Jewelry Designer Stephen Dweck’s Game of Stones



After 35 years, the designer’s statement pieces are bold as ever

Stephen Dweck is the personification of the jewelry brand he started 35 years ago: colorful, exuberant, imaginative, and inspired by the beauty of natural stones and minerals. His delight in arranging chunky opals, moonstones, and chalcedony into a one-of-a-kind necklace reflects his lifelong fascination with colored stones. “I still have the first little quartz rocks I collected and labeled as a kid,” Dweck says of growing up near the beach in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he and his family still live. A pioneer in designing statement jewelry, Dweck possesses a vision that’s never wavered. “It comes from respecting and loving the stones,” he says, “and being brave enough to use stones other people are too timid to use.”

Beyond his skill at making a bracelet from, say, a nugget of American jasper attached to a wrist-wrapping strand of emerald-cut amethysts is Dweck’s singular obsession with every inch of his jewelry, which features intricate engraving on the backs and sides. An early inspiration was the work of Geoffrey Beene, the first designer to showcase Dweck jewelry on runways in the early 1980s. “He told me, ‘The back of the necklace should be as beautiful as the front,’ which is exactly what his clothing was like, with details only the wearer would see.”

Dweck, whose client list ranges from Candice Bergen and Céline Dion to Beyoncé and Blake Lively, is chatty and warm. It’s no surprise that he is an in-demand guest at the 41 Neiman Marcus stores that carry his line as well as at Liberty of London, where he drew crowds last December: He can instantly single out pieces that will enhance a client’s wardrobe and existing jewelry. His Brooklyn accent makes him approachable, but he knows plenty about high fashion, decorating, cooking, and gardening. (A beetle found in his rose garden became the symbol of his custom pieces.) For more than three decades, Dweck has grown his business while inspiring up-and-coming jewelers.

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Jaipur bracelet with aqua chalcedony, carved frosted crystal quartz, and London blue, Swiss, and sky blue topaz in sterling silver; $3,895; Stephen Dweck, NYC; 212-764-3030; emmy@stephendweck.com; stephendweck.com

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Veneto turquoise ring with blue topaz and carved natural turquoise in sterling silver; $1,190

Fashion Forward

One of four brothers, Stephen Dweck grew up helping out at his father’s electronics store in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and mastering Spanish in conversation with his Cuban-born mother and maternal grandmother. An art teacher at Abraham Lincoln High School encouraged his interest in sculpture, which led him to enroll in Manhattan’s School of Visual Arts, where he realized that the stones he adored could be carved into jewelry. At 21, he set up shop, and with a boost from Beene, Donna Karan, and Oscar de la Renta, the company quickly began attracting customers confident enough to wear bold jewelry.

From the beginning, Dweck walked the line between fine and costume jewelry, a designation that doesn’t do justice to the level of craftsmanship in his sterling silver and 18k gold pieces. “That’s always been attached to me,” he says with a shrug, “but you know what? This ‘costume jewelry’ happens to be worn by first ladies and is part of the permanent collection at the Metropolitan Museum,” where a carved Dweck earring is currently on display alongside ancient manuscript art. “It started in the early years of being on the runway—you needed to be able to see the jewelry from far away.” Nowadays, he adds, luxury fashion houses such as Chanel and Louis Vuitton are cashing in with their own jewelry lines.

Though Dweck is too polite to name names, his designs appear to have influenced several currently popular brands, not to mention those ubiquitous chunky chokers and bib necklaces. “I’ve always been daring and confident when it comes to color, texture, and detail,” he says, producing jewelry that appeals to three generations who see his pieces as collectibles. “You know The Picture of Dorian Gray?” he jokes. “The person gets older but the jewelry doesn’t. I update things and the sizes change, but my jewelry doesn’t age.”

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One-of-a-kind faceted and cluster pink and green amethyst and green moonstone bib necklace in sterling silver; $25,885

Sorcerer of Stones

In a sunny corner of Dweck’s garment district headquarters, hundreds of stones await placement on paper outlines of necklaces, bracelets, and pendants. (Finished products bear the notation “100 percent approved by Stephen.”) “This is our workshop,” he says, greeting staffers cheerfully in Spanish and English. Amid the turquoise, topaz, and tourmaline are minerals that require a dictionary for those not in the know: aventurine, chrysoprase, pyrite, kyanite, and dumortierite. Dweck deals directly with mines around the world to source his materials, and though some production elements have moved to Asia, “every piece is started by hand and finished by hand,” he says. “I scribble ideas and work with my illustrating team, then it gets perfected in the computer before being put into waxes and corrected by hand. Computers have changed the process, but we never want to lose the detail of an original Stephen Dweck design.”

In the past few years, Dweck has added smaller pieces to his collection, including stackable bangles and pavé diamond and citrine rings and earrings that can be dressed up or down. Women today, he says, prefer to wear a mix of brands, and if they buy one of his oversized cuffs, they’ll scale down everything else. “The challenge is presenting a cohesive collection,” not trying to stay ahead of young designers entering the field. He recently participated in a showcase sponsored by the jewelry branch of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, mingling with emerging names such as Eva Fehren and Jennifer Fisher. “They’re all relevant,” he says. “If there are 10 original brands, there are niches in a lady’s life for each designer. There’s more competition now, but there are also a lot more customers out there.”

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Verona ring with peacock mabe pearl and rhodolite garnet in sterling silver; $975

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One-of-a-kind Platinum Valley drusy and mabe pearl tennis bracelet in sterling silver; $1,630

Back to the Future

“I’m my own worst critic,” says Dweck, whose drive to experiment with gems and passion for jewelry in general helps explain his company’s impressive longevity. Besides Neiman’s and Liberty of London, 40 to 60 independent stores sell Stephen Dweck jewelry, depending on the season. The strength of the brand in Japan led the company to open flagship stores in Tokyo and Osaka, but Dweck doesn’t feel the need to invest in brick-and-mortar shops in America. Internet sales, mostly through Neiman Marcus, currently represent 10 percent of total volume, a number that is expected to rise when the company completes a revamp of its website.  

Dweck and his wife of more than 30 years, Sarise, have four grown children, including son Ralph, who introduced the men’s swimwear company Mr. Swim in 2011, and daughter Caroline, a Teen Vogue alum who masterminds the company’s social media and public relations. “My wife always says, ‘You were chosen—you have something special,’ so it’s a privilege to do what I do.”

Luckily for his fans, the designer shows no sign of being ready to retire to the Jersey Shore, where the Victorian home he decorated merited a feature in Elle Decor. He’s too busy showing off a bracelet of hand-carved frosted rock crystal lined with mother-of-pearl and turquoise—the kind of piece that allows a woman “to wear the world on her wrist.” His enthusiasm for stones remains as palpable as it was at age 9, when the quartz he found on the beach reminded him of diamonds.

“Listen, the minute somebody catches up to me, it’s time for me to move on,” he says. “I’m still pioneering. I always said I’m going to work till I’m 90, and I’m preparing this brand for the next 35 years. I love it too much to think about anybody carrying on my legacy. There’s more where this came from!” 

 

Top: Metropolis earrings with amethyst and carved gray mother-of-pearl in sterling silver; $1,165; Rocks ID bracelet with rhodolite garnet in sterling silver; $1,010