BACK AND BLUE
THE POWER OF TURQUOISE RETURNS, AS DESIGNERS GIVE THE STONE UPDATED TREATMENTS.
Byline: Deirdre Mendoza
The stones are making a comeback — not the British rock legends, but turquoise, a Native American art form that has Angelenos calling for encores.
Turquoise set in silver and mixed with other semiprecious stones has been making its way back into the West Coast accessories lexicon in the past two seasons and now has definitely arrived. Coinciding with this rock revival is “Native American Artists of the 21st Century,” a exhibition at the Southwest Museum at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art West through Jan. 2, 2001. The show celebrates the use of organic materials, in particular, uncut and polished turquoise.
On the street and runways this spring, the blue gems are sure to gain further mainstream acceptance when paired with ready-to-wear leathers and suedes and when offset by gold for a decidedly “West Side” look.
“This is a great stone, and it’s becoming a big trend,” said designer and retailer Liza Shtromberg, who sells turquoise jewelry under her signature label at Islands in Los Angeles’s hip Silver Lake district. She also sells her collection at her LS store and studio, which opened in April in neighboring Los Feliz.
Shtromberg, in business for seven years and working in turquoise for three, projects yearend 2001 sales for her wholesale business at just under $500,000.
Throughout her career, she has experimented with turquoise in different forms, initially cultivating a Southwest look popular in the Seventies. That gave way to mixing turquoise with the translucent stone carnelian.
“People are just stricken with [turquoise]. They love the way it looks, and they let go of preconceived notions of whether they’re supposed to wear it or not.”
Considered sacred by native cultures, turquoise represents the fusion of sky and water. Worn in oversized chunky necklaces and earrings, the stone is a favorite among a slice of the fashion and celebrity crowd drawn to its earthy, spiritual properties.
Cher recently snatched up a dramatic turquoise bracelet by Anthony Nak that had been on display less than 15 minutes at Ice Accessories in Santa Monica, according to the company’s vice president, Tracey Friedman.
“We’ve been selling a lot of it — expandable turquoise stainless steel jewelry by Nominations, as well as bracelets by Miriam Salat,” said Dottie Chanin, owner of Ice Accessories. “We also have a customer for the more romantic diamonds and turquoise pieces by Cathy Waterman, which retail up to $25,000.”
Designer Joseph Bortoli, based in Culver City, has worked with organic materials, including leather and semiprecious stones in his Nagual collection since 1995. He said he first took notice of Native American accessories while meeting with his retail accounts in Japan more than six years ago.
For spring 2001, Nagual will contain cut and uncut turquoise rings, earrings and leather pieces, along with turquoise pendants for women and men, wholesaling from $35 to about $450. In addition to 25 doors in Japan, Bortoli plans to distribute at existing accounts, including Fred Segal Santa Monica, Maxfield and Shamballa in New York.
“With turquoise, it’s the material itself that has a very powerful, magnetic quality,” said Bortoli. “Holding it, you get a glimpse into a doorway that most Native Americans get everyday.”
Across town, Joseph Brooks, an artist, deejay and silversmith who worked in turquoise throughout the Eighties, has rediscovered the stones in the last year. Brooks said he’s been attracted to the visceral properties of turquoise since he began rock collecting as a child. His handcrafted turquoise necklaces and pendants are sold by appointment from his studio in the mid-Wilshire area. Wholesale prices range from $75 to $350.
Examples of Brooks’s signature style include a group of bite-sized turquoise crosses cut from a single block of turquoise. The brown-tinged crosses are offset by smaller, odd-shaped stones and silver findings. Brooks’s silver cast charm bracelets featuring Native American-inspired symbols are priced at $75 to $150 wholesale.
After an exhaustive search for high-grade, undyed turquoise, Brooks discovered a third-generation mining family source from Arizona at a gem show in Tucson. The stones in their raw form, often with an emerald shading, have inspired his namesake collection. Brooks noted that too much of what is billed as turquoise on the market — widely known as Chinese turquoise — is actually a low grade, hand dyed in vats to achieve an artificial coloration.
“The variation in the stones is the most exciting part; however, the majority of what you see is homogenous,” said Brooks. “These things came out of the earth and they transmit that magnetic feeling.”
At the Coterie show in New York, Los Angeles designer Chan Luu took a modern approach to turquoise by combining it with semiprecious stones such as aquamarines and pink and red coral.
The Vietnamese-American designer and former retailer has worked with turquoise for the past three years, mixing it with silver and beading. As in past seasons, her spring groups take inspiration from ready-to-wear collections.
“Turquoise happens to be my birthstone, so I was always trying to find a modern way to work with it. I started combining leather, suedes and other trends in sportswear. Now I’m doing a group of faceted silver beads plated in a warm antique gold.”
Designer Janice Savitt, who is based in New York and represented in Los Angeles by Parallel Lines showroom in The New Mart building, said she only uses high-grade “Sleeping Beauty” turquoise from Arizona in the M&J Savitt collection she co-owns with sister Michelle Savitt. The pair prefer turquoise pieces that convey a casual attitude and would like to see their multi-strand necklaces worn with jeans “when running out to buy a quart of milk.”
Savitt, who recently designed gold pretzel-shaped accessories for the John Bartlett show in New York, has paired turquoise with gold for spring 2001.
“I like it to be very refined. I want the turquoise to have the effect of wearing pearls. It adds oomph, but very casual. Otherwise, it looks too Elizabeth Taylor, too adult.”
The dressed-down approach to turquoise is also characterized by the signature collection of Robin Woodard, a new face on the Los Angeles accessories scene.
Woodard’s hottest-selling item, a turquoise choker with seed beading priced at $30 wholesale, has been moving consistently at retail since spring 1999.
This fall, Woodard expects to write orders for turquoise items, including lariats, which wholesale for $50, and oval-shaped turquoise briolets with Japanese glass beads, dipped in 24-karat gold. Woodward’s specialty store distribution includes Traffic in the Beverly Center and in Sunset Plaza, Diavolina II and Bergdorf Goodman in New York.
“I’ve always been into that particular stone ever since I started making jewelry,” said the self-taught Woodard, 31. She left her job as a buyer for the now-defunct Swell Store on La Brea Avenue to design jewelry full time in 1998. For spring 2001, she’s going for the gold.
“Anything with gold and turquoise for the spring — that’s what I feel strongly about.”
As turquoise rolls onto the floors of Nordstrom and Neiman Marcus, specialty stores are searching for the next wave of an ongoing trend. Early adapters are shifting slightly away from the Native appeal of turquoise toward subtle versions of stone-centered accessories. January to July 2000 were the peak months for the Native trend at Tiara Too, according to 23-year-old owner Yunnie Kim (she also co-owns the sleepwear store Twilight, both in Fred Segal Santa Monica).
“We did tons of turquoise business for the past three seasons, but my customer, who is super-fashion-forward and onto the newest, coolest, hippest thing, is onto the more subtle turquoise with yellow gold.”
Kim is projecting yearend 2000 sales for all three stores at just under $1 million.
Contemporary collections, including Mia & Lizzie and Orly Baruch, were among Kim’s hottest turquoise lines at Tiara Too.
During the first quarter of 2000, Kim sold 36 sets of chunky turquoise bracelets by Mia & Lizzie, priced at $375 per set at retail.
“I sell a lot of turquoise to my 22-to-40-year-old customer who might not have a straight job and doesn’t have to wear a suit everyday,” says Kim. From that description, she should have no shortage of clientele here.