Designer Spotlight: A Conversation with Irene Neuwirth

I had the pleasure of meeting Irene Neuwirth at a recent trunk show at Mario’s in Seattle, WA. The event was hosted at Mario’s space in downtown Seattle: all tall ceilings, columns, and grand staircase. The glass artist Jean-Pierre Canlis was also featured, with his stunning red bamboo installation setting the stage for beautiful jewels and clothing.

A couple of things struck me at the event. First of all, seeing a designer’s pieces in person is a MUST. I was blown away by the intensity and complexity of Irene Neuwirth’s colored gemstones, which doesn’t fully show up in images. Also, trying on items is REQUIRED. The profile of a band, or the where the exact length of a necklace falls is so important. Only when you try things on can you truly tell how it’s going to feel and move on you.

Rose-cut Chrysoprase Ring in Gold with Diamonds

18K Yellow Gold Chrysoprase and Pave Diamond Ring, $5390 Retail

I’ll warn you, though, that if you do get to see Irene’s jewelry in person, it’s going to ruin you. Not only is she a savant in her use of color, the details in her designs are spectacular. The bezels around the gems are scalloped and catch the light just so. The chains are just the right link, length, and scale. The matte finish on the gold? Perfect. The clasps are beautifully made, and many have a safety catch.

Her color palette is pretty unusual for a fine/couture jewelry designer. Many fine jewelry designers play it safe by working with universally recognizable gems. Irene chooses jewels that have traditionally been gem specimens and elevates them to extraordinary: Labradorite, Boulder Opal, Chrysoprase.

Labradorite and Onyx Pendant

18K Rose Gold Labradorite and Onyx Pendant, $10,980 Retail

Besides her amazing color palette, the cut of the gems plays center stage in Irene’s designs. Many of the gems featured are rose-cut. Rose-cutting brings out the color and depth of the gems she uses, and still allows them to have a flat back to rest against the skin. Sometimes perfectly-set diamonds wrap around the stones, providing some sparkling contrast to the color and texture of the center stones.

Chrysoprase, Labradorite, and Onyx Earrings

18K Rose Gold Chrysoprase, Labradorite, and Onyx Earrings, $6600 Retail

In my conversation with Irene, I commented about how some of her designs seem built around a particularly appealing gem, and asked what her design process looks like. Irene said that with some of the pieces using bezel-set gems, those are cut to her specifications by her gem dealer. But others, such as the boulder opals, she starts with the gems first, playing with them until she has the design just right.

Boulder Opal, Turquoise, and Moonstone Pendant

18K Yellow Gold Turquoise, Moonstone, and One-of-a-Kind Boulder Opal Pendant, $10,520 Retail

I also asked if there was a category (rings, bracelets, earrings, etc.) that she particularly loved to design? She laughed and said that was hard. Obviously, she has designed everything in the case, from narrow bangles to shoulder-grazing earrings. But right now, her current pleasure is designing the larger bezel-set necklaces.

Bezel-set Chrysoprase Necklace

18K Yellow Gold Bezel-set Chrysoprase Necklace, $11,780 Retail

Irene’s jewelry straddles the line between the more staid jewelry industry and the fickle fashion industry. Her pieces have an amazing sense of color and design that feel more like fashion, but manage to be precious and timeless at the same time. I especially love that she designs with women as her audience, versus designing what men think women should like. Women should be unapologetic about pursuing and buying fine jewelry that makes them happy.

Moonstone and Rose-cut Diamond Ring

18K Yellow Gold Rainbow Moonstone and Rose-cut Diamond Ring, $9170 Retail

They always carry a collection of Irene’s jewelry at Mario’s, so if you are in Seattle, stop in to take a look. Or check out her website to see the other retailers who carry her jewelry.

Just don’t say I didn’t warn you.

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