BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
Growing up in Florence, jewelry designer Ippolita Rostagno, who opened a 900 North Michigan boutique at the start of this month, frequented the Uffizi Gallery, noting the richness of the Mannerist artist Agnolo Bronzino, court painter to Cosimo I de’Medici.
“The men’s jewelry was what fascinated me: long chains of gold, which hung from their shoulder to their swords. His subjects seemed to live in a fable, and I wanted to live in a fable too,” she recalls. “Bronzino was almost a photo realist—you can see all the details. Even as a schoolgirl, I realized as I stood in front of his portraits that the chains were symbols of beauty and power. Much later I would remember these chains and know that women also wanted this combination of power and beauty to face the world.”
As a sculpture student in Florence she was surrounded by hundreds of molds by the city’s legendary creators like Donatello and Michelangelo. “We had to copy their work again and again until we felt like the tools were extensions of our hands,” Rostagno shares.
Bergdorf Goodman bought her first designs in 1999, and she has continued to rely on the discipline she learned in her hometown to keep her brand alive and well over two decades later. From the start, the majority of her customers have been women buying for themselves. She describes her designs as “cool enough to covet, classic enough to keep”: these are pieces the buyer doesn’t need but wants, that they’ll still feel that same pull towards years later.
As we talked by phone this week—Rostagno from her 19th-century Italianate townhouse in Brooklyn’s Park Slope on what she described as a hazy day—you could almost hear her famous stackable bangles that always cover her arms ring out as she described how she lives out her Florentine training. Today, she is the CEO and creative director of Ippolita and leads the design and manufacture arms of her eponymous line.
“I learned quickly that gold and diamonds always win,” she says. “I was interested in diamonds not in a traditional sense, but diamonds for day and how they embellish design. I don’t want to see prongs, only sparkles. I want an organic feel. I begin with a wax mold, which I put on my arm when I am creating a bangle. I then map the diamonds out on top like sugar. Even under a microscope it would look like a sea of diamonds. Very time consuming, it took years to figure this out.”
Classic Chicago asked top PR experts Whitley Bourma Herbert and Susu Block to pick Ippolita pieces for their holiday wish lists. We feature their choices throughout the story.
Walking into a jewel box is how Rostagno wants customers to feel as they visit her new Michigan Avenue store. Gone are the standard glass cases that require a staff member and key: “Jewelry often gets penalized because you view it behind glass. It is natural that sometimes people are uncomfortable in asking clerks to open vitrines so that they can try on something. At our Chicago store we have invented a wall system holds the pieces that guests can try on. A screen allows you to hold up a piece to learn all its particulars.”
She continues, “How jewelry feels is the most important. Our works are handcrafted. I design softer and lighter pieces, a challenge when working with metal. So much jewelry just isn’t feminine enough.”
Rostagno says that the plans to open this new Chicago location were formulated last year, but that the past few weeks were understandably rather touch-and-go: “We didn’t know if the mall would be closed due to COVID restrictions. At first we had planned a grand opening and then when we realized that wouldn’t work, we thought we could at least giving out gift cards for drinks. Even that didn’t work. I was unable to be there but am delighted that surprisingly we are doing very well.”
CCM so enjoyed diving deeper into the designer’s own must-haves, methodology, and the art of jewelry collecting:
I know you wear your bangle bracelets every day, but do you have a favorite piece?
I have a gold necklace I adore. It has large gold links, and I sometimes wear one, two, or even three. It is definitely in the Medici mold.
When it comes to collecting jewelry, what do we need to know?
You have to think about longevity. It should be classic and designed to stand the test of time. Ask yourself, ‘Will I be wearing this in 10 years?’
What about new techniques in jewelry making with lasers and other advanced technology?
We purchased a 3D printer, but what it produces looks so machine-made and the size is just wrong. We use it as a sketch tool. We do everything by hand and there’s no improvising. Our model makers have mostly been with us for the last 20 years and have studied in South America, Japan, Italy, Lithuania, and other countries.
What would you say is the Little Black Dress of jewelry?
Definitely the gold chain, which can be looped as a necklace as well. Our number two bestseller is the Lollitini, a chainset with stones of all colors of the rainbow. It really elevates your mood, but then all the colors converge to somehow make it neutral. And of course bangles: you can look down and they make you happy ten times a day. You want to look exactly like your self but perhaps feel prettier, stronger, and more powerful.
Ippolita is located at 900 North Michigan Avenue, level 1. Call 312.847.7367 or email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.