw her in on a visceral level. My paintings have this fluid, watery look to them. I wanted to achieve that transparent fluidity in the jewelry pieces to make it look almost like they are watercolors. 

Describe your design process.

I’m fascinated with gems, and while searching for gemstones, I am visualizing the design prior to sketching. Often the colors and textures of the stones themselves inspire me. I use hand-selected, custom-cut stones, so each piece is unique.

Favorite gemstone?

When I see fire in a stone, it excites me. My favorite is opal and it just so happens to be my birthstone. 

How versatile is your jewelry?

My collection revolves around pieces that complete a woman’s look—she can wear a crisp white shirt, a flowy dress or a cashmere sweater and have no trouble finding one piece to go with all three looks or a selection of pieces to mix, match, layer and stack.

What is the role of the amulet?

People are attracted to meaningful pieces that tell a story. A stone with power or a symbol with power. 

Your favorite piece of jewelry?

A brooch given to me by my grandmother. It contains a hand-painted portrait of my grandfather that she purchased from a street artist in Italy.

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Designer Profiles

Designing Lives: Irene Neuwirth

How a self-proclained free spirit turned a talent for color into ringing success.

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Irene Neuwirth profile shot

IF EVER THERE’S a role model for pursuing a dream, it’s Irene Neuwirth. With no formal training and a handful of beaded necklaces that showed her talent for combining colors, her jewelry made its way into one of the biggest stores in the business. She hasn’t lost any momentum since. Her haute bohemian collection — awash in a precious palette of tourmalines and turquoise, sapphires and pearls — garnered a Council of Fashion Designers of America Award last year and a growing number of celebrity fans. And while she’s amazed by the growth of her collection, she’s after the next milestone. “I’m happy where I am, but not completely, which is how I keep myself motivated.”


SWEET DREAMS

“I was a wild child and free spirit … always full of big ideas and very creative. As a kid, I went everywhere with boxes of beads and crayons and paints, and in college I would make jewelry for friends. After graduation, I started teaching horseback riding and my dad said, ‘Absolutely not. Find a new dream.’ Later, when I told him I had decided to design jewelry instead, he said ‘Not a chance. Find another dream.’ My dad is very sarcastic and I adore him. He’s thrilled that everything worked out.”

MAGIC PARCEL

“When I first started out, I called the Barneys switchboard and asked the name of the jewelry buyer. I sent her 10 pieces I had strung from semiprecious and vintage beads I bought from a store in Santa Monica. In the package, I enclosed a note in magic marker saying, ‘I hope you love it.’ After that, I just kept calling until someone answered. I said I was planning to be in New York the next day and wanted a meeting. Miraculously I got one, and I immediately got on a flight. I still remember what I wore. I thought it was the chicest outfit of my life: a Michael Stars T-shirt with a Rozae Nichols skirt and clogs. The Barneys team seemed to like how excited and sincere I was and took a risk with me. That was my first account.”

MASTER CLASS

“When I got back to Los Angeles [after meeting with Barneys], I found an old GIA professor who taught me one-on-one how to do wax carving and metalsmithing and stone setting. He thought I was an absolute lunatic. I told him, ‘I want you to teach me everything you know … in a week.’”

GOING FOR BROKE

“Instead of becoming conservative with my jewelry when the financial crisis came along, I went totally wild. I figured if someone were going to buy only one thing, it would be a special piece — not something everyone else had, too. I loved stones like chrysoprase — even though it wasn’t very popular — and opals, which people were afraid to use. It didn’t occur to me that someone might be afraid of color. I love mixing colors and patterns and thought other people would, too. It’s an advantage to break the rules. I mix really fine emeralds with not-so-fine turquoise. Maybe if I grew up with a jewelry background, I would’ve known it was the wrong thing to do.”

DRESSING THE PART

“My jewelry has become more red carpet and celebrities have become more willing to take risks; they’re less conservative than they used to be. Red carpet 100 percent makes a difference. I used to roll my eyes at that part of the business, but it’s been really valuable. When we post a celebrity picture on social media, one of our stores will often request the piece, and I have it sold like that.”

MUST LOVE DOGS

“I love [6-year-old Labradoodle] Teddy so much. He’s like a human in the shape of a dog. He’s become the face of the brand. I made an engagement ring for a friend, and to thank me, he made a portrait of Teddy draped in my jewelry. I loved the way it looked, so we ended up putting it on everything. I thought Lizzie [Communications and Brand Development Director Elizabeth Dowling Kaupas] was going to kill me, but the mileage we’ve gotten out of it is amazing.”

THE TALKING CURE

“Winning [the 2014 CFDA Swarovski Award for Accessory Design] was amazing. I felt like part of the accomplishment was making the acceptance speech. My biggest fear in life is speaking in front of other people. Getting up there and being able to give a speech made me think I could get through other big things in life. I went to media training for weeks out of fear that I might possibly win. I wanted the accomplishment but I didn’t want to go up there!”


Getting Personal With Irene Neuwirth

What’s your dream destination?

“I want to go on an African safari more than anything in the world. It’s something I will absolutely do at some point.”

What’s your guilty pleasure?

“I love cheeseburgers. I would eat them every day of the week if my body would let me.”

If you could time-travel, where would you go?

“To the time before the Internet was available on airplanes. That invention took away the most peaceful time in my life.”

Do you have a secret talent?

“Wiggling my ears one at a time.”

Name a goal that has nothing to do with jewelry.

“I just want to be a good person and stay humble and grateful.”


The Work: Jewelry From Irene Neuwirth

Necklace from Irene Neuwirth

18K yellow gold necklace with chrysoprase, rose-cut lapis, aquamarine,
tourmaline, turquoise, Akoya pearl, tanzanite and Colombian emerald.

Cuff from Irene Neuwirth

18K yellow gold cuff with green tourmaline

Earrings from Irene Neuwirth

18K rose and white gold earrings with pink tourmaline and full-cut diamonds.

Ring from Irene Neuwirth

18K yellow gold ring with aquamarine and diamond pavé

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