The jeweler with the famous name designs a big brand and a wonderful life.
By Paige Williams
"I think jewelry has to be playful," Paloma Picasso is saying. "Jewelry makes us feel great and it makes us more beautiful, but if it can make us smile, all the better."
We're in Picasso's Tiffany & Co. design studio in Midtown Manhattan, surrounded by display cases containing hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of her creations. The piece making her smile at the moment is a bracelet from her 2008 Zelige collection: a Cleopatra-like coil of 18-carat yellow gold, with an ingenious twist. Picasso removes the bracelet from her slender wrist by opening it link by link. "Ah, oui?" she breathes in her pan-European accent.
Luxury jewelry buyers have been saying oui to Picasso for decades. She started designing exclusively for Tiffany nearly 30 years ago, in 1980, and has had a high-profile home with the venerable retailer ever since. As Tiffany & Co. expands aggressively – including in China and throughout Europe – the company is relying as much as ever on the Picasso brand, which in fiscal 2006 achieved $90million in sales, or roughly 3.4 percent of Tiffany's $2.6 billion in net sales. "That's not a huge influence from an earnings perspective," notes Randal Konik, an analyst who covers Tiffany for Bear Stearns, "but she has a huge impact on the branding of Tiff any as a leader in design."
If Picasso's early design career in Europe benefited from her instantly recognizable name – she is the daughter of painter Pablo Picasso – it flourished under her own creative talent as well as an apparently bottomless wellspring of energy and ideas. She releases a new collection of 10 to 20 pieces yearly, plus special-edition or one-of-a-kind items sparked by gemstones or materials that seize her imagination (lately she's been fascinated with black tourmaline). She is branching out with men's jewelry designs and into accessories – sterling silver picture frames, letter openers, baby cups, alarm clocks. In jewelry alone, her sparkly corpus by now contains upward of 1,000 items, from her ever-popular Loving Heart pendants ($295) to brilliant green tourmaline earrings ($10,950).
As a mainstream counterpoint to her home at Tiffany, Picasso sells her eponymous perfume through Wal-Mart and other retailers: $46 for 1.7 ounces. Her cologne, "Minotaure" (the half man, half bull having been a theme in her father's work), sells all over the Internet and elsewhere, and she has dabbled in fabric, wallpaper and handbag design too. Jewelry, though, is her forte, and some would hate to see her stray too far from it. "People know and respect her for her jewelry," says Liz Chatelain, president of MVI Marketing Ltd., the California-based consumer research and consulting parent of the Jewelry Industry Opinion Council. "This is her niche, and if she gets bored with it and tries to move on to other things, she might not be as effective."
Such a departure from her first love is highly unlikely, though, as any conversation with colleagues or Picasso herself makes plain. Little happens within the strategy of Picasso's career trajectory without her knowledge or touch – and her consent.
Hers is essentially a tight world. Her business, per se, consists just of Picasso herself, her husband (Eric Thévenet, a doctor) and their assistant, who lives in England while Picasso and Thévenet reside in Switzerland. Picasso, 57, keeps no formal office and designs whenever and wherever she pleases – on airplanes, in hotels, and always on paper. She also travels to New York several times a year and to Tiffany stores around the world, where she makes appearances and meets with collectors. Mean while, her prolific pen produces a flurry of faxes for Tiffany every couple of weeks – fax being her preferred method of communication. (She doesn't own a BlackBerry.) Some of her most popular pieces, in fact, originated on a jetliner napkin or a hotel note pad – again shades of her legendary father, who sketched on restaurant napkins for amusement (and, some say, quick cash).
"She'll come with this elegant folder, and some piece of scrap paper will flutter out and it'll have a gorgeous sketch on it," says Linda Buckley, who works closely with Picasso as Tiffany's vice president of public relations.
But Picasso is more than just a wealthy creative force detached from the details of the business, her associates point out. She has strong opinions about what she wants and takes an active strategic role, according to Jon King, Tiffany's executive vice president of merchandising, who oversees the Tiffany collections and works closely with the company's exclusive designers, Elsa Peretti, Frank Gehry and Picasso. Picasso retains ownership of copyrights for her designs and trademark and is very involved in the promotion, display, manufacture and merchandising of her work. Tiffany is required by contract to devote a portion of its advertising budget to promoting her products (the company reportedly spent more than $163 million in worldwide advertising in 2006). "Like all our designers, she brings innovation to Tiffany and has made a unique contribution to our reputation as a world-premier jeweler," says King.
Even with a general economic downturn looming, Picasso's pricey designs and Tiffany's prestige still hold a prominent place in consumers' jewelry boxes. U.S. consumers spend about $60 billion a year on jewelry, including watches. And while Tiffany reported mixed holiday sales, so far it appears relatively insulated from recent drops in consumer confidence. "Wealthy people are still wealthy," says Konik, the Bear Stearns analyst. "There are some signals that the jewelry category is gaining market share, especially with luxury jewelry."
Picasso's work ranges from $70 for a sterling silver book mark to nearly $200,000 for a tanzanite necklace. And Picasso's sales figures suggest her work sells no matter the economic climate or geographic region, whether it be the 63 Tiffany locations nationwide and many others abroad, or the newly revamped Tiffany website. "They're still very commercially viable," Chatelain says.
Perhaps the most famous photographic portrait of Paloma Picasso, taken by Richard Avedon in the 1980s as part of the promotion for her perfume, shows her in close-up wearing her signature (at the time) red lipstick, a glamorous contrast with her flawless skin and black hair. The photograph – and the boldness of her designs – might lead anyone to expect her to be a woman of intimidating physical presence, but she's ballerina petite – and warm. "Some designers tend to be secretive or arrogant or elitist," Chatelain says. "You don't get that with her."
Picasso no longer wears the red lipstick, but she's still got the flawless olive skin, the dark hair. On this unusually warm day, she arrives at her design studio dressed head to toe in brown Hermés, a rich canvas for gold jewelry of her own creation: the aforementioned bracelet, a long gold necklace of flat oval links, a gold "caliph" ring of nine interlocking bands that "drape around your finger like a turban," and her 22-caratgold wedding band.
"Inspiration is something that is very hard to explain," she begins to tell me. "Almost every piece has an explanation of how it came to be. Sometimes it's meeting somebody who has a technique that you've never worked with before. Or it could be that I find a stone that's very exciting. Some ideas I've kept in my head for two or three years until I could really pinpoint what it was I was trying to do."
Picasso branded herself early with graphic elements such as X's and geometric squiggles and with big, bold creations of colored gemstones: carnelian, citrine, lemon quartz and brilliant blue tanzanite, for instance – a notable departure for Tiffany, which built its reputation on diamonds and pearls. Founded in 1837, the company had a long-standing tradition of supremacy in traditional designs, but it had not yet used color in a strong way. After noticing Picasso's early work for Yves Saint Laurent, Tiffany design director John Loring brought her in to move color to an entirely new level.
Picasso slips off the wedding band and stands it upright on the conference table. "For a long-standing relationship," she says.
Then she urges me to try the ring on. In fact, she pleasantly insists that I try on many pieces. Picasso is an artist not only comfortable with her own work but confident enough to be charmed by it, apparently without any of the stereotypical artist angst. "Most of my pieces I can still relate to," she says. "I wear pieces from 20 years ago and they still look fine. I like the timelessness of jewelry. That's one thing that's great about designing jewelry – the idea that you pass it on from generation to generation. When you go to museums, some of the oldest things you can find there are jewelry."
As she talks I'm slipping in and out of tens of thousands of dollars' worth of her pieces, including a trio of Sugar Stacks, colorful mix-and-match gold rings with settings of citrine ($1,575), peridot ($1,175) and Picasso's favorite gemstone, rubellite ($5,500). "You can say almost by definition that fashion is changing all the time; that's not the case with jewelry," she says. "On the contrary, it's long-lasting. Also it's a very intimate relationship that one has with one's jewelry. It's a very warming idea to be designing for people who are going to be taking that piece into their own life."
Picasso has always been her own best model and salesperson. She travels the world wearing and promoting her designs – proving in Japan, for instance, that one needn't be a large woman to wear large jewelry. When I ask whom she has in mind when she designs, she doesn't hesitate to answer. "Number-one client? Paloma Picasso," she says emphatically. "I think, 'What do I want?'"
On the night just before our meeting, Picasso showed her newest gold coil brace let to her moth er, the painter Françoise Gilot, who lives in New York. Gilot's encouragement matters deeply to Picasso; in some ways Gilot has been a more important role model than Picasso's more famous father. "Because she's an artist herself, my mother has always put the stakes very high, but that's a good thing," Picasso says. "She's always shown me a woman could work and do things on her own." Gilot and Pablo Picasso were together for many years but never married, she explains. "She was standing on her own two feet, as a painter."
Still, there's no escaping the power and weighty influence of the Picasso name, or the fact that her father was one of the great artistic geniuses of the 20th century, if not all time. In her early teens, around the time she realized the burden that professional comparisons to her father would bring, Picasso resisted any artistic calling. Even an emerging interest in architecture died out when she realized how much math was involved. "That's not my forte," she admits. "And anyway, everyone would be laughing in my face, with my name." Yet ultimately she couldn't escape the allure of design, particularly jewelry, and her natural talent for it. "It was the first thing that I got into, and it was what I enjoyed. It's quite rare to see little girls who are wearing jewelry, but in many photographs I'm wearing a bracelet, I'm wearing earrings, I'm very often wearing something around my neck." By her late teens she had begun to study jewelry design – despite being "kind of scared, with the [Picasso] name," she recalls – and her designs for the Greek firm Zolotas in the early 1970s, some of her earliest work, genuinely impressed critics.
Today, as in the beginning, her greatest pleasure lies in the process, which may be why she prefers to discuss creativity – the spark of inspiration, thinking her way through a design with pen and ink – over cash flow. "I've always wanted to do things that won't age but that look modern," she says. "They shouldn't look like they've been around or been seen. They should surprise you and feel at the same time comfortable. As I was growing up in the '60s, the thing at the time was Swedish jewelry, or 'sculptures to wear.' People had spiky necklaces, and you'd try to kiss someone and get stabbed in the throat." She laughs. "To me, jewelry has to feel good on the body. Jewelry should make you feel good."
After our talk, she is scheduled for a product development meeting, where manufacturers will come before her and lay down their raw materials. It's all part of her perpetual process, the meld of design and business that takes the genesis of an idea and nurtures it into sparkling creations in glass cases around the world. For her men's line, she has been working with products as varied as titanium and rubber. "I find it more difficult to de sign for men," she says. "You have to be more conservative in a way. And yet you don't want it to be so classic that it doesn't say by itself that it's a Paloma piece. Your area of creation is tighter. Which is a challenge." A flash of a smile and a pause, then she adds: "But challenges are good."
This article originally appeared in the March.April 2008 issue of PINK Magazine. This article won a national Folio award for design!