Couture 2017: Irene Neuwirth Talks Stones, Red-Carpet Style and Her CFDA Nom

Irene Neuwirth attends the Couture Las Vegas jewelry show -Getty-H 2017
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Ruth Negga, Sarah Paulson and Bryce Dallas Howard are among the L.A.-based designer’s A-list fans.

If you’ve ever marveled over the artful mismatch of an Irene Neuwirth necklace, that mélange of stones that works precisely because it seems a bit discordant, then get ready for her latest collection. “I wanted things to feel more evolved, more over the top, more interesting and one-of-a-kind,” the Los Angeles-based designer says.

Opals mixed with turquoise mixed with diamonds and perhaps tanzanite or a splash of pearls: Such thoughtful concoctions are key to Neuwirth’s aesthetic, and among the reasons she’s nominated for Accessory Designer of the Year at Monday night’s CFDA Fashion Awards at New York’s Hammerstein Ballroom. “When I first started, people were like, ‘You can’t put opals with turquoise,’ and I just thought, Oh, you can’t? I didn’t really realize that was something you weren’t allowed to do,” she says. “Everything I’ve done has been about going against the rules, and it worked. And I feel like people have really connected to how unusual the pieces look.”

Neuwirth was briefly in Las Vegas for the Couture Jewelry Show, the annual high-end trade fair taking place through Tuesday at Wynn Las Vegas, to debut her latest pieces. Opals in all colors are drawing her eye at the moment: A one-of-a-kind necklace features fire and pink opals alongside pink and watermelon tourmalines, morganite and rutile quartz, while carved pink opals have been crafted as strawberries for a pair of earrings, which are topped by stems of 18-karat yellow gold accented with Sleeping Beauty turquoise and white diamonds. “Lately I’m really into Mexican fire opals, because I love that deep red color,” Neuwirth adds. “I’m so drawn to color, and that’s the part that’s the most fun to me, the stones.”

Her love of color and her decidedly non-traditional designs have attracted the eye of stylists like Karla Welch, who reached out to Neuwirth earlier this year. “Karla texted me the morning after the Oscar nominations went out, which I thought was pretty awesome,” she says. “She asked me to make a piece for Ruth [Negga], and that was really thrilling, because she could have asked anyone, and I was not necessarily the safe choice.”

Welch already had an idea in mind, Neuwirth says: “She was like, ‘Would you ever make a headband?’ I started pulling inspirations that day, printing everything out and sending her ideas. It was so much fun to make such an over-the-top piece in rubies.” Crafted of Mozambique rubies, Negga’s headband — a look that Neuwirth likens to a “pagan princess” — was among the most talked-about jewels on the Academy Awards red carpet.

For the Met Gala in May, Welch once again worked with Neuwirth, who crafted statement earrings in 18-karat oxidized white gold, sapphires and indicolite tourmalines for Sarah Paulson. “That was really fun, not only because I absolutely love Sarah, but also because it sort of opened up a whole new palette for me,” Neuwirth explains. “I’m always thinking about what looks warm next to rose gold, for example, but with oxidized gold, all of a sudden you’re thinking about how it looks cool with pink or black or light blue.”

And though she’s filled with ideas for clients and celebrities alike, don’t ask Neuwirth about the jewels she’ll choose to wear Monday night at the CFDA Awards. “I have no idea yet, but it’s OK, because I have so many to choose from,” she says. Her dress, though? That was an easy decision: a look by fellow designer and friend Rosie Assoulin. “I literally got nominated and texted her two hours later,” Neuwirth says. “It’s a dress I have coveted forever, and she was so great to make it for me.”

How does she feel about her chances Monday night? Neuwirth demurs on the question — “I’m really happy to just be included,” she says — but also knows her approach to design, that artful eye mixed with a bit of whimsy, is without question enjoying a moment. “The world is in a funny place,” she says. “People want things that are more interesting and soulful, in a way. Clients want things that feel individual and personal, and on the red carpet, it seems like there’s more interest in taking a risk, especially in jewelry. And I love that, because I was always ready to go crazy with those pieces. Just ask me.”