ANGELES ó Before todayís contemporary jewelry stars
Alexis Bittar, Eddie Borgo and Aurelie Bidermann, there
was Robert Lee Morris, who reinvented the category of
fashion jewelry in the 1970s and Ď80s by creating
wearable art in organic forms.
up as a military brat, Morris soaked up culture
everywhere his family moved, from Japan to Charleston,
S.C. He spent his early adulthood living on a commune,
making hammered silver and brass cuffs, breastplates and
body armor, and eventually settled in Bellows Falls,
Vt., where his work was discovered by an art dealer with
plans to open Sculpture to Wear, a store for art jewelry
in the Plaza Hotel in New York City. After that closed,
in 1977 Morris opened his own jewelry gallery in New
York called Artwear, which attracted a steady stream of
celebrities, including Madonna, Cher, Bianca Jagger,
Janet Jackson, Oprah Winfrey and more. The store was
such a success that his modern urban warrior pieces
became the power jewelry of the 1980s.
collaborated on runway collections with fashion
designers who included Calvin Klein, Geoffrey Beene,
Michael Kors and, most notably, Donna Karan beginning in
1985. Her sensual black jersey bodysuits, sarongs and
dresses were the perfect canvas for Morrisí sculpted
belt buckles, cuff bracelets and hoop earrings, just as
Halstonís jersey gowns had been for Elsa Perettiís
jewelry in the 1970s.
the 1990s and early 2000s, Morris made a foray into fine
jewelry and started selling the RLM Collection on QVC.
In 2007, he won the Council of Fashion Designers of
America Geoffrey Beene Lifetime Achievement Award, and a
year later he collaborated with Mary-Kate and Ashley
Olsen on jewelry for their label Elizabeth and James.
His company was acquired by Haskell Jewels in 2011, and
now he has three lines selling his jewelry at prices
from $20 to $1,250: RLM at QVC; Soho at Macyís,
Bloomingdaleís and Lord & Taylor; and Collection
at high-end department and specialty stores, including
Neiman Marcus and Jenni Kayne.
aesthetic continues to resonate. Kate Moss wore a pair
of his earrings in the August issue of Allure, and one
of his warrior cuffs graced Madonnaís wrist on the
November cover of Harperís Bazaar.
sat down with Morris, 66, when he visited L.A. recently
to talk about his 45 years in the business, his
inspiration and whatís next.
In the beginning, I know you were inspired by nature,
antiquities, myth and warriors.
My original idea was to create a body of work for an
imaginary futuristic society that was post-apocalyptic
and that the pieces would be a combination of savagery
with high-tech gadgetry. Today, Iím probably in the
exact same place, but Iím also thinking about what
kind of jewelry people would wear who arenít from this
planet. What would you wear on deck in a spaceship? What
would you wear with your Mylar spacesuit? And seeing how
all beauty is based on sacred geometry, Iím fascinated
with taking jumbled, tribal pieces and finding the
sacred geometry thatís there. In a way, this leather
cuff is a perfect example. The metal plate is based on a
ramís horn. I took wax and pressed it on a ramís
horn. The ramís horn itself is perfect sacred
geometry. By taking a section of it and adding leather,
it is exactly the "Mad Max" mentality I was
Whatís your work process like?
My studio is the opposite of clean. And when I walk in,
Iím inspired by myself ó trays upon trays of pieces,
each one representing two or three ideas I was starting
with or stumbling with. Then I have acres of archives,
such as a wood bracelet from 1974 that was inspired by
the artist Louise Nevelson, which is totally handmade
and canít be put in production. That kind of piece
still knocks the socks off the younger generation. As
the world has changed, and the Internet has become so
important, and social media so instant, many designers
like the idea of pieces that can be easily reproduced,
because they are likely to be hot for just one moment.
But many of my archival pieces cannot be reproduced,
which is fine with me. I donít care if it sells so
long as it delights people and gets photographed and
How did you come to work with Mary-Kate and Ashley
They were presenters at the CFDA Awards when I won, and
were guided to my work to wear that night. They went
crazy for my knuckle rings and cuffs, which led to our
collaboration. It was great, because it opened up a new
generation of young designers and stylists to my work.
And the next thing I knew, everyone was wearing knuckle
rings! But now they have their own jewelry designer
working for them.
Do you still collaborate with Donna Karan?
Yes, weíve become deep friends and sheís tapped me
to help with her Haitian activities involving teaching
and training artisans so they can create products to
sell all over the world. Iíve been asked to lead a
course for metal workers, teaching them how to do the
wax process, carving, soldering, instead of just sitting
on the ground using a chisel and a hammer to pierce
holes and design things. They do a beautiful job, but
thatís just crazy. Weíre trying to get them electric
tools. Thatís part of my future direction, giving back
and spreading inspiration more globally.
What else is next?
My goal is to continue to create a variety of commercial
lines but at the same time always be making the
museum-level pieces from which all else filters down.