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Robert Lee Morris Renaissance

The art jewelry designer looks back on a roaring history with New York’s greats—and there’s still more to come

Robert Lee Morris hasn’t aged in over thirty years, he’s transformed. In his eyes are countless memories of hippie communes, the Factory scene and dinners at Peter Luger with Roy Lichtenstein, and in his Fifth Avenue studio at Miriam Haskell headquarters, a treasure trove of pictures with designers, models and actors, pieces from Morris’ collections shining on their necks, earlobes, fingers and wrists. To the unremitting jewelry designer, “These are moments.”

“OK, I’ll tell you the story…” It was the late ’60s, and Morris was attending Beloit College, where he dreamed of becoming a filmmaker. His father wouldn’t pay for film school, so Morris formulated his backup plan. “I said, let me go drop out of society for a while and live in the forest.” He and his friends decided to start a community in the Wisconsin city of Beloit on an expansive abandoned farm that they’d rent for a cool $50 a month. “It was everything Timothy Leary was talking about, you know? We were, of course, experimenting with every kind of hallucinogenic out there.”

Inspired by artists like Lichtenstein, Picasso and Calder, Morris began to craft wire and stained-glass head ornaments and glasses. And then: “Winter came. We tried to heat the place, and we ended up burning the whole damn thing down!”

After the fire, he moved to Bellows Falls, Vermont and launched a label called File and Hammer Silver with a friend. One day at The Putney School’s craft fair, a woman purchased Morris’ most expensive necklace—a $75 piece. He packed up his entire body of work the next day and left for Boston to show his wares to his customer’s boss—Joan Sonnabend, owner of The Plaza Hotel. It was 1972, and she and her partner were forming Sculpture to Wear, a gallery and jewelry store in The Plaza with pieces by a few artists, among them Man Ray, Picasso, Louise Nevelson and Calder. Sonnabend brought the young designer up to New York to showcase his work in the gallery, and just like that, Morris became one of them. “The first time I saw the collection, I just melted! That’s when I said, ‘this is my career.’ The next thing I know, I have the cover of Vogue! It was meteoric.”

When Sonnabend sold The Plaza Hotel, Sculpture to Wear closed down. It was a frustrating move for the budding designer, whose business was skyrocketing thanks to his unique designs and the affordability of his pieces. “It was Robert Lee Morris jewelry that supported the gallery, which didn’t sell $5,000 Picassos every day—but that was 1974.”

In the ’70s the RLM woman was the Park Avenue socialite. Sick of flaunting her diamonds and pearls, she was wearing the kinds of trinkets that Andy Warhol’s pretty little things were touting about. By 1978 Morris had opened ArtWear, his own version of Sonnabend’s Sculpture to Wear. On any day, you’d find him in the shop fitting Bianca Jagger with body armor, entertaining and styling Janet Jackson and the rest of the family or making a body cast for Lisa Bonet. Limousines would pull up in front of ArtWear, Andy Warhol would be walking down the street with armfuls of Interview Magazines to sign and then Madonna and Candice Bergen would pass the time inside with the designer. “I was really a part of the excess.”

“The world began to change so drastically after that,” he remembers, “and I had this sense of being penitent from the excess of the ’80s, the wild rise of the stock market, the insane rise of the Julian Schnabel painting and The Factory.” Morris looks back on his career: Mingling with Lichtenstein and the greats in the early ’70s, living large in the Factory scene and designing jewelry for Calvin Klein, Geoffrey Beene and Donna Karan in the ’80s, and that brief stint in fine jewelry in the 90s.

In 2011, Haskell Jewels acquired Robert Lee Morris and re-opened his store in SoHo. Hallie Berry wore his silver rings and bracelets to the Emmys, Fergie stacked his war-like bracelets all the way up her arms for her world tour, and earlier this summer First Lady Michelle Obama wore a necklace from the fall collection. And after nearly 40 years in business, there is more still to look forward to.

Click through the gallery for a look at Robert Lee Morris’ fall collection.