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Irene Neuwirth On Her Early Days and Why She Went ‘Totally Wild’ With Her Jewelry During the Great Recession [INTERVIEW]

Learn how a self-proclaimed free spirit turned her instinct for color into ringing success.

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Irene Neuwirth profile shot Irene Neuwirth says: “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.”

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.’”

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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!”

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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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Wilkerson Helped This Jeweler to Navigate His Retirement Sale Despite a Pandemic

Hosting a going-out-of-business sale when the coronavirus pandemic hit wasn’t a part of Bob Smith’s game plan for his retirement. Smith, the owner of E.M. Smith Jewelers in Chillicothe, Ohio, says the governor closed the state mid-way through. But Smith chose Wilkerson, and Wilkerson handled it like a champ, says Smith. And when it was time for the state to reopen, the sale continued like nothing had ever happened. “I’d recommend Wilkerson,” he says. “They do business the way we do business.”

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