There’s Something About Irene: The Fantastic Origin Story of Irene Neuwirth’s Colorful Jewels

How Irene Neuwirth’s colorful gems and aw-shucks demeanor charm celebs and real folks alike

Approximately one out of every five photos on jewelry designer Irene Neuwirth’s Instagram is of her dog, Teddy.

Sometimes the shaggy white Labradoodle with a soggy snout is frolicking on the beach or enjoying some other typically canine pursuit. But just as often, Teddy’s decked out in a couple of brightly ­colored $50,000 necklaces made of opals or onyx, posing like the most unfazed, shabby-chic model you’ve ever laid eyes on.

Between Teddy’s scruffy charm and his owner’s envy-inducing lifestyle—nights out with her BFFs Busy Philipps and Nate Berkus, bellinis in Rome with her movie-director boyfriend—Neuwirth’s account has amassed more than 13,000 followers. And it tells you pretty much everything you need to know about this year’s recipient of the Council of Fashion Designers of America’s Swarovski Award for Accessory Design: At a time when celebrities have seemingly direct relationships with their fans via social media, Neuwirth has made her bohemian, Southern California beach life an aspiration even for women who can afford her chunky, candy-colored, up-to-$80,000 pieces.

18k rose gold pendant necklace with 18.06 cts. t.w. boulder opals, 4.88 cts. t.w. Lightning Ridge opals, and 0.2 ct. t.w. diamond pavé; $22,500; Irene Neuwirth, Venice, Calif.; 310-450-6063;

The 38-year-old designer manages to bridge the divide between luxury jewels and accessible, ­wearable, joyous design. But don’t be fooled: Behind her gap-toothed grin beats the heart of a very driven artist.

Neuwirth’s start in the jewelry business is the stuff of entrepreneurial how-to’s. As she tells it, “I started making jewelry for fun, and Barneys picked up my line.”

It’s a tale that has been repeated in almost every magazine piece written about her—in Vogue, W, ­Harper’s Bazaar. And it seems at best exaggerated, at worst apocryphal. But, insists Neuwirth, “It really happened that way. I went to the bead store on Main Street [in Santa Monica]. I made 10 pieces of ­jewelry, and I wrote Barneys a note with, like, a Sharpie. It said, ‘I hope you love it!’ I sent it to them and then hit redial until somebody answered the phone. They said, ‘Let us know when you’re in New York.’ I said, ‘I’m going to be there tomorrow!’?”

18k rose gold ring with 5.79 ct. opal heart and 0.12 ct. t.w. diamond pavé; $8,120

As the story goes, Neuwirth hung up the phone, bought a plane ticket, and flew to New York City, where the buyers at Barneys purchased her line.

The crazy thing about this tale—aside from the fact that it seems impossible that Barneys would buy ­jewelry made at a bead store—is that the future CFDA award winner hadn’t had any training. But one rarely mentioned aspect of the story brings it all a bit more down to earth: “Every single piece broke,” she admits. But by then it didn’t matter. With Barneys’ validation, Neuwirth took classes from a ­jewelry professor and learned wax carving and metalsmithing. “I really fell in love with the process.”

Neuwirth’s origins story might have taken on some fantastical flourishes over the years, but its underlying messages are clear: Anyone can do it! Go for it! You’ll never know unless you try!

18k yellow gold necklace with 247.25 cts. t.w. turquoise and 0.88 ct. t.w. diamond pavé; $32,480

All of that is true to who Neuwirth is. “I think people are really talented,” she says. “But they wait for things to be totally perfect, and they’re scared to put themselves out there. So I did, and it worked.”

And regardless of exactly how it came about, ­Barneys now accounts for the bulk of Neuwirth’s sales. (She has more than two dozen other retail accounts, including jewelry heavyweights Marissa Collections and Ylang 23.)

The persistence that drove her to this success has been a part of Neuwirth for as long as she can remember. “I don’t know,” she muses. “That’s something deep within that I can’t even explain. I’ve always been that way. If I like something, I just get a bit obsessive over it.”

18k yellow gold earrings with 5.39 cts. t.w. Lightning Ridge opals, 65.84 cts. t.w. Kingman turquoise drops, and 0.66 ct. t.w. diamond pavé; $21,560

Her current obsession: her newest collection. “I literally designed, like, 200 pieces in the last two weeks,” says Neuwirth, who is padding around her Venice, Calif., office barefoot, in Balenciaga. “I think the whole office would say that is my biggest challenge.” Many designers have a vision for a formal collection, but she doesn’t work that way: “I just go wild. A collection is basically when I have a due date. Then I’m, ‘Okay, it’s done. I guess that’s the collection. I’ll stop now.’?”

It’s one of the ways she doesn’t adhere to the rules of high-end jewelry design. Another: She doesn’t sketch. “I don’t know how people normally design jewelry,” she says. “I kind of paint with the stones a little bit. I have stones cut for me and I buy a lot of one-of-a-kind emeralds, aquamarines, sapphires, and opals. I’ll sort of mix them around and play with [them] until it feels perfectly balanced, and also sort of not balanced.” She then snaps photos of the result and speaks to her jewelers about making it.

That kind of whimsical, intuitive way of puzzling together a piece gives Neuwirth’s work a ­kaleidoscopic energy, a dynamism that animates it. They’re not just raw, precious stones; they’re raw, precious stones arranged in a kind of magical assortment that makes a bold statement.

18k rose gold ring with 2.24 ct. rose-cut diamond and 1.39 cts. t.w. diamond pavé; price on request

It’s easy to imagine that Neuwirth picked up this way of designing from her mother, Geraldine Neuwirth, a well-regarded painter whose abstract canvases burst with swirls of color. “I’m a real combination of both my parents,” says the younger Neuwirth, who grew up shuttling between her mother’s house by the beach in Venice and her father’s place in tony Bel-Air. “My mom is wildly creative, and my dad”—Peter ­Neuwirth, ­president and chairman of a company that manufactures high-performance automotive parts—“is an incredible businessperson.” She has certainly put that side to use as well. Reflecting on her staff of roughly 15, she explains: “I just want my business to grow at a steady, nice, not-too-quick pace.… I want to stay around for a long time. I want to be a brand that people will know and will pass down to their kids.”

18k white and yellow gold necklace with 59.79 ct. opal, 36.14 cts. t.w. indicolite, 5.16 cts. t.w. rose-cut diamonds, and 0.48 ct. t.w. diamond pavé; price on request

Longevity is no small feat, considering her price point. Neuwirth’s business, which she established in 2003, really came into its own during the height of the recession. “Five years ago, I thought, How are we going to do this? We’re selling pieces that are $20,000. We’re selling something that’s not traditionally fine jewelry to, like, the 1 percent. But I don’t know. It keeps growing. I have clients who collect pieces year after year.” Perhaps her designs were just what was needed at a moment of collective crisis. Neuwirth’s one-of-a-kind baubles are so colorful and glassy they could be taken for costume jewelry by the untrained eye—just the thing for the super-wealthy to wear to not appear too indulgent in lean times.

So what keeps shoppers returning, even in the not-so-lean times? Partly it’s her vibrant and eye-catching designs; but it’s equally Neuwirth herself. She’s someone you want to become friends with, and it’s not as if the luxury industry is teeming with designers who are warm and welcoming. “When I was first in the business, I was like, What is this racket?” she recalls. “People take themselves really seriously.”

18k white gold earrings with 4.64 cts. t.w. Lightning Ridge opals and 0.4 ct. t.w. diamond pavé; $7,330

At her trunk shows, Neuwirth sometimes thinks the salespeople secretly want her to leave because she refuses to give the hard sell. “I’ll tell customers, ‘Don’t feel pressure to buy that. Only get it if you really love it. Go home and think about it.’?”

She’s cultivating clients for the long term; these aren’t just one-off sales. In fact, Neuwirth has become friends with many of her clients, repeat customers who are invited to dinner parties at her home on the Venice Canals, where she’s been known to cook up batches of fried chicken—organic and hormone-free, of course.

Anyone can catch glimpses of those dinner parties on Neuwirth’s Instagram, that great showcase of Teddy and his doggy adventures.

Over the summer, Neuwirth posted a series of ­pictures from her southern Italy getaway with her boyfriend of eight years, movie director Phil Lord (22 Jump Street, The Lego Movie, Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs). picked them up and ran her “photo diary.”

18k rose gold ring with pink opal and rose-cut diamonds; $19,760

The morning they posted, Neuwirth told Lord, “You’re on”

“What? Let me see that!” he said. “Irene, how did that happen?”

Neuwirth’s sassy response: “Sorry, you’re on Vogue. It’s a big problem, right?”