Notes on ‘Scandal’: A Costume Designer Dishes on Olivia Pope, Jewelry, and Platinum

A couple weeks ago, I had the pleasure of visiting the Los Angeles home of Lyn Paolo, the costume designer on the hit ABC show Scandal.

The U.K.-born Paolo, an Emmy Award–winning designer, has outfitted some of television’s most memorable characters thanks to her work on The West Wing, ER, and Shameless. Now, through Olivia Pope, the fashion-plate character played by Kerry Washington at the heart of Scandal, she’s introducing a new generation of fans to the subtle and sophisticated jewels seen on the show, including a wealth of platinum pieces orchestrated through Paolo’s recent collaboration with the Platinum Guild (PGI).

PGI is on a campaign to remind jewelers “that platinum can be bridal, but it can also be fashion and it can be everyday,” says senior vice president Jenny Luker.

To that end, they’ve partnered with Jessica Cohen, an industry veteran whose Lüp Rocks product-placement firm connects jewelers with prop stylists and costume designers. She says the latter are the ideal vehicles to spread the platinum gospel.

“They think of platinum differently than we do in jewelry,” Cohen says. “Their sensibility is a little more outside the box. They’re not tied into a preconceived notion of what it should be.”

Paolo, a longtime fan of the rare white metal, certainly isn’t. She admits to being “a bit of a freak about” jewelry.

“This is nothing!” she exclaimed as I stood peering into the closet of her son’s room, where the bulk of her vintage jewelry collection is housed in giant hanging bags.

Checking out one of Lyn Paolo’s jewelry-laden closets

We spoke about all things jewelry on the morning of my visit. Here’s an excerpt:

Victoria Gomelsky: So I hear you have a lot of jewelry stashed away in this house.

Lyn Paolo: I can’t even take you in the other room where I have hoards of vintage jewelry. There are three closets in my house that have hanging bags of jewelry.

My crew members on all my shows are quite shocked because when I show up for each new show, I show up with a double hanging rack full of jewelry that I’ve collected over the years.

VG: Have you always been into jewelry?

LP: I don’t know where it started. I know I used to steal my mother’s jewelry, and I have my grandmother’s jewelry here. My daughter buys me all these books about jewelry because I’m a bit of a magpie and I will always, always go to the window that has the jewelry in it. I was just in London on Portobello Road, and I literally ran to the window with jewelry. “Oh, there she goes again.”

A small selection of Paolo’s jewelry collection

VG: And what role does jewelry play in your professional life?

LP: Being a costume designer, I think jewelry is so important to telling the story. What somebody is wearing is everything; it’s not just the clothes. It’s what kind of watch do they have? What kind of earrings do they wear? What kind of wedding band does this woman have? It can also be really integral to the story. I do a lot of research. It’s a great storytelling tool for me in my job.

Paolo’s jewelry is ready for its close-up.

VG: Does jewelry come first? Or the fashion?

LP: It depends. I just did a film in London, and Bradley Cooper’s character is supposed to be French. I found an image of a stone over the door of a French chateau and I thought, wouldn’t it be great if he had something like that? I was showing the images to the jewelers in London and they came up with something. And Bradley loved that. It can be so helpful to an actor. Like I have my baby bracelet in here that my grandparents gave to me; I’m going to give it to my daughter when she has a little girl. And those kinds of things make you feel who you are. And when you can give them to an actor, and say, maybe this was your mum’s—actors love that. It really helps them to feel the person.

VG: When you look back at all the characters you’ve dressed, do any specific pieces of jewelry come to mind?

LP: So many. Kerry does have her Monique Péan ring that was specially designed for Kerry for the show, and the Scandal fans think it has some amazing significance. I cannot say if it does or doesn’t. I just bought the ring. This season we’re using a lot of diamond and platinum studs on her because we want her to look like she has a harder edge this year. Darby’s [Stanchfield] character has changed so much. She went from being very conservative to her character having very eclectic jewelry. I can’t tell you why. I have managed to purloin some amazing platinum pieces for Darby for her new role that I’m not allowed to tell you about.

I don’t like to change the jewelry or introduce new jewelry unless it’s telling the story, and that’s why I think a lot of the gladiators like to watch the show. They’ll literally say, “Why is Mellie wearing that green stone? Is it part of the story?” I get so many letters, emails, tweets, even fan mail.

VG: More for this show than others you’ve worked on?

LP: I used to get a lot on West Wing. For the jewelry, more on this show, because we don’t use a lot of jewelry. When we do use it, it has a significance usually, and it sort of tells the story a little bit and the audience is really tuned into it.

VG: You said you’re doing more with diamonds and platinum because it gives Olivia Pope a steelier look.

LP: More classy. I can’t tell you, but something is happening in her life that is making her jewelry choices evolve—certain moments where it feels not more traditional but more grown-up.

VG: Did you know much about platinum before you started working with PGI?

LP: In a world where most people have a gold wedding band, my mom has a platinum wedding band, my sister has a platinum wedding band, I have a platinum wedding band. We just felt it was more fashion forward. It was such an iconic thing in the ’20s and ’30s, but we felt by the ’80s that gold [had taken over].

I just love to stack it. That set me off. I go to antiques shows and find all these antique wedding bands and I just stack them, so I end up having 30 of them.

VG: So you wear jewelry, too? You’re not just collecting it for your work?

LP: I wear it. But I don’t wear a lot of jewelry; I wear one or two significant pieces. I just think the jewelry makes it an outfit, makes it a different thing.

VG: When you take jewelry to the set, is it all stuff you own?

LP: We buy jewelry for the show, and designers will make things for us. People are very helpful. And they want things highlighted. We’ll tweet about it. The actors on all my shows are very good about that. It’s a symbiotic relationship: We can help the jeweler. We’re certainly respectful of the product, and the actors are, and I think it’s an amazing relationship where we can all help one another. [We help people understand] how to wear it. Because a lot of people in their personal lives don’t really know. If you’re going out for a job interview, it’s great to have those little signature pieces. They say clothes make the man, and I think jewelry makes the woman.

VG: When you work with platinum, do you find that people know what it is?

LP: Most people don’t know. They don’t even know what rose gold is. I don’t think they know what any of it is—they just like what they like. I like the clarity of platinum, because I’m sort of a minimalist.

VG: Jewelry is such esoteric knowledge; you have to learn about it. And there’s so much jewelry today: fine, fashion, costume. We write about that mix a lot. Do you see that, too?

LP: I see it, but I actually don’t do it. I like things to be one tone. I have a huge collection of resin bracelets and a huge collection of vintage Bakelite. I used to love to stack stuff, but I wouldn’t have mixed it with my line bracelets. I’m a bit of a purist. I like things to be clean and sleek. But my daughter does that. Maybe it’s a generational thing? I really do like things to be classic and clean. You can tell by all my shows. I don’t want to mess with the audience’s head, unless the character is like that.

VG: Are you seeing anything at the moment as far as trends go?

LP: I still love the long necklaces; I know they’ve been around for a while, but I don’t care. I really do love the channel diamond line necklace. I used that on Uma Thurman for a movie, and you just can’t beat that look, if you can afford it. It can be pricey but it’s your one signature piece, you get it, and wear it forever. Like my grandmother’s ring I’ve had since I was 11, and I still wear it. That’s not like a top or a coat. And I think people forget that. They look at jewelry and go, “Oh that’s out of my price range,” but I think you have to amortize it. I know all of this is going to go to my daughter, and she’s going to wear it. Jewelry lasts.

Paolo points to a platinum ring that her grandmother gave her when she was 11 years old.

VG: Do you find that men get it, like when you put Bradley Cooper in that necklace?

LP: Bradley completely got it. Actors do because they want anything that’s part of a character’s life. My male friends—they don’t understand why women love jewelry the way we do, and I say, “Women don’t understand why you love your golf clubs! So you just need to get over it and buy that jewelry for your lovely wife!”