Story by Pamela Wiggins Siegel
Photography by Jay B. Siegel
Lawrence Vrba’s New York studio tells the story of the life of an artist. From the furniture, basic beneath a façade of found and collected objects repurposed to make it his own, to portraits painted by friends, handmade crowns tucked in nooks and crannies, and murals dotted with cherubic figures spanning the ceilings – every surface brims with creativity, every object holds a story. The stained glass behind the sitting area, made by Vrba’s uncle, allows muted light into the room while imparting personal warmth. “It’s rather clumsy, but I love it. I feel as if he’s here with me when I see the light shining through,” Vrba shared.
Even the sibling cats who may venture out to greet guests rise above the mundane: Toby who could care less about Larry Vrba as neither man nor artist, but seems to genuinely adore lady callers, and Haskell, a truly regal-looking animal that coincidentally came into his remarkable home with a familiar moniker already in place. The dedicated artisans who work alongside Vrba, Chris and Maurice, also fit perfectly within this culture of creativity.
The studio, taking on a life of its own, boasts celebrity as well. Vrba proudly supported his dear friend Chris March, a finalist on the fourth season of television’s Project Runway by welcoming the show’s crew into the main room to film the clothing designer’s family segment for the program. Vrba describes the gilded space as looking “like Versailles on film.”
As interesting as the décor and inhabitants of his studio are to outsiders, Vrba admits “being over all this.” His focus today, perhaps more than ever, lies in utilizing the materials hidden within the confines of this workspace. Here he’s taking tidbits and treasures collected throughout his jewelry crafting career and, finally, working them into wearable wonders. He aptly describes the process: “We let the material talk to us. The material tells you what to do.”
“Some of these things I’ve touched dozens of times,” Vrba remarked, opening drawer after drawer holding special glass pieces and remarkable stones. “The time wasn’t right to use them then, but it is now.”
Lawrence Vrba shares one of the numerous drawers of jewelry-making components he has collected.
What makes the time right is having skilled helpers – Chris, who does soldering and wire manipulation, and Maurice, also working in the soldering space – to further Vrba’s creative process. “I never felt like I was good enough to work with these special things,” Vrba added. “Now I can use them because my skill and Chris’s skill are up to it.”
Vrba makes no bones about being drawn to the work of others as he hones ideas. He cites Kenneth Jay Lane’s fantastic dangle earrings of the ‘60s, vintage Chanel, and Art Deco artistry among points of inspiration. He also admires Iradj Moini’s over the top designs, paying homage to his fellow contemporary designer by remarking, “Iradj is a genius.” He takes rough inspiration gleaned from his true love of adornment and combines the unique materials he’s collected to make each creation his own, much like a modern day crooner reworking a classic song.
Finding those unique materials has taken Vrba everywhere from New York-area flea markets to the cavernous hollows of Wolf E. Myrow in Providence, R.I. Some of the components he’s using today began as jewelry findings from other companies, like poured glass petals in channel settings once used in vintage Trifari designs. Large blown glass flowers and leaves incorporated into other pieces began their decorative lives as embellishments on old dresser trays. And, of course, his travels far and wide with Morris Kinsler, owner of Miriam Haskell from the mid-1950s through the early ‘80s, yielded some treasures he’s held for decades.
His favorite collection by far in his nine years designing for Haskell was the Egyptian line introduced in the 1970s. It came to life after running across Egyptian-themed stampings in Europe and simply thinking, “I’m going to make these into something.” Like a number of the Vrba-era lines, these pieces weren’t Haskellesque in the least. He admits that it wasn’t easy getting those non-traditional Haskell collections produced, but making sure that happened was his crowning achievement in his years as head designer with the company.
“I was so young back then. The pressure of doing it was as bad as actually doing it. The fashion houses didn’t want the same old Haskell,” he remarked. But when the Egyptian pieces were featured in Newsweek, it was truly an exciting time for the young designer. “It’s the sense of being in the fashion business that elicits that kind of excitement. We’re actually in the manufacturing end of it. But when Vogue calls and says they’ve heard you’re doing Egyptian, you walk a little bit lighter then.”
“Our jewelry needed to be fashionable and it needed to be marketable, and I contributed to that,” Vrba recalled his of days with Haskell. But his work designing for Castlecliff prior to that held some interesting lines as well. “I did a lot of great things for Castlecliff – the Mayan collection for one.”
As he moved on from the traditional scope of jewelry manufacture and made a name for himself under his own label hand-crafting pieces using the “Lawrence Vrba” mark, accolades and orders have never been far behind. In addition to having many celebrity customers commission designs, his bold work has been featured in venues from Broadway to films to cruise productions. Yes, he was asked not long ago to create a number of tiaras for characters in the Disney princess show running on the company’s cruise line.
In addition, pop star Katy Perry wore a commissioned Vrba rhinestone headpiece and matching fireworks brooches while performing in the infamous Victoria’s Secret fashion show held in New York in November 2010. The voluminous list of notable Vrba credits continually grows, much to the delight of his fans who relish reports of his incredible work adorning celebrities.
Vrba jewelry has been featured in numerous jewelry books as well. Most recently, his his work graces a two-page spread in Harrice Miller’s book highlighting pieces in the Museum of Arts and Design exhibit “Fashion Jewelry: The Collection of Barbara Berger”. Vrba creations are also no stranger to fashionable photo shoots, including a pair of his Deco-themed earrings appearing on the November 2010 cover of Nippon Vogue. The earrings made their way to Japan when a stylist contacted Bergdorf Goodman in New York where Vrba’s work was offered for sale.
Vrba first noticed his jewelry associated with Bergdorf’s in the winter of 2008, when he wandered by after the opera one evening only to spy a familiar Christmas tree design featured in one of the store’s famous holiday window displays. “It was a thrill! I called Bergdorf’s to thank them and the nice lady there said, ‘Larry, will you provide us with jewelry?’ I told her, ‘Oh, I suppose I will,’” he remarked coyly.
Vrba showing one of his Art Deco necklace designs in progress.
Featured among other designer costume jewelry in the Kentshire gallery, Bergdorf’s salespeople very often share stories of the celebrity clients who can’t resist purchasing Vrba jewels. Holding one of his recently crafted maharaja convertible necklaces Vrba added, “They love to tell clients that Beyonce owns one of these.”
Just having his jewelry showcased by one of the world’s premier retailers like Bergdorf’s is a great honor for Vrba, along with every mention of his work in print and every fashionable photo that appears in a magazine. He remains humble and grateful for every ounce of recognition he receives, and still feels it “creates credibility” for his work as if that’s needed after a lifetime of jewelry achievement.
What may be more remarkable, however, is the fact that Vrba, after more than 40 years in the jewelry business, still enjoys what he does. To those who wonder why he doesn’t expand his small shop, he explains that he could most definitely open his own factory now but “prefers to keep things the way they are.” Many nights he delights in soldering with the radio as his muse, very happily working past midnight. He can’t help wonder if other jewelry designers who’ve also been around for just as long, those who’ve taken a more corporate route to success, still enjoy their work as much as he does.
“I can’t not make these things,” Vrba said gesturing to boxes and trays filled with jewelry waiting to be sent to the special few distributors with whom he currently works. “I wake up just as excited about what I’m doing today as I did when I was designing for Haskell. I ended up where I wanted to be.”
So, he toils delightfully in the grand studio he put together piece by piece while maturing as an artist, mentoring, valuing his extraordinary life, and being an exceptional friend to so many. And one can only walk away feeling that he never truly realizes what precious gifts he shares with the world.
This article originally appeared in the Winter, 2010 edition of CJCI Magazine.
Pamela Wiggins Siegel is the co-founder of Costume Jewelry Collectors Intl. LLC and the author of Warman’s Costume Jewelry (available on Amazon.com).