July 21st, 2011 / posted by paularath

Beyonce's breastplate was designed by Jose Barrera. Photos by Jerry Mayfield

Here's the original, shot by Jerry Mayfield in the Barrera Studio.

It’s kinda nice when there’s a mutual admiration between a retailer and a designer. That’s certainly the case with jewelry scions Jose and Maria Barrera of NYC and Lo Kaimuloa of Riches Kahala.

I have been a huge fan of the Barreras’ work for many years, so when preparing for our trip to NYC I asked Lo to help me get in touch with them for a visit to their studio. Entering their studio, which is a bit like stepping into a fantasy world, was a highlight of our trip.

Hushed and serene, the studio is a place you want to sink into. Everything there is meant to inspire. Although Jose said he has never been out of the country, he has collected objets d’art from Europe, South America, Africa and the Middle East which he uses as cultural references and design inspiration.

We met with Jose and his daughter Larisa, who is also designing jewelry for the firm since receiving her degree from Rhode Island School of Design.  

How Jose got his big break was sheer serendipity, according to the modest designer. He created a piece of body jewelry that caught the eye of none other than Diana Vreeland, editor of Vogue. She asked him if she could use it in a Vogue spread. To his amazement, Vreeland draped it on model Marisa Berenson – with nothing else. It was Vogue’s first – and last – nude spread. I found the photo in my book, In Vogue. Here it is:

Marisa Berenson in Vogue, wearing Jose and Maria Barrera jewelry, from the book In Vogue

“It was just a fluke,” Jose said. “I was too young and naive to even know what it meant” to have his work in Vogue. Since then, of course, the line has become a favorite of stylists from nearly every major fashion magazine.

Jose refers to much of his life as being “sheer luck.” Hardly. You don’t have such continuous success without a lot of talent, along with business savvy. And, as Lo points out, “They’ve never changed who they are. They’re always true to their roots.”

Their success was immediate and has been steady through all the years and all the trends. Part of their secret is that they pay attention to trends but never bow to them. “We study the ready to wear collections and identify trends, colors and shapes to figure out what the buyers might buy” and what jewelry would work best with the clothes of the coming season. Jose showed us his  “trend board”:

Jose Barrera with his seasonal trend board from ready to wear. Photo by Jerry Mayfield

Jose said he and Maria started working out of their apartment with $38. During their first foray into sales they received so many orders they had to ramp up production. “We wanted to be mostly in small specialty stores,”
 Jose said. Among them: Harvey Nichols in Hong Kong, Mercury in Russia and shops in Saudi Arabia, Paris, the French Riviera and, for the past 25 years, Riches Kahala. They began selling to Neiman Marcus 28 years ago and they now create a special collection for them each season.

The family has tried their hand at belts, scarves and handbags, but they always come back to jewelry.

They are committed to NYC and do all their sourcing and manufacturing right in the heart of the Garment District. They took us back into their production area where a group of artisans worked piece by piece, by hand, to complete the looks. It’s all very old country. I felt as though I was back in a workshop in Italy. “I still take pencil to paper,” Jose explained. He doesn’t even use a computer to assist with his design process, much less a CAD. He makes his own metals in the studio as well.

What did he say about coming trends? Watch out for brooches; they will be back, big time. My guess is that we will be wearing them in a new way, in a cluster, whether on a lapel, at the hip of a skirt or in our hair.

I’m sure another reason for the Barreras’ success is their warmth and genuine friendship. Maria and Lo “Hit it off immediately,” Lo said with a guffaw. “There we were, talking about our kids, talking about our weight, talking about our gripes. And then, later on, even talking about menopause!”

“It’s so amazing that they have never had to change who they are,” Lo said. “Their quality has always been exquisite and so fashion forward.”

I can certainly vouch for their quality of craftsmanship. I have bought four pairs of Jose and Maria Barrera earrings over the years and not one stone has ever fallen out, not one iota of metal has ever changed. Here are a few current pieces, just to give you an idea of their look.

– Paula Rath

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July 22nd, 2011 at 1:13 pm

Absolutely great read!! Two of my favorite things, Beyonce and jewelry!

July 23rd, 2011 at 12:07 am

I love this post. Love jewlery design
and reading about designers and thier process as well as thier story.

Ida B Diaz
December 5th, 2011 at 3:23 am

Still so amazed at the success that my brother has attained, but not surprised at his talent..it has always been there. I knew this story about Marisa Berenson for a long time and am so happy that it is finally printed. We are all so very proud of him and his whole family. Congratulations on a wonderful article.

December 5th, 2011 at 4:08 am

Such a talented family! We were so impressed with Jose; he is so modest, yet so incredibly talented. I have several pairs of his earrings – from the ’90s – and they are still in style and in perfect condition.

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