Robert Lee Makes His Own Rules

It’s easy to spot Robert Lee Morris at a jewelry show. In a place where Armani, Brioni, and Gucci are as omnipresent as diamonds and pearls, Morris wears jeans and T-shirts. For his debut in the fine jewelry industry, his marketing manager begged him to put on a button-down shirt (she didn’t venture the word “tie”), but Morris said no. “That’s not me. This is me. This is who I am.” He did make one small concession: He put on a jacket for dinner – with a T-shirt under it.

Robert Lee Morris doesn’t do anything the usual way. He’s a famous New York jewelry designer, but he made his name in the fashion industry. He wasn’t born into the jewelry business; he’s an Air Force kid who lived in three different countries before third grade. He didn’t apprentice to a European goldsmith; he bought a secondhand hammer and taught himself to make jewelry.

His signature pieces were sculptural manipulations of materials like wood, leather, brass, and copper, and for a long time the closest thing he got to precious was matte

silver. In fact, he didn’t even want to work in gold or platinum because he thought it was “too common.”

“I’m a real, true metalsmith, not a true jeweler. I can hear metals sing to me,” says Morris. “I’m very intoxicated by their weight, malleability, strength, and tensile strength.” He loves sculpting metal, forging it, casting it, touching it.

“I adore copper. It’s as soft as 24k gold, but when you heat it, it turns a bright brick red. It sends me back to the Age of Copper, when man worked with the pure ores out of the earth. Metalsmiths come from a long line of guilds. They were once considered sacred because of their ability to transform ore into tools. They were considered equal to the Druids. I believe we’re the descendants of metalsmiths.”

He lifts a thin platinum chain out of his T-shirt. “See this? I wear this little chain because I’m getting to know platinum.” Morris speaks of metal as an entity that one must know well, like a friend.

Morris has retained his signature style of organic, sculptural form as he has moved through different materials, whether wood or gemstones. Despite his early refusal to work with the noble metals, he really does know what he’s doing with them. One look at his hands is all it takes to believe. These are the hands of a true metalsmith – worn and rough, and occasionally dirty. These hands are almost always at the bench, forging metal into art.

Peripatetic childhood. Morris calls himself “the perfect Baby Boomer, a child of the ’60s,” who read Jack Kerouac, lived on a commune, and spent a lot of time contemplating existentialism. His parents are neither Druid nor metalsmith, but a Jewish Air Force pilot and a Southern Baptist former fashion model. His childhood, however, was not the typical experience of either civilian or military family life in that era.

His early childhood was spent in Nuremburg, Germany, and then from age 8 to 12, Morris lived with his family in Japan. There, he studied flower arranging, which formed the basis of his future aesthetic sense of balance between positive and negative space. Meanwhile, as an Explorer Scout, he learned American Indian dancing and lore, which provided a contrast to the Japanese sense of proper order and balance and influenced his lasting love of the earth.

Next, the family moved to a part of South Carolina that Morris bluntly describes as “redneck,” followed by high school in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, which Morris calls a “culture of sex and total uninhibition.” Apart from the expected temptations facing an adolescent boy in Rio, Morris says he “forged a deep connection to the sun and the sea.”

At the very progressive Beloit College, however, Morris chose to deny his artistic side and worked diligently through almost every other discipline offered at the small Wisconsin school.

Time magazine led Morris back into art. In 1968, the cover of Time asked, “Is God Dead?” “I spent a lot of time contemplating life vs. death, and found it tough to accept that there was no God. Through art, I realized that God does exist. The power of the universe courses through you.”

He and a few friends started a vegetarian commune in an abandoned farmhouse. He bought a secondhand claw hammer and a book, How to Make Jewelry, by Thomas Gentille. It was all rather idyllic – until they accidentally burned the farmhouse down. But Morris continued to make jewelry. He moved to a shack in Vermont, bought more books and a Bantam torch, and learned to solder. He and his friends sold their crafts at roadside; Morris supplemented this meager income by selling soap products door to door.

One day, Joan (Mrs. Roger) Sonnabend, the wife of the then-owner of the Plaza Hotel in New York, spied an African-inspired Morris necklace on the neck of an employee. She was in the process of building a gallery called Sculpture to Wear, and Morris’s jewelry was exactly the kind of thing she’d envisioned to fill it. She tracked him down, and the couple told him, “We’ll make you famous.”

Meteoric rise. Sculpture to Wear opened in 1972 in the Plaza, directly across from the famous old Persian Room off the lobby. In the next five years, the gallery sold more Robert Lee Morris jewelry than anything else. It was a meteoric rise to fashion fame; 77 consecutive issues of Vogue featured at least one piece of Morris’s jewelry. In 1976, his jewelry finally made the cover. A few months later, the Sonnabends closed Sculpture to Wear and Morris was suddenly out on the street.

“I went to Saks, Bergdorf’s, and so forth. They said, ‘We’ve heard of you, but we just don’t get it!’ ” So the artist became his own retailer and opened ArtWear on East 74th Street. “I figured that if I was in this position, chances are others were, too.”

The neighbors didn’t get it, either. “The blue-haired ladies thought it was a porn shop. Other people thought it was an African import shop.” ArtWear lasted six months on 74th Street. In August 1978, it reopened in SoHo. The day it opened, all Morris had left to his name was $5 and a diabetic Great Dane. But within one week he’d made more money than he had in six months on 74th Street. His gallery became a one-stop shop for fashion editors and stylists. He was asked to do jewelry collections for Geoffrey Beene, Calvin Klein (which won a Coty Award, the fashion industry’s top honor), Kansai Yamamoto, and many more. Morris says it’s a good thing he was so successful right away, or his dog, Cooper, might have eaten the hand that fed him.

In 1995, he was honored with a 25-year retrospective exhibit at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology. It was a career high, but then people began asking what he was going to do next.

“I said, ‘Yeah, what am I going to do?’ That was it; that was my career, and I didn’t want to go back and redo the same thing.”

The precious metals lured and beckoned. “I never wanted to move into this field [fine jewelry] because I felt it wasn’t for me. I felt it was very stodgy and very ornate. But now I can see there is a place for my vision.”

Morris loves gold and platinum now, and he even likes diamonds and pearls. Through a new partnership with jewelry manufacturing giant Fabrikant, he now has the opportunity to explore everything he’s wanted to create in precious metal. The child of the ’60s now wants permanence. And though Morris loves to emphasize spirituality, he does understand the most important element of business: Know your customer.

“I envision my jewelry on my peers. My customer is a Baby Boomer, a woman who went to college with me. I never sold jewelry to the whole Upper East Side set [the rich socialite ‘ladies who lunch’].

“Now, I’m finding a whole new generation of collectors; girls who grew up with a mom who wore Robert Lee Morris jewelry. But they want it a little lighter, a little more hip. And maybe in platinum because it’s a hip metal.”

Despite Morris’s relative celebrity status among the fashion crowd, he’s managed to stay remarkably down-to-earth. Perhaps it’s his connection with the elements of the earth, but he feels it’s very important for people – and young people especially – not to lose touch with their connection to the earth, or with the traditions of the ages.

Perhaps Morris isn’t quite as much of a rebel as he thinks. This is an industry where millions of dollars are exchanged on a word and a handshake. Morris, with his strong sense of God and tradition, fits right in.

A Store That Reflects a Love of the Earth

Today, the jewelry industry is finally recognizing that its core product is a fashion item – after all, jewelry is meant to be worn. Robert Lee Morris applauds this evolution from the vantage point of one who’s already there. When today’s most popular jewelry designers were still jammed into the back of the Sheraton ballroom, Morris was a regular in Vogue. By the time jewelers began to acknowledge the importance of fashion, Morris was designing a jewelry collection for apparel doyenne Donna Karan and had created a limited-edition series of lipstick and compact cases for Elizabeth Arden cosmetics.

When branded jewelry was just a fledgling concept, Morris already had loyal collectors among New York’s fashionable set. And today, as designers are breaking the retail frontier with branded company stores, they can ask Morris for advice. He’s had a gallery in SoHo since 1978, originally called ArtWear. In 1985, he opened a second gallery across the street, this one under the Robert Lee Morris name. In 1994, he closed ArtWear altogether and a year later moved the Robert Lee Morris gallery to its current location at 400 W. Broadway. The space is clean and airy, with high ceiling, white walls, tall windows, dark green carpeting, and brass fittings. His case displays, created from different colors of raw beans and terra-cotta flowerpots, give a simple, elegant textured backdrop that’s modern yet perfectly in tune with Morris’s organic forms and love of the earth.

Worried About the New Millennium

Given Robert Lee Morris’s background, it’s not surprising he has strong opinions about the coming millennium. “The new millennium is going to be defined by the rate of technological change. I think kids today are losing touch with our roots to the earth. In lieu of sandboxes and potholders, they do three things at once on a computer, but they’ve lost touch with the traditions of orally passing things down.”

He’s very worried about an epidemic of anomie, a feeling of disconnectedness and loss of order. To counteract its devastating effects, he has an old-fashioned remedy: Stop and smell the roses. Take time off to garden, he says; go to museums and study Ming vases, and get in touch with your roots, your spiritual side.

“I’ve always had a sort of ethnic, Third World tribalism sensibility to my work, but now I’m bringing diamonds into it. It’s like joining two worlds. I can see a turbaned woman wearing it; a caravan, the whole thing. Remember, guys, we don’t all live in New York City, we don’t all have laptops. We also have cuneiform!”