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Robert Lee Morris, 76: Pioneering Jewelry Designer

How to never stop creating. Powerhouse Robert Lee Morris designed groundbreaking jewelry for Donna Karan, Calvin Klein, and Kansai Yamamoto and adorned the Studio 54 crowd. Now he is creating chandeliers and sculptures in his signature “timeless futurism” aesthetic and dividing his time between New York City and rural Connecticut.

At 76, Robert Lee Morris is a creative powerhouse. Morris grew up an Air Force BRAT, which helped form his global point of view and fearlessness. He moved around until he settled in New York City and began crafting groundbreaking architectural jewelry that empowers women. After an iconic career as a pioneering jewelry designer and collaborating with designers like Donna Karan,  he draws profound inspiration from the natural world’s organic shapes. He envisions his creations for a sophisticated, futuristic civilization. And he’s just getting started.

How do you keep the well of inspiration from running dry?
I was always inspired, and I’ve never stopped being inspired. And so, I’m inspired by history by looking at imagery from history, whether it’s the gladiators, the Greeks, or the Egyptians. That level has always inspired me, whether armor or royal armor, jewelry, and ceremonial garb. But I like the combination of ancient history and future modern stuff. I’m very into ultra-futuristic, sleek, aerodynamic-looking architecture.

What I’ve always tried to do is be the go-between between the ancient tribal world and the futuristic world of sci-fi. And so, when I bring those together, I make something truly me. And it fits my mental picture of my life and who I am.

How did traveling inspire you?
Japan had an extreme influence on me. Yeah. And then Brazil had a powerful influence, too, so they were like opposites. Japan was very serene. I studied Flower arranging; I researched all of the calligraphy. I loved the Japanese mentality. And then when I went to Rio, I was overwhelmed with the sensuality, the sun, and all of the, you know, the beach culture.

So, between those two, I had a lot that became part of my personality. 

Your career path is so inspiring. Over the years, how has your work evolved?
It’s been a journey of threading through the wisdom of the past and the sleekness of the future. Working with fashion’s finest, from Calvin Klein to Kansai Yamamoto, I’ve always let my pieces echo a story of timeless futurism.

What’s the feeling you aim to evoke with your jewelry?
Strength. I weave stories into each design, hoping to lend that narrative’s power to the wearer. It’s a transformation I’ve witnessed: a shy spirit stepping into boldness with just a change of adornment.

It makes you more confident. And so many of my customers are afraid of the more significant pieces but, once they get past it, it changes their personality. It gives them much more strength to be who they are, like going from the little stud earrings to big, bold earrings.

Reflecting on your career, what does success mean to you now?
It’s never been about accolades; it’s always been about the truth of creation. I’ve remained a conduit for the visions that seek form, ensuring that every piece carries a piece of that truth.

Robert’s experimental collection for Donna Karan.

Take us through your daily routine.
Mornings are for the mind, engaging with my muses through letters and literature. Then, I retreat to my studio, my sanctuary, where I sculpt and shape until the day yields to the evening, when I trade metals for ingredients and craft a different kind of art in the kitchen.

How do you decide when a piece is finished?
It’s a feeling – a whisper that tells me the piece has reached its potential.

I trust my intuition, honed by years of crafting stories through metal.

“I weave stories into each design, hoping to lend that narrative’s power to the wearer”

Sculptures and Chandeliers

What are you currently working on?
I’m sitting here with a massive inventory of archives selling through my website. And I’ve shifted over to working primarily in sculptures and chandeliers now. The business has been going really well, primarily because of the collaboration with these amazing interior designers, Aman and Meeks. They’re well-known for their work with billionaire clients and have been familiar with my designs for years. They approached me with this unique request, to start crafting lighting fixtures, particularly chandeliers, and I was immediately intrigued by the challenge.

The first major project I embarked on was for a residence in Sagaponack. I created this enormous, 12-foot-long, 6-foot-wide brass chandelier that looked like jewelry. It was a mammoth task, but the result was truly rewarding. To my delight, it became the standout piece in their house, the kind of centerpiece that really makes a statement.

That success set the ball rolling and, since then, I’ve been commissioned to design more. I’m working on my fifth or sixth large chandelier, this time for a house in Palm Beach. Despite the physical toll it takes – and believe me, my body feels every bit of the effort – the satisfaction I get from seeing my work come to life and being appreciated is incredibly fulfilling.

So, my hands are still as busy as ever, but I’m making huge pieces.

Cate Blanchett in a Donna Karan ad wearing Robert Lee Morris sterling silver belts.

What’s a challenge you face today, and how are you dealing with it?
Making big pieces is incredibly gratifying, even though my body is falling apart. I have arthritis in both hands and my back. I had my first occupational therapy appointment today.

“I must honor my body, more so after my heart scares, to keep my ideas alive”

How old are you, and where’s home?
I’m 76. Home is a balance between the vibrant Upper West Side and the peaceful, rural escape of Redding, Connecticut – each has its rhythm that resonates with me.

Do you have children?
I have a 24-year-old daughter who went to Skidmore. She is still living with us and learning from a fantastic baker how to decorate fancy cakes.

What drew you to Connecticut?
It was love and destiny.

My wife’s roots are here and, after the upheaval of 9/11, it seemed only natural to find solace in a place that promised tranquility. 

So, you moved before the great COVID migration?
Yes, long before.

Tell us about the early days of your career.
When I started, I went to every major place with high-end jewelry. And they all said, “We love your work, we know your work,” but it wasn’t for them. So, I knew I had no choice but to open my gallery.

So I opened Artwear and, at that point, I gathered all of the top names in my kind of jewelry and the city, and we formed a group. Then, I started looking for people I could add to the gallery, and people from all over the country and the world started sending me letters and images of their work, wanting to be in the gallery.

It was word of mouth. 

It didn’t look like a jewelry store. In 1977, the Studio 54 crowd shopped there and, eventually, we moved to Soho to an available corner of West Broadway and Spring, surrounded by all the big-name galleries. Once we opened there, we were just flooded with customers.

Knuckle rings by Robert Lee Morris.

Father of Designer Jewelry

Your “father of designer jewelry” title is quite an honor. What’s the story there?
A line of people wanted to come and show me their work. I would give people a critique about what I saw in their work and what I thought was good, what I thought needed work, or if they should do something else with their lives.

So I guided them, and people would show up with work that blew me away. And I would pick up the phone and call Vogue or Harper’s Bazaar or the editors at Elle and say, “You’ve got to see this person I just discovered.”

And then they would get a cover or a spread. So, I became known as a star maker for the jewelry people. But that also was why I was known as a father because I was a father figure.

Robert Lee Morris’s SNAKESALE series in collaboration with Ann Klein.

How about your work back then?
I was doing everything. I was creating a wholesale division because all the stores all over the country wanted to buy that. They wanted Artwear in their stores, too. I Magnin wanted it — little stores like Tootsie’s in Dallas. 

I was working nonstop.

And next thing you know, Calvin Klein was after me, and I did a massive collection for Calvin, which won me the Coty Award. I was developing quite a reputation because I was just going bang, bang, bang, bang. And then, while I was still working with him, Kansai Yamamoto, famous for doing David Bowie’s outfits, discovered me and invited me to collaborate with him on his shows in Paris, Tokyo, and New York.

And I was taken under his wing while I was doing Calvin. It was very high energy, you know. I was skinny. I was a very high-energy guy. And I was able to keep up with all this. 

Iman wearing a custom necklace by Robert Lee Morris.

“Kansai Yamamoto, famous for doing David Bowie’s outfits, discovered me and invited me to collaborate with him”

What about Donna Karan?
Then, Donna Karan was pushed out of Anne Klein, went out on her own, and asked me if I wanted to stick with her; at this point, I signed a major exclusive contract. They would still let me do other people, but it couldn’t compete.

And the pace of doing four seasons, four collections a year for her, and then manufacturing it to sell to her. It came on the runway. It went into stores. So, their accessory business exploded because they were selling out. After each collection delivery, it would just sell out of the stores within two weeks, and they would order more. So my staff grew from two people to 50 people.

And we were producing products being shipped worldwide to go with the Donna Karan collection, which was going worldwide. So yeah, yeah. So, I came up with a Very signature look at the beginning, which I stuck with. That would be the look of my knuckle ring, if you want to put it in one piece.

What are three non-negotiables in life?
My sanctuary in Connecticut is non-negotiable; it’s my grounding. I must honor my body, more so after my heart scares, to keep my ideas alive. And I won’t design anything that doesn’t resonate with my spirit – my creations are my voice. You know, I hate to say the word demonic, but I think there are a lot of demons loose in the world right now. And it is essential to keep one’s vibrations as high as possible.

What are you currently listening to?
I listen to a complete range. I’ll go from listening to Rimsky-Korsakov swelling orchestral music that I heard when I was a child to Billie Eilish. I listen to a lot of industrial pop because of the rhythm and, when I’m hammering and making things, it’s like a metronome in the background.

What’s on the horizon for you?
So much of what my world is about and what makes me tick is the need to keep my vibrations high and raise the vibrations of people who look at my work, buy it, or live with it.

The horizon is just a line that keeps moving as you approach it. There’s always more to create, more stories to tell through the alchemy of jewelry. I’m not done yet; there’s still much to explore, manifest, and share with the world.

Connect with Robert:
Instagram
Website

See medical disclaimer below. ↓

3 COMMENTS

  1. What a wonderful article about a creative force. So glad I discovered Robert Lee Morris decades ago as his jewels are as phenomenal today as they were then.

  2. I lived in New York from 1978 for five years and loved Artwear, I have earrings that I still wear. I will check out the chandeliers!

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The ideas expressed here are solely the opinions of the author and are not researched or verified by AGEIST LLC, or anyone associated with AGEIST LLC. This material should not be construed as medical advice or recommendation, it is for informational use only. We encourage all readers to discuss with your qualified practitioners the relevance of the application of any of these ideas to your life. The recommendations contained herein are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease. You should always consult your physician or other qualified health provider before starting any new treatment or stopping any treatment that has been prescribed for you by your physician or other qualified health provider. Please call your doctor or 911 immediately if you think you may have a medical or psychiatric emergency.

AUTHOR

Sheri Radel Rosenberghttps://unapologeticstyle.substack.com/
Sheri Radel Rosenberg is a Philly-born, Brooklyn-based writer who explores style, beauty, culture, and midlife with wit, warmth, and wisdom. Her story includes successful forays in the worlds of trend forecasting, ad agency photo production, ghostwriting, and strategic messaging development for fashion and beauty brands - all while amassing a slip dress collection that would make any Gen Xer proud. At the dawn of social media, Sheri launched her personal blog–which combines her passion for writing with her style obsession–and she hasn’t looked back. As Style Editor for the AGEIST, she’s inspired by the styles of the 70s and the 90s, along with all the beautiful people she sees daily in NYC.

 

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