Designer Robert Sorrell prides himself on being able to create pieces of jewelry that can’t be found anywhere else. Robert was a recent guest on the Jewelry Journey podcast, where he talked about how he got into the costume jewelry business and how through his company, Sorrell Originals, he creates one-of-a-kind costume jewelry that has appeared in some of the most prestigious collections around the world. Read the transcript below.
Sharon: Hello, everyone, welcome to the Jewelry Journey podcast. Today, I’m pleased to welcome Robert Sorrell. His company, Sorrell Originals, which he founded in the 1980s, creates one-of-a-kind costume jewelry which appears in some of the most prestigious collections in the world. His costume jewelry is known for its exuberant use of color and each is handmade in his New York studio. He has accessorized Paris couture, Broadway, TV and film. Today, he’ll tell us about himself and the fabulous jewels he creates. Robert, welcome to the program.
Robert: I’m happy to be here, Sharon.
Sharon: So glad to connect with you; tell us about your jewelry journey. Did you like jewelry as a child? Did you study jewelry making? How did you come to it?
Robert: Well, there are a couple of questions in there and one thing that I always like to say is that I think I got fascinated by jewelry to begin with on account of some things that my mother, which looking back on it, if I saw them today, they would probably seem like junk to me, but I used to like to take all of her jewelry—she had one of those velvet-lined jewelry boxes which seemed very glamorous to me and she had artificial pearls with Austrian crystal beads and some chain necklaces. I used to line them up and play jewelry store when I was a kid, but the other big influence came from watching old movies on TV—The Early Show and The Late Show and Million Dollar Movie—because some of those movies had plotlines that made jewelry very important. The stolen necklace that everybody wants or I remember a scene with Garbo in Queen Christina where she’s abdicating and she takes the crow off of her head and everyone gasps at this sort of sacrilegious moment that she’s taking off her crown, and when you’re a kid, things like that—well, they made an impression on me that jewelry is a really important thing and during the hippie days, everybody was wearing beads and I started stringing beads for my girlfriends at school and we wore them.
So that was how it all started, but aside from that, I am pretty much self-taught. I learned the soft-soldering technique from a friend of mine who was instrumental in the leaded glass lampshade category. In the 1970s, there was a big revival for that with Tiffany lamps when they sort were rediscovered. I learned soldering from him. I worked as an errand boy for a precious jeweler, a small, little guy down in the village who taught me some things and then when I would see other people making jewelry, I would ask questions, but no, I never went to any sort of formal jewelry school or anything like that. I just gathered information and put it together myself and I think that yeah, that’s how the jewelry journey began.
Sharon: And so, when you turn around and look back, it must really surprise you—I mean the caliber of what you make now, and they are so fabulous and over-the-top in a good way. Do you ever think, “Oh my god, I can’t believe I’m doing this?”
Robert: Well, the funny thing that happens is—and I sort of keep these as an object lesson—I have a couple of bead necklaces somewhere in the studio that I made when I was still living at home with my parents and to take them out and look at them next to what I can do now, it really shows how things can develop over a period of time. But for the most part, I don’t think about that much because the process happened so gradually and sometimes also a piece of jewelry that I made years ago, even something that I made professionally, will come to me to be cleaned or repaired or something like that and there’s either one of two reactions. It’s like, “Oh my god, I can’t believe that you did it that way. It’s not so hot,” or every once in a while, I will see something and I will look at it and I will think, “You know what? This is really good. I wouldn’t even do that much work on something I’m doing now.” So it’s all gradual and every piece has to suit a purpose for a different reason and I do the best I can, but yeah, it does surprise me sometimes when it started and where it ended up because when I started making stuff, I never really thought that I could actually pay the bills doing it. It was a sideline for many, many years and now it’s not.
Sharon: It’s such a big step to leave let’s say a full-time job or whatever you’re doing making a living and then say, “O.K., I’m going to try this.” What pushed you over the edge? What made you decide it was time?
Robert: Well, there was a defining moment and I could tell what that is. To make a long story short, I had a really good job for a really good restaurant, and I made really good money, but through no fault of my own, that job came to an end. The people who ran that place decided that they were going to do something else and so I was thinking, “Well now, maybe I can really do something more with my jewelry,” but I’m not an ambitious person and I am not a high-energy workaholic type of person. So I was selling some jewelry, but then after six months, I realized I’m not making enough money to pay my bills and I had actually started putting out feelers to see if I could get a placement in a restaurant because I had fifteen years of experience in that business and then the phone rang and because of time constraints, I can’t tell you this whole story, but it was Thierry Mugler in Paris—
Sharon: Oh my gosh, wow!
Robert: Yeah, he became aware of my work through, god love them, a little drag queen that I knew who was doing shows in bars and his drag queen persona was like a carnival; somewhere between a carnival queen and a Las Vegas showgirl. I used to make him headdresses that we could put feathers in and like these little rhinestone bras and G-strings and stuff because he was like very naked on stage and Thierry Mugler said to Julia, “Where are you getting these jewels?” And honest to god, when I started getting these phone messages from Mugler, I didn’t know who he was.
Sharon: Well, a lot of people might not. Maybe everybody listening won’t know who he is, so explain a little bit—
Robert: Well, Thierry Mugler is a Parisian couturier who was very important in that world up until—I think he probably gave up the dress business, which still exists and somebody else is running it now, but he gave up active participation in the dress business probably around 2000, but he had started back in the 70s and he was very well known for—a lot of his clothing had old movie references. He was very sort of fetishy, very, very tight, small-waisted corsetry, broad shoulders, high heels, heavy makeup, very dramatic and almost sometimes kinky looks. But what he was known for most of all I think were the suits. He made women’s suits. One of the women that I worked with in the restaurant who was a hostess, she had a Thierry Mugler suit and she said, “You know, when you wear a Thierry Mugler, it makes you look like you have a body that you don’t really have” because his tailoring could make you sexy in a way that you never thought that you could be. So, when I finally realized what an important person he was and that he was coming to my apartment in New York—well, he wasn’t coming just to see me; he had an apartment here—I had this apartment cleaned. I had food and drinks in the icebox. He showed up in a black-stretch limousine in front of my house, but aside from that, no pretense, no entourage. He sat on the bed which was like the biggest area that I could lay out stuff because the apartment was like really small; I didn’t have a studio at the time and we looked at things and we talked about what he wanted to do and the rest is kind of history and it was his twenty-fifth anniversary, you see, so he was planning a very, very big show for the winter of 1995 and for that show, I made for him sixty pieces of jewelry in sixty days. It nearly killed me.
Sharon: Well, you didn’t sleep, I’m sure.
Robert: No, it was terrible, and I had people helping me set stones and pack boxes. I just made my friends—I said, “You have to do this” because after the jewelry was all ready, I actually had to go Paris for the fittings and all of that; I was really scared, but I also realized—I wasn’t sure I could do it because the jewelry that they designed on paper, although they had very, very good drawings and very, very specific ideas, the things were very complicated and there was not a lot of it, but I thought, “You know what? If you don’t at least take a stab at it, you’ll look back on this years later and you’re going to say, ‘You know, I should have done it.’”
Sharon: So smart.
Robert: I didn’t want to put myself in that position and as far as I know—and I do have videotapes from those days—they used everything that I made and he continued to work with me for a number of years afterwards until he kind of stopped doing it, but this is the thing, Sharon, working for him gave me credibility with everybody else.
Sharon: Oh yeah, I bet.
Robert: And not only did I have credibility because I worked with him, I also had the proof. I had the original drawings. I had the photographs of the finished work and as part of my deal, as part of my payment, I told them I have to have a videotape of this fashion show and it’s been transferred from VHS to DVD to preserve it over the years and I still show it to people and it’s still fabulous and that was from 1995. So that’s how I burst upon the international scene should we say.
Sharon: It’s so funny—and I love Mugler, but they don’t have any waist and it’s funny you mention it because last night, I was trying on some vintage Mugler jackets—
Sharon: They never fit because the waist is so small.
Robert: Well, that’s because they came with a corset. If you don’t have your waist center to reduce your waist to the necessary size, you’re not going to be able to get into that jacket.
Sharon: Oh, that’s interesting. Nobody’s ever mentioned that before. O.K., interesting.
Robert: Well, all I can tell you, I was backstage at those fashion shows and I did see every single model and what she had on, but there was a lot of corsetry in those shows and the corsets by the way were absolutely beautiful in their own right. These beautiful satin and boned corsets and they could be worn on their own now as a garment, but yeah, and of course all of those jackets. You can’t expect to fit into somebody else’s jacket. If you went to the Thierry Mugler atelier or salon—I don’t know if they have it now in Bergdorf Goodman’s or whatever—they’ll find a jacket that you can get into or they will make it for you.
Sharon: I’m sure, yes, that’s interesting. I’ve seen a corset, and nobody’s ever mentioned that, but I could see why you need them definitely.
Robert: Now you know.
Sharon: But that’s quite a start in terms of stepping over the line into the big world. What do you think of the term “costume jewelry” because for a lot of people it’s pejorative, but I don’t think people understand it. What are your thoughts about it?
Robert: Well, I don’t see why that has any pejorative sense because I’ll tell you why.
Sharon: My question is what you think about the term. People often think about the term “costume jewelry” and they think of it, “Oh costume jewelry, I don’t wear that” and there’s such beautiful stuff. What do you think about the term “costume jewelry?”
Robert: Well, there may be people who view that as somehow costume jewelry not being as good, but when I think about the importance of costuming in the show business world, if you think about it, the old Joseff of Hollywood company has been making jewelry specifically for costumes for two generations now, at least, and it’s a really, really important business to create exactly the right thing, to create the mood, the period, the effect. Costume jewelry is specifically made sometimes where you need just the right thing to go with this outfit, but even though you own really good diamond and pearl jewelry, you don’t have a piece of jewelry that’s the right accessory for every outfit, and I would like to point out that even the Duchess of Windsor owned costume jewelry. She had Kenny Lanes and she had—I’m trying to think of some of the other people that she had—and she was a person who could have absolutely anything that she wanted and also even very wealthy women who can have anything they want, sometimes when they’re traveling, they don’t want to risk taking really, really valuable jewelry with them in luggage and on airplanes and taxicabs. So if all you need is a really pretty brooch to go on the lapel of a suit, there is—if you’re concerned about not wearing imitation jewelry, that it’s bad for your reputation as a society woman—there’s jewelry that you can buy that unless you really know jewelry really well that you can’t tell. There are pieces by manufacturers like Panetta and people like—now, I don’t really attempt to do that, to make jewelry that will pass as real, although sometimes I can achieve the effect sometimes inadvertently, but you don’t have to worry about having just the right thing for every single—I have auction catalogues in my society lady section that have—what’s her name—her imperial majesty, Princess Soraya of Iran. Her auction catalogue when she died has wonderful emerald and diamond and pearl jewelry in it, but there are also imitation jewels in there that she wore because you don’t have a million-dollar necklace for every outfit. So yeah, it’s for a costume. It’s to create an effect, and then they used to insist calling it fashion jewelry because that was somehow nicer than costume jewelry but really, that’s just semantics. If you’re going to put together a costume and you need a pair of great, big bangle bracelets to really set it off, you’re not going to go to Tiffany and have something made for that. You’re going to go to Bergdorf’s and buy something in the costume jewelry department. So no, it’s not pejorative at all. If somebody thinks of it that way, it’s in their mind. It’s certainly not in mind.
Sharon: So, your private clients, do they usually come to you because they want an item? They have an outfit and they say, “I need the bangle bracelets?” What are they asking for when they come to you?
Robert: Well, usually people come to me when they have something very specific in mind. One of the last things that I did that was a really interesting project was I did the jewelry for the Broadway show, “Kiss Me Kate,” the revival which was a big success on Broadway last winter and the designer had certain very specific things involved, again costume jewelry. The name of the main character is Lilli Vanessi. So, he wanted a brooch for one of her costumes that looked like Lily of the Valley, just because her name was Lilli. That’s not in the script, but that’s he wanted. He probably could have researched something online and bought it, but he wanted something made specifically for her. He designed a 1940s suit for her and he wanted a pearl necklace that had sort of a pearl tassel off center on one side. Well, go out into the world and try to find something like that. You’re just not going to find it, at least until after you really needed it. So that had to be made. In certain scenes she wears a tiara and the costume calls for that to be a certain color. He wanted stones of a certain type. All of those things have to be made.
So yeah, people usually come—O.K., I’ll put it to you this way. If you look at my website, my old homepage, there’s a motto that I actually stole from Cecil B. DeMille and the story is that in the 1920s, DeMille was doing a move with Gloria Swanson and he’s having a discussion with the costume designer who was not really quite understanding Mr. DeMille got frustrated and said to the designer, “I want something you can’t buy in a store,” and that’s my motto. When you can’t find it, anything out there in the world that does exactly what you want it to do, ask me and we’ll see if we can make it and I usually can. I made things for RuPaul. I made things for the New York City Ballet; for Victoria’s Secret because you can’t go and buy rhinestone wings. They have that thing that they do where the models wear wings. So yeah, that’s my thing.
Sharon: I’ve been looking for those wings, yeah.
Robert: If you want something you can’t buy in a store, that’s me.
Sharon: That’s a great way to say it. So how did you get into theatre because I know you’ve done a lot of theatre? How did you get into theatre?
Robert: How did I get into theatre? I should know this. Well, if you want to think about it, the first time I ever saw my jewelry on stage was actually for a student production of—and here’s an idea for a specific thing—the Oscar Wilde play, “An Ideal Husband,” has certain specific jewelry requirements that are in the script. The main thing is as part of the plot, there is a brooch which is supposed to be able to be converted into a bracelet and it has to be done on stage in full view of the audience which makes it a very tricky business. So I had to come up with an idea and it also had to look like a snake or something because I think it’s in the script and that was the first time—oh, and there’s another actress, a secondary actress in the plan who has this line, “Mother will never let me wear anything but pearls,” so naturally they probably could have gone out and bought a cheap pearl necklace, but they decided to have me make something. So that was the first time.
Since then, I’ve been involved with a couple of Broadway shows which nobody remembers because they didn’t run. I made jewelry—now how the hell did they get in touch with me? I don’t even remember, but the famous costume designer, Willa Kim, contacted me somehow while I was still working in the restaurant and I did some jewelry for a movie that she was working on. She needed a brooch that looked like art deco and she couldn’t find anything. So, I did that and then a show that didn’t run was called “Ain’t Broadway Grand” which was about Mike Todd and people that he worked with like Gypsy Rose Lee. I made some jewelry for them and how they found me—I really should write things down because I don’t remember—and then I did jewelry for a Michael Crawford production called “Dancing with Vampires.” It was based on the movie, “The Fearless Vampire Killers,” a Roman Polanski film. Well, they spent millions on this, but the critics hated it and it didn’t run, but then Katherine Zuber, a famous Broadway designer, contacted me to do “The Twelfth Night,” Shakespeare at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre in the Lincoln Center which does qualify as a Broadway show even though it’s not near Broadway. It’s covered by union rules and all of that and that was an all-star production starring Helen Hunt and Philip Bosco and Paul Rudd and Kyra Sedgwick, and I made all the jewelry for that show. It was beautiful. It was so beautiful that when the show came to an end, I actually bought back from them the entire job.
Robert: I bought it back for like 20% of what they paid me to make it and I wound up reselling all of that jewelry to other clients. So, these people found me and now sometimes I really can’t tell you how, but as near as I can tell, it was all just word of mouth.
O.K., here’s a really important connection. When I was working in the restaurant, one of the guys I always used to chat up with, Arthur Matera of the famous Broadway costume house Barbara Matera, and he knew who I was and that’s how I got the job for the Michael Crawford musical because they were looking for somebody, and one of the people who was working on the costumes, this girl who did embroidery, her name was Pauly. Pauly said, “Well, why don’t we call Sorrell” and that’s another—and now I remember. She was also doing work for Victoria’s Secret and I believe that she is the one who told them to look at my webpage and that’s how I got hired for that. So really it’s all word of mouth because I never publicized my company or did an ad in a newspaper or anything like, but the other thing is—and this is really important—a lot of the jewelry that I made is for drag queens and those queens get around and talk to everybody and the famous charity, the International Imperial Court System, that gives drag balls based on royalty; they need crowns and tiaras and scepters and all that stuff. I’m involved with dozens if not hundreds of those people over the years and people notice and they say, “Where did you get that” and that’s what keeps me in business. I’m always just waiting for the phone to ring, Sharon, and you know who called today? Zaldy from RuPaul’s Drag Race whom I’ve worked with continuously since RuPaul was invented, and now he owns three Emmy Awards. So, it’s like that.
Sharon: Wow! Wow!
Robert: Did that answer your question?
Sharon: It’s a very interesting trail; a very, very interesting trail.
Robert: I mean that’s why they call it networking because all of this stuff just connects.
Robert: Is that enough for your podcast?
Sharon: Yes, I was just going to say thank you so much for being here. This has been so interesting.
Robert: Did we get to all your questions?
Sharon: Yes, we did. We could speak for hours and I’m sure I’d have a lot more, but this has been very, very interesting. Thank you so much and to everybody listening, we’ll have links to Sorrell Originals in our show notes and anything else relevant that was mentioned in the podcast and that wraps up another episode of the Jewelry Journey. If you like what you heard and you would like to hear more, you can subscribe at iTunes or wherever you download your podcasts and please rate us. We’ll be back next time with another thought-provoking guest giving us their professional take on the world of jewelry. Thanks so much, Robert.
Robert: I was happy to be here with you and I hope you get a good reaction to all of this stuff, O.K.?
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