‘Jewelry wunderkind’ and ‘Jewelry tour de force’ are just two of the phrases that might pop up if you Google Alexis Bittar. Well, we want to describe him in English as someone who has built an extraordinary business, selling his handcrafted jewelry everywhere, from tiny boutiques to places like Takashimaya, Saks and the MoMa stores. Everyone from Queen Latifah to Madeleine Albright wears his pieces. He made his name selling his distinctive line of Lucite jewelry, but he also works extensively with other materials making some of the prettiest (and affordable) pieces around, earrings and necklaces made from delicate clusters of stones, rosewood pendants decorated with filigreed gold, butterfly wings encased in crystal and a new line of 80s inspired architectural pieces that he describes as very ‘MoMa donor’ (i.e. the kind of thing a wealthy, sophisticated, arty woman might wear). He also described another piece as ‘very German art school teacher’, which gives some hint as to how he thinks when he designs. He’s really fun to talk to, a born businessman as well as a natural designer, and, as we toured his DUMBO workshop in Brooklyn, we also noticed how kindly he spoke to his employees—always the litmus test of a personality.
We wondered what kind of jewelry to wear to interview Alexis Bittar …
So you went shopping everywhere else!
No! We were loyal to you. We decided we would be on the team. But that’s what I wanted to ask you: How long does it take you to notice someone’s jewelry?
Instantly. I clocked it instantly when you walked in the door. It’s like giving birth—that’s one of my babies. I can spot my jewelry a mile away.
What sort of eye do you have when you are looking at jewelry made by other people, what do you look at?
I generally look at antique jewelry rather than jewelry [made] by my peers, because it’s safer. Usually with antique jewelry they spent much more time with the craft. The detail and the thought is so much more present. In the 80s it really just opened up to mass consumerism and you saw the detail dissolve. But just recently there has been, like, a huge surge in jewelry with designers really paying attention to detail.
What has occasioned this surge in jewelry?
Well for years in the 90s, there was this … I should look up the date … but it was, like, ‘Black Monday’ or something … Anna Wintour in, like, 1992 said that jewelry was out of fashion. I think it’s the first time in history anyone has ever said that. I remember there was a big rebuttal in the New York Times. All these jewelers took out a full page. Magazines stopped showing jewelry, they all followed her lead. When you’re flipping through magazines, you see this 80s decadence, it got bigger and bigger … you know, like you’re wearing a shoe on your ear. And then all of sudden it went to minimalism and then following into grunge.
Then in 2000, not in the U.S. market but in the European market, jewelry, editorially, really started to come through. In 2000 we got my first cover, Italian Vogue … and they were just wearing tons of jewelry. In the American market it’s taken a much longer time for the consumer to feel it was safe to wear jewelry because for so long it was about wearing the smallest possible earring that really didn’t bring any attention.
Now that you’ve tracked it like that, I see what you mean, but I didn’t know it was happening.
Well the brainwashing is slow.
I don’t know any jewelers that have quite the profile that you have. Can you tell us how you became the name that you are?
Well the Lucite, I think, branded me but that was a slow build. I sold on the street, you know. I grew up in the city. I grew up in Bay Ridge. I first sold on St. Marks when I was 13. I sold vintage clothes and vintage jewelry from when I was 13 to 18.
What did your friends think?
The friends were like … ‘fag’. At school they were like … ‘yeah, he’s gay.’ [Laughs]
My parents were antique dealers and they were ones who actually started selling, they started the ball rolling but then they didn’t know how to stop the ball. They were like ‘Okay, we’ve created a monster.’ They were teachers, professors, but they did it to supplement their income. They both have doctorates in history but then they went into computer science. On my birthday they bought me $300 worth of vintage jewelry, which I sold on St. Marks, and that’s how that got going … but then when I dropped out of school [begins to laugh] yeah, they weren’t happy about that…
Did you drop out of college or high school?
I dropped out of college. I took one year of college. And then I started designing at 22 and I started from nothing, making it and selling it on the street.
What was that like selling on the street—was it humiliating? What about the cops?
Er … it was only humiliating in hindsight! [Laughs—he has a really infectious laugh]
I used to make a lot of money actually. I’d gotten very entrepreneurial about it. I had different locations and I hired people with licenses. I had this guy Frankie who was a Vietnam vet. He was an Elvis-impersonator, but like for life—it wasn’t even an act. He had this car and he would smoke in the car and you’d open the door and the smoke would billow out and he would just pop Xanax and then come out with a lawn chair on Prince Street. I had to have him sit across the street so that no one would notice him. He would also wear Coppertone lotion, was, like, orange, with a wig, Xanax and a gun. I wish I could find Frankie. I paid him $150 a day.
So this is 19 …?
1990—I was one of the first vendors on Prince Street. It was a totally different thing to what it is now. I would open up and people would be expecting me. It was like the stockmarket, and I would sell out in like a few hours. And then I started selling to stores, like Bendels. That was the most humiliating, going to stores … you’d meet the jewelry buyer and they’d pick through it. Ugh, it made me cringe. But I built it slowly.
So we interviewed [the jeweler] Kenneth Jay Lane and I asked him this question but he didn’t want to answer it, so I’m asking you: Even the earliest archeological finds include jewelry. What drives us to wear jewelry?
He hated that question? Well, I think people want to adorn themselves because we want attention. I mean that’s the bottom line, you want attention. We’ve learned how to doll it all up, package it and we get it out there and we want to do the best we can.
— Sian Ballen and Lesley Hauge; photographs by Jeffrey Hirsch