When Aldo Cipullo created the Cartier Love bracelet in New York in 1969, it heralded a new age of modernity in the way we wear jewellery. This unisex gold piece with its tiny signature screws challenged the traditional idea that jewellery’s principal role was to represent your status and wealth. It was designed not for special occasions but for everyday wear, securing to the wrist with its own precious screwdriver. “It captured the spirit of the time when sexual liberation and casual luxury were coming to the fore,” says Vivienne Becker, author of a new book, Cipullo: Making Jewelry Modern, which is published on Thursday.
More than 50 years after its creation, the Love bracelet remains a mainstay of many a fashion editor’s bracelet stack today, consistently ranking as one of the most Googled jewellery pieces in the world, and with an enviable ability to retain its value at resale (Love bracelets start from £6,000). Cipullo’s talents stretched far beyond his most famous creation however. “He was a very rare thing: a jewellery designer who understood design in the broadest sense of the word,” Becker explains. “There’s such a depth of meaning in his work that he has risen above the jewellery world to become one of the few people who truly represents the best of 20th century design.”
Many are familiar with Cipullo’s name (he is the only person to date allowed to sign his name to his designs alongside the famous Cartier logo), but few know much more about him beyond the Love bracelet and the Juste un Clou nail bracelet he created in 1972. That is all set to change however with the publication of the book, which reveals the true extent of Cipullo’s genius, and the exciting life he led at the heart of New York’s creative scene before he died from a double heart attack in 1984, aged just 48. “I want the world to know how talented Aldo was. His career wasn’t just about one iconic design, he could do anything,” says Renato Cipullo, his brother and the book’s co-author, who today is responsible for an archive of thousands of Aldo’s designs of everything from fine to high jewellery, T-shirts to furniture.
The Love bracelet remains a mainstay of many a fashion editor’s bracelet stack today, consistently ranking as one of the most Googled jewellery pieces in the world, and with an enviable ability to retain its value at resale.
Aldo Cipullo was born into a family of jewellers in Naples in 1935. Raised in Rome, he and his four younger siblings were expected to work every day after school for their harsh authoritarian father. Renato says the charming and creative Aldo became fixated with escaping from under his father’s watchful eye at an early age, and was inspired by the growing influence of American culture in postwar Italy, and the popularity of movie stars like Marlon Brando and James Dean. “He always dreamt of going to America,” Renato, a jeweller himself, tells me affectionately, in a telephone interview from New York, where he still lives.
Aldo finally arrived in New York in 1959, and in 1961 he started working for top Manhattan jeweller David Webb. The 1960s and 1970s were a time when the city, which was in economic and social decline, was also bubbling up with creativity thanks to the likes of Cipullo’s friend Andy Warhol, and other artists who were taking advantage of its cheap rents. The charismatic and good looking Cipullo quickly become part of New York’s social set and he moved on to design for Tiffany & Co, where he brought a rich sculptural dynamism to Blue Book, Tiffany’s high jewellery collection.
By the end of the 1960s, his designs for the New York jeweller reflected the graphic modernism for which he later became famous, and it was only when his contract was expiring in 1969 that a romantic breakup led him to conceive of the Love bracelet. Inspired by the American hardware stores he loved to visit with his brother, the seemingly minimalist, functional design actually had the deeply romantic intention of holding onto the memories of a lost love. “I felt very sad. I wanted something no one could take away from me. I was searching for a permanent symbol of love,” he said. It was only when Tiffany rejected the design that Cipullo took it to Cartier.
At the time, Cartier New York was run independently from Cartier Paris, and its chief executive Michael Thomas snapped up Cipullo’s offer of the design immediately. The bracelet was an immediate success, adopted by celebrities from Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton (who were reportedly one of a number of famous couples to receive a pair of Love bracelets from Cartier), to Sophia Loren and Princess Caroline of Monaco. Ali MacGraw, the top-grossing female actor of the early 1970s, wore one gifted by her husband, movie producer Robert Evans. In fact, she wore it while shooting 1972’s The Getaway, the movie set where she famously fell in love with her co-star and future husband, Steve McQueen.
Cipullo himself went on to create more iconic designs for Cartier including the nail bracelet — a continuation of the hardware theme he loved — the articulated Hand of the Heart pendant based on the ancient Hamsa symbol, which was worn by everyone from Elton John to Ellen Burstyn in The Exorcist, and a host of other accomplished high jewellery designs. “It is quite impossible to imagine Cartier today without Aldo Cipullo’s contribution. It was indubitably a perfect encounter between the very nature of Cartier and the talent of Cipullo,” says Pierre Rainero, director of image, style and heritage at Cartier International.
After Cartier, there followed a decade of independent design during which Cipullo became a celebrity in his own right, and turned his hand to everything from fashion to men’s jewellery. While his legacy most famously lives on through his creations for Cartier, Renato hopes the book will bring to life the vibrant personality and enduring talent of an Italian designer who realised his very own American dream.
Cipullo: Making Jewelry Modern is published by Assouline on 4 February.