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Featured in LALA Magazine

April 2020

IRENE-IAN 

RHAPSODY

Surrounding herself with artists

and filling her life with art,

both at home and in her work,

jewelry designer Irene Neuwirth

creates a kaleidoscopic world.


BY CRYSTAL MEERS


AS A CHILD, IRENE NEUWIRTH TOOK HER

colored pencils and paper with her everywhere. “We would bring her

out to dinner, and she would just draw the whole time, so much so

that her father started to worry she wasn’t talking to people,” recalls

her mother, Geraldine, a painter whose colorful abstract works reflect

the visual language of theater.

Neuwirth remembers those days fondly, sitting with her parents’

friends at restaurants and dinner parties as she drew contentedly. “It

was my favorite time of the week,” she says about those dinners. “For as

long as I can remember, art has been a key player in my life.”

Her artistic endeavors weren’t limited to dinnertime. Neuwirth

also spent countless hours after school in her mother’s Venice studio

where there were always paints and an easel waiting for her. “My mom

helped me see color in a different way,” says Neuwirth. “She helped

me mix unusual colors together and made me unafraid to love color

and express myself through it.”

Today, Neuwirth is known the world over for her distinctive use

of color—only she’s traded in her colored pencils for prized gems and

18-karat gold. Having experimented after college with jewelry design,

stringing together precious and semiprecious beads in every color

of the rainbow to make one-of-a-kind necklaces, she found herself

swimming in requests and, in 2003, decided to make her business

official. From one-name-needed-only global superstars Oprah and

Rihanna to red carpet royalty like Charlize Theron, Lupita Nyong’o,

Jennifer Lawrence and Phoebe Waller-Bridge, those who seek her

out are drawn to Neuwirth’s signature whimsical way with luxury.

At its most subtle, this may be a pair of ladylike rainbow moonstone

cabochon earrings in a gold scalloped coin-edged setting. At its most

opulent, it may take shape as a tiara made of gold flowers covered in

emeralds and three types of opals.

Best known for her covetable “one-of-a-kinds,” with their

exuberant color combinations and spectacular array of stones,

Neuwirth starts with the gemstones that catch her eye. Whether a

large boulder opal for a heart pendant or an emerald-cut watermelon

tourmaline full of inclusions, she chooses her materials for their

unique beauty and character, experimenting with the elements until

the piece feels, in her words, “balanced, bold and interesting.” Her

creativity and playfulness permeate the miniature bunnies carved out

of cotton-candy pink opals. She often pulls from what is happening

in the world around her, using her magic to take an old doodle of a

horse mid-jump and turn it into a flat gold pendant or look toward the

flowers that adorn her favorite candles from San Miguel de Allende

as inspiration for her Super Bloom collection that launched last year.

“Beauty is a very internal reaction to something that touches her,”

explains her mother. “Who she is is what she creates.”

In either case, the results are unmistakably Irene. “When I think

of jewelry, it’s usually a limited metallic palette, but with Irene it’s this

explosion of color and unusual materials like minerals and crystals,”

says artist Aaron Morse, an LA-based painter, whose colorful, fanciful

scenes can be found in the permanent collections of the Hammer

Museum, MoCA, LACMA and the Whitney.

Morse was introduced to Neuwirth through their mutual

friend, ForYourArt Founder & newly-minted Chief Executive of the

Serpentine Galleries Bettina Korek. He began working with Neuwirth

when she asked if he would paint a selection of antique wooden hand

mirrors for her Melrose Place and, later, Brentwood Country Mart

boutiques. “Bettina thought I would really connect to Aaron’s work,

so I went to his studio and just loved what he creates so much,” says

Neuwirth. “We have been collecting vintage mirrors for quite some

time. We thought, ‘What a cool idea to have him paint on the old

mirrors.’ We wanted every surface of the store to hold meaning.”

For Morse, the respect is mutual. “Her work, through its various

shapes, references botanicals and plant forms but also human

artifacts, like stone tools or early adornment,” says the artist, whose

own paintings touch on similar themes and whose custom prints line

the brightly colored boxes for Neuwirth’s high jewelry pieces. “Her

work is unpretentious, but high-minded.”

That high-minded unpretentiousness is on full display at her

stores, brought to life by interior designer Pamela Shamshiri. One of

the founders of the beloved local design firm Commune, Shamshiri,

who set up her own shop with her brother in 2016, firrst began working

with Neuwirth on the jewelry designer’s Melrose Place flagship,

which opened in 2014. “Irene knows what she wants, but there is a

sense of freedom and that anything can happen,” says Shamshiri,

who included in the residential-like interior such cheeky elements

as flamingo topiaries, a wooden donkey and a giant horse painting—

snagged at an auction—from the late artist Tony Duquette’s home. A

vibrant pink painting by Neuwirth’s mother holds a place of honor

above the store’s fireplace.

“Pam is a true artist. I think together we really pushed the limits

of the store,” says Neuwirth of the space she feels is a reflection of her

aesthetic self come to life through their collaboration. “We created a

little wonderland that expresses who I am.” Shamshiri concurs, “It’s

really fun to work with her because we layer on each other’s ideas. She

says animals; I say diorama!”

To that end, Shamshiri enlisted artist Clare Crespo to construct

magnificent flora-and fauna-filled dioramas for both Melrose Place

and Neuwirth’s shop inside Capitol Brentwood, which opened last

year. “Irene is a delight to work with because she is clear about what

she wants but is also very trusting in the process. It’s probably because

she is an artist, too,” says Crespo, a self-described “fantasist” who has

created fanciful worlds for the Ace Hotel, Levi’s and Target. “Her

jewelry is completely dazzling to me. I love it so much; it makes me

want to push myself into her gorgeous realm to try and relate,” adds

Crespo, whose otherworldly illustrations of animals, birds, flowers and

whimsy embellish custom tissue paper and Neuwirth’s website (as well

as these pages of LALA).

Neuwirth is drawn to artists with a natural kind of raw expression.

“She’s very interested in what other artists are doing, and that curiosity

sets her apart,” says Morse. “It allows her to make discoveries most

people don’t see.” Among her current favorite artists is Brazilian

Solange Pessoa, whose animal series recently caught Neuwirth’s

eye when she visited Frieze LA last February with her friend Laura

Copelin, the Museum of Contemporary Art Tucson’s interim

executive director and chief curator (formerly of Ballroom Marfa).

Pointing to another favorite, Neuwirth shares Dan Miller—whose

work hangs in her hallway—is one of the many artists whom she has

discovered through Creative Growth, the Oakland-based nonprofit

studio and gallery serving artists with disabilities. “I love so many of

their ceramics, paintings and rugs. It’s such an incredible cause,” she

says. “I feel like everyone I am really close to is an artist in some way

or, at least, is incredibly creative.”

This is true of even the person closest to her. “Phil has an

unbelievable eye,” she says of her partner, filmmaker Phil Lord,

whose credits include writing and directing 2014’s The Lego Movie

and writing and producing 2018’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,

films as buoyant and bright as Neuwirth’s jewelry. “One of my favorite

things about our relationship is our mutual appreciation for art and

color. I mean, have you seen Into the Spider-Verse? It’s a masterpiece

of color and balance, humor and emotion!”

Of her own creative pursuits, Neuwirth says, “I could design all

day, every day. I surround myself with art in all areas of my life—

with travel, places, food, people. To me, they all add to the flow of

creativity. My store is filled with gorgeous artwork, as is my house. I try

to make life extra colorful. I can’t help it. It’s who I am.”

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