As one of the great studio photographers of the 20th century, Robert Mapplethorpe saw his life stretched out to the point of nausea. And yet, despite Mapplethorpe’s notoriety, his jewelry designs – a significant part of his creative output prior to his photography – remain criminally ignored.
“He was fascinated by finery, especially jewelry, which he made from an early age,” says Michael Stout, former Mapplethorpe attorney and chairman of the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. “And he’s always been very interested in expanding his artistic footprint in the fashion world.”
The new Americana Eagle necklace.
The photographer in 1971.
Mapplethorpe, who died of AIDS in 1989, could finally get his wish. Next month, at the request of the foundation, Gaia Repossi, the third-generation creative director of the eponymous company, unveils 10 new high jewelry pieces inspired by Mapplethorpe originals from the early 1970s. two-pronged offer was launched last year.) “They were perfect,” Repossi says of the trinkets Mapplethorpe made for friends and acquaintances, including Halston, Marisa Berenson and Yves Saint Laurent (who Mapplethorpe claimed to have snatched her dice jewelry and domino handcuffs). “But I really wanted to elevate them using noble materials.”
While Mapplethorpe’s long chains and fetish necklaces were made from found objects such as skulls, rabbit’s feet, beads, feathers and even the occasional crustacean, Repossi’s updates are rendered in golds and exquisite diamonds, and their price ranges from $2,050 for a ring to $197,000 for an Americana Eagle necklace. “It’s impossible to collaborate with someone who isn’t there,” Repossi explains, “so I was very careful not to violate their vision.”
His concern has already won the admiration of influential fans. “She really captured the essence and spirit of her designs,” says Frances Terpak, Senior Curator and Head of Photographs at the Getty Research Institute and co-author of Robert Mapplethorpe: The Archives, a book that pays particular attention to the artist’s early Polaroids, sculptures and jewelry. “There is a collector’s bias in favor of his black and white photographs, and the Repossi collaboration will go a long way to remedying that.”
Repossi examines some of Mapplethorpe’s original creations.
Relic necklace by Gaia Repossi, inspired by one of Mapplethorpe’s pieces, with her 1981 Ajitto photograph.
No one would have been happier than Mapplethorpe himself. “He absolutely would have loved the Repossi collection,” says Stout. “As he got richer, the level of jewelry he bought for himself increased. He certainly wasn’t going to Harry Winston, but he wasn’t just into cheap pearls anymore, nuts and skulls.
There will be no shortage of Mapplethorpe-related events to wear the pieces. Triptych (Eyes on each other)a musical composed by Bryce Dessner about the life and photography of Mapplethorpe, is scheduled for an extensive international tour, after a run in the United States which was interrupted by Covid; Hadrian, an opera composed by Rufus Wainwright, is revived in Madrid and Barcelona this summer, with artwork by Mapplethorpe as part of the scenography. And in July in London, Alison Jacques, the British gallery that has represented Mapplethorpe since 1999, will present her works, including jewelry, curated by fashion designer Jonathan Anderson.
“Robert sought ultimate perfection and exquisite beauty, often in controversial subjects that were far removed from the art world, with all its polite or seemingly sophisticated inhabitants,” says Jacques. “It is this rapprochement between opposite, often conflicting worlds that has made him the emblematic artist that he is and will be for many generations to come.”
©Norman Seeff; Valerie Santagto; © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, under license Artestar, New York; ©Jeremy Everett; Photo courtesy of Repossi.