“Gold Fever!” The Sensuous Signature Style of Robert Lee Morris

Robert Lee Morris breastplate designed for IMPACT, a show at The Museum at FIT commemorating 50 years of the CFDA, 2012, Photo: annstreetstudio.com

Robert Lee Morris is a trailblazer who insists he is not a jewelry designer but an artist who makes jewelry. Actually, RLM refers to himself as a metal smith. The iconoclast designer, discovered by legendary Manhattan art dealer Joan Sonnabend in 1971, is one of the first jewelry designers to establish a recognizable mythical brand image.

He reinvented the category of fashion jewelry in the 70s and 80s by creating wearable art in organic forms. Morris’s wearable art gallery, ARTWEAR, was an incubator for up-and-coming jewelers that were part of the era’s art meets jewelry posse.

Robert Lee Morris body armor designed for Kansai Yamamoto in the 1980’s, Photo: annstreetstudio.com

In 2007, Robert, a self-taught artist who initially wanted to be a filmmaker, was the first jewelry designer to be awarded the Geoffrey Beene Lifetime Achievement Award from the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA). He won the Coty Award in 1981 for his collection for Calvin Klein. He received two other CFDA awards for accessory design in 1985 and 1994.

“My designs, spanning 50 years, continue to be collected like fine art, yet so many of my pieces are affordable and wearable.”

Robert Lee Morris

During his illustrious 50+ year career, Robert Lee Morris has contributed to the collections of Scott Barrie, Calvin Klein, Anne Klein, Michael Kors, Karl Lagerfeld, Kansai Yamamoto, Geoffrey Beene, the Olsens, and Donna Karan.

Robert Lee Morris and Donna Karan, draped in Robert’s gold body jewelry, celebrating his bottle design for Donna’s perfume, “Gold”

Robert’s longtime collaboration with Donna Karan, with whom he had a remarkably soulful, telepathic relationship, is legendary and continues to flourish. While Robert works in brass, bronze, nickel, and sterling silver, it is unquestionably the “bold gold 80’s look” that people most commonly associate with him and which put him on the map.

“Gold fever is real. When you wear gold, your body cannot stop vibrating at a higher pitch; it has energy coming out of it.”

Robert Lee Morris

An assortment of Robert Lee Morris gold jewelry, including the Alpha Cuff (top left), $2500, 1stdibs.com

What made the gleaming brass dipped in 18-karat gold brooches, necklaces, earrings, and cuffs Robert designed for Donna Karan so extraordinary? It was the decadent, gleaming, antiqued, bold patina he created. Robert, bitten by the “gold bug” early on, wanted his gold to look like the “Gold of Kings”; as if it was coming from Ancient Greece, from the tombs.

Robert observes that at that time, his gold was almost too bold for many others to do, and editors ate it up, says Robert during one of our several phone conversations. FYI, Robert, who is very spiritual, believes strongly that gold is beautiful and empowering and imbued with magical healing properties. When you are in the presence of real gold, it raises your frequency, and you want more.

“I love Daniel Roseberry’s energy and the attention he is getting. No limits. So sublime! He’s on another planet! I was there as well years before, and I did get my recognition. So I’m very content”

Robert Lee Morris

Robert Lee Morris Gilded Face Brooch, $650, 1stdibs.com

Robert’s sculptural bold gold jewelry is cool, ultra-modern, and always relevant. Still, it is especially so now, as the interest in oversized high-fashion gold accessories coming out of Paris is heavily influenced by Daniel Roseberry, creative director of Schiaparelli. Indeed, it is impossible not to notice the similarities between many of Daniel’s current surrealist designs and Robert’s gilded brooches, masks, body armor, and face designs made decades ago.

Robert Lee Morris Slated Brass Body Armour Bib Necklace, 2015, $4500, 1stdibs.com

Robert’s metal masterpieces continue to be ardently sought by high fashion collectors and connoisseurs worldwide. They, along with many of Robert’s other archival pieces, and his sculptures (priced from $500 – $3800), are for sale on Robert’s website, robertleemorrisgallery.com (which also includes the work of artists like Cara Croninger and Ted Muehling), and on 1stdibs. Prices for jewelry start at about $195 for a small gold pendant and go as high as $6500 for something truly spectacular with intricate detail. Most are in the $850 – $1500 range.

Robert Lee Morris Gold Korean Bagel Cuff designed for Kansai Yamamoto, $2500 1stdibs.com

I own several pieces of Robert’s jewelry including brooches, like the abstract “M” created for Madonna in the ’80s, which are beautiful enough to display on a table. I also have the iconic belt buckle Robert designed for Donna Karan. I can attest to how transformative and highly impactful these pieces are. Really, is there anything that instantly revs up black better than gold?

Robert Lee Morris brass and nickel chandelier – Photo courtesy Robert Lee Morris

My most recent purchase is the gilded “Chandelier” brooch. Coincidentally, Robert, who admits he will never retire because he can’t stop creating things, is busy designing enormous metal chandeliers and sculptures. The massive chandeliers, some of which measure 12 ft x 6 ft (priced between $40,000- $60,000), are being commissioned for apartments in New York and grand homes in Palm Beach, Washington D.C., and Sagaponack.

Robert Lee Morris Gold Knuckle Ring designed for Elizabeth and James

Robert plans to reintroduce his “brand driver”: the ever-popular knuckle rings. They were initially made for the Olsen twins. In 2008 Robert developed a jewelry collection for Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen’s clothing line, Elizabeth & James.

Speaking of the Olsens, I commented that The Row would be an ideal label for Robert to collaborate with today. Their designs are so simplistic; they almost cry out for sensational jewelry. Robert agreed, but Ralph Rucci is topping his ideal list of designer collaborations. “Ralph would know exactly what to do with my stuff!”

Robert has more lives than a cat. He seems to resurrect himself every decade. But of course, when your designs are as timeless and modern as Robert’s, they are always “of the moment.”

In the ’80s and ’90s, everyone wanted something with Robert’s name on it. At one point, Robert had 14 stores (ARTWEAR and Robert Lee Morris) in Japan and Hong Kong, 15,000 square feet of company space in Soho, a showroom, a factory, 54 employees, a handbag line, a major TV presence (QVC) and numerous licensees to make scarves, belts, perfume bottles, compacts, watches, etc.

Robert’s goody filled studio from Instagram

In 2011, Manhattan-based Haskell Jewels, LLC announced its acquisition of Robert Lee Morris. Robert is now having the time of his life working out of his Fairfield County studio, which he likens to “Aladdin’s Cave.” An avowed “pack rat,” it is jam-packed with rolling racks with cookie trays loaded with “dazzling, museum quality products” from the last 53 years.

They are organized by classification, then finish/metal/ and then the hundreds of pieces that just need a closure, hook, or clasp to be finally finished and saleable. Robert is constantly inspired and energized as he plays around with and rediscovers “major archival pieces” he created in the ’70s, 80’s, 90’s, and up until now. “I love it so much; it’s a part of my heart”!

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Marilyn Kirschner

I am a long time fashion editor with 40+ years of experience. As senior market of Harper's Bazaar for 21 years I met and worked with every major fashion designer in the world and covered all of the collections in Paris, London, Milan and New York. I was responsible for overall content, finding and pulling in the best clothes out there, and for formulating ideas and stories.

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