Jose Azulay subverts the classic tenets of jewelry design. He bends a nail into the shape of a heart for a bracelet and strings silver-plated wheat grains on leather cords for another bracelet. Ibiza, a gold-plated cuff, is wrapped with leather chord. Then there’s the necklace that’s shaped like a zipper.
“I express life,” Azulay said. “It’s twisted. It’s love and it’s pain altogether. I’m obsessed with nails. Today we’re happy. Tomorrow, we’ll wake up and have a problem.”
The president and creative director of Spanish brand Unode50, is mostly happy these days. The first Unode50 Studio concept store opened at 123 Prince Street in Manhattan’s SoHo district It’s the brand’s second New York City location after an existing unit at Westfield World Trade Center. Unode50 is on an expansion tear, and Azulay’s book, “The Creative Universe,” was recently published, with all proceeds benefitting the Mi Princesa Rett Association for research into the neurological disease that affects girls.
The Studio store will offer one-off designs and “a unique customer experience that can’t be found at any of our other stores,”said Azulay. “It will connect customers to the brand’s Spanish origins, artisanal nature and creative Unode50 lifestyle.”
The Madrid-based jewelry brand in November unveiled a location in Montreal and opened two units in Toronto as part of its global expansion plan. The activity follows recent store launches in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Puerto Rico, Paris, and Torino and Genoa, Italy.
“Our first store in North America opened in Miami in 2010. We have 26 stores in the U.S., and 120 units worldwide,” Azulay said. “We operate 48 stores in Europe. The U.S. is one of our main markets.”
Unode50, which will do $30 million in annual sales in North America this year, is sold at Saks Off 5th, Bloomingdale’s, Lord & Taylor and Hudson’s Bay Co. “I’m planning to open five more stores in the U.S. in 2019,” Azulay said. “I’m in discussions with the Chinese to license my jewelry in China. China is a very big country with a lot of opportunities. We’re unveiling a store in Sydney next year.”
The SoHo concept store represents another step in the brand’s repositioning, which includes a new logo. The unit has an undulating organically-shaped ceiling, curved doorway and a circular staircase.
A large metal wood-mounted dragonfly sculpture hangs on a wall. “The dragonfly is one of my favorite animals,” said Azulay, who hangs the insect leather or silver-plated necklaces, ranging in price from $125 to $549. “When I see an animal I like, I take it to my world and form the design based on what I see in my mind.”
Elsewhere in the store, a series of silver beetles in graduating sizes and with bodies made from weathered wood, climb up a wall. Beetles can also be found in vitrines, in the form of a ring, $140, and earrings, $90. Azulay also designed flying fish and an elephant.
Cuffs wrapped with leather — $185 for silver plate and $459 for gold-plated metal — are inspired by Ibiza. “It’s one of my favorite pieces, and places,” Azulay said. “Normally, I use two components in each piece, silver and leather cords, for example. The leather is like the origin of life. The leather cuff is one of my favorite pieces.”
Azulay started incorporating pearls into his designs five years ago, but the results anything but the usual delicate gold strands with dangling seeds. “I combine pearls with leather and metal,” he said. “Leather is strong. My metal is a little darker. I don’t like very shiny metal. I like to express my rebellion.”
Azulay was designing watches for his family’s business in the Nineties, when he met a group of designers of hand-crafted jewelry and decided to acquire their company, Unode50, named for the fact only 50 pieces of each design were produced. Since the brand has grown, “that model doesn’t sustain itself anymore,” Azulay said. To stay true to the idea, Unode50 creates limited edition collections of 50 pieces.
All of Unode50 jewelry is hand-crafted, which presents financial challenges. “It’s now very difficult because the cost is more than double it would be if it were made in China,” Azulay said. “But the product is totally different. We’re a unique brand and our style is very recognizable. I have fans, not customers. I have a tribe.”