The free-spirited jeweler is enjoying a well-lived life at the intersection of creativity and equestrian sport
“Hold on, someone is digging a hole in my hair.” Irene laughs as one of her Labradoodles makes his presence known during the interview. The momentary interruption of affection set the tone for the lively conversation with California jeweler Irene Neuwirth.
Her imaginative designs, recognized and adored worldwide, would suffice for some. However, in the equestrian community, she is known as an accomplished rider, competing and winning nationally at adult amateur-owner hunter division events. Curiously, her two worlds don’t always overlap. “It’s funny,” says Irene. “I was at a horse show, and a woman came up to me and said, ‘You know, there’s a jewelry designer with a name like yours.’ I said, ‘Oh, no, that’s me’. I’ll often be at a show polishing my boots and riding my horses at 5 a.m., so I think people don’t think I have a real job.”
Irene’s modern and sometimes whimsical pieces eschew the norms of fine jewelry and directly reflect her individuality. Her unconventional mix of gem cuts paired with a panoply
of vibrant colors has garnered global appeal, countless design awards, and the attention of upper-echelon celebrities who select her jewelry for red-carpet runway events. Recently, singer-songwriter Nicki Minaj graced the cover of Vogue wearing a pair of Irene’s earrings.
Irene’s brand ethos is proving to be highly successful. She intentionally shuns the formality often associated with shopping for fine jewelry and purposely spins whimsy and a welcoming allure throughout her retail spaces. Clever descriptions of her one-of-a-kind pieces, such as gum balls, gum drops, and gemmy gems, conjure images of edible confections, all of which resonate with her clients, who tend to be those embracing individuality. “I think the world has changed, where people like to wear more understated elegance, and so that’s sort of our client,” Irene reflects.
Irene often credits her mother, painter Geraldine Neuwirth, for her vivacity and carefree approach to color. “I’ve always been wildly creative,” she admits. But at 13, her parents divorced, and Irene was spending alternate weeks with each parent. So, in addition to her creative interests, she fell in love with horses, noting it was a great way to have structure and responsibility in her life. “I like to learn everything about everything. It’s my best attribute and my curse at the same time. It’s the same thing with my business.”
She rode in the children’s hunters until she was 16, when she went off to boarding school in Colorado and college in New England. “I think my parents were grateful for horses in my life but also not interested in me riding every single minute and spending all their pennies.” My dad said, ‘Enjoy it now, and when you can afford it later, you can do it yourself.’ I was like, ‘Oh great!’”
Photo courtesy of Irene Neuwirth.
Irene in front of a large-scale horse painting at her Melrose Place store.
Irene moved back to California after college and began helping a woman she had ridden with as a kid teach walk-trot lessons and anything else she could do to be around the horses. “My dad told me, ‘You need to get a real job,’ and I said, this is my job.’ To which he reiterated, ‘You’re going to get a real job.’”
With tenacity, she got to work. She began drawing and learning how to make jewelry, working with a specialized Gemological Institute of America (GIA) professor. “I learned how to do all the wax carving and metalsmithing. When I put my mind to something, it’s difficult for people to tell me no,” she muses. For example, with no other accounts, she boldly decided she would pitch the luxury retailer Barneys New York. “I basically accosted the person there until somebody returned a phone call. They asked, ‘When are you coming to New York’? and I said, ‘Tomorrow!’” Barneys was Irene’s first account. She quickly fell in love with learning how to be a boss, design jewelry, and launch and thrive in the business.
She’s been in business for over 20 years, recently opening her third store, a 2,000-square-foot flagship boutique on New York City’s Madison Avenue. The store design maintained her vision of creating approachable spaces and received accolades with declaratives of “a jewel box,” “eclectic,” and “hypnotizing.” Her two California stores, endearingly described as “a whimsical wonderland” and “casual and welcoming,” are in West Hollywood and Santa Monica. “It’s been wildly fun and, [ultimately] it’s allowed me to get back into riding.”
Irene’s successful business and passion for horses are mutually beneficial. “Horses are kinf of ‘on brand’ and having a moment in fashion,” she notes. “It’s just very authentic. I never want things to feel inauthentic, and my love for horses is certainly authentic.”
Irene ended her 23-year hiatus from horses when she contacted a friend from the past to ask where she was riding. She simply wanted to sit, walk, and trot on a horse. “I had dreamed about it for so long,” she explains. Her well-meaning friend told her about a 5-year-old for sale, but Irene adamantly told her she was not buying a horse; “I just want to sit, walk, and trot.” She ended up half-leasing a horse for two weeks but eventually sat on the 5-year-old and purchased him. Presently, Irene has five horses. “I’ve gotten young ones and brought them along, and I’ve been lucky that it’s worked out great so far.”
She keeps her horses with trainer John Bragg at Bridgeport Farms in San Juan Capistrano, California. “I’ve had the best time with him, and we’ve become great friends,” Irene smiles. “John and I are a good match. He’s tough on me, but I get him.
My secret power is that I have a very good eye and I’m very mathematical,” she adds. “John said, ‘Alright, we get it. We see that you see the distance. Try to get there without making it so obvious.’ I was like, oh, right. It’s the same thing with jewelry. I always want it to be more interesting. I always want to continue learning, and I’m an excellent student in that way.”
She has no specific rituals before competing but admits to being hyper-focused and never taking safety for granted. She wants to keep herself and her horses safe and well-prepared.
“I go in the morning, and I ride my horse until 5:30 because I want to know what to be on the lookout for. I’m controlling. Let’s just say that,’’ she admits. “If I can and have time, I like to visualize the course in my head. John would probably disagree, but I don’t necessarily care about winning. I just want to ride my best”
Above: Irene’s winning table design showcasing her custom-made, equestrian-themed place settings launched at the table-design contest at the Hampton Classic Horse Show.
Herr favorite horse show is Devon. “I absolutely love it, not just because we’ve been successful there, but it just feels so special and old school. As a kid, I didn’t do any of those shows in the East, so I didn’t know what to expect.”
She made it to the Hampton Classic Horse Show last sum- mer, but not to compete. Instead, she was there to launch her line of equestrian-themed tabletop place settings. “I wanted to do it for a very long time, and Anthony Dominici, a television producer and the cousin of my long-time boyfriend, had fallen in love with making ceramics. So, on New Year’s Eve and after a generous glass of tequila, it was like, ‘should we?’”
They worked feverishly for almost a year, realizing they could hustle and try to launch it at Hamptons Cottages & Gardens magazine’s famed table-design contest. “I’d never been to the Hampton Classic, so I didn’t realize it was such a big deal,” Irene confesses. “I was like, I want to win. If we’re going to do it, we have to win. I had no clue. I love to do things over the top. I just had no idea how over-the-top people went. It turned out beautifully, and it was so much fun.” Much to her delight, their combined creativity earned their table design the first place, Best of Show award. (See EQLiving Nov/Dec 2023.)
Irene attributes a lot of her successes in life to riding. “It’s improved my life, my anxiety, my ability to be a boss, to be a friend, and to be a girlfriend and a partner. It’s just been so healthy and good for me,” she acknowledges.
This wonderfully imaginative artist has found a personal philosophy that maximizes her creativity, individuality, and success in her favored spheres of jewelry design and equestrian sport. Animals are also integral to her well-being. “I have two dogs and five horses,” laughs Irene. “I’m like a borderline ‘Ace Ventura’.”
Left: Irene on Juan Carlos, her 10-year-old Holsteiner Right: Irene competing on her bay gelding Holsteiner, Guess Who. Photos by Alden Corrigan.