One day Queen Victoria put on a Claddagh Ring, and suddenly everyone wanted to signify their marriage status with a Celtic icon (the heart points towards the wrist if you are spoken for). But some jewellery crazes are by design, and more tribal. There was a period in the early 1990s when half of Soho seemed to own a Vivienne Westwood orb pendant. Five years on, the same crowd shifted to silver rose-thorn ear studs by Shaun Leane, after they debuted at Alexander McQueen’s A/W 1996 Dante show, glued to the models faces. Each piece was an instantly recognisable shorthand: “I am an insider.”
Aldo Cipullo’s name is known to insiders, but as the Bill Granger or Cher of luxury jewellery, he should be world-renowned. He pretty much made Cartier the modern jewellery brand it is today, by creating the Love Bracelet in 1969 and the Juste un Clou (aka “the nail bracelet”) two years later – designs that are now the bedrock of all things Cartier. Both have sold by the truckload, been released in violently expensive special editions (when in doubt, add diamonds, or girth to the gold), and had their DNA filtered down into other accessories: regarder les rose gold Juste un Clou cufflinks, and the whole LOVE collection.
Born in Naples, Cipullo was barely out of his teens when he arrived in Manhattan from Rome at the start of the 1960s. The son of a costume jewellery maker, he made a name for himself at Tiffany & Co. and David Webb, went on to create a sensation at Cartier and then had a successful solo career in the louche New York of the 1970s. His men’s pieces and his jewellery incorporating dollar signs were particularly notable. “The dollar sign is the electric eye that reflects the mood of this country,” he told the Telegraph-Herald in 1975.
Life was good for Cipullo. Régine’s and Studio 54 happened, and he was omnipresent at the latter. While the rest of the city fell into moral and literal bankruptcy, Manhattan grew into one humungous, chemically enhanced shindig of nightlife and luxury.
"While the rest of the city fell into moral and literal bankruptcy, Manhattan grew into one humungous, chemically enhanced shindig of nightlife and luxury"
Then Cipullo died, aged 42, in 1984. The New York Times obituary section was, for obvious and tragic reasons, one of the most dramatic parts of the publication in the early 1980s. It cites a heart attack as the cause of Cipullo’s death, but today he is remembered by The AIDS Memorial online, along with a quote from his personal assistant at the time, Suzanne Lehman, who was 19 in 1980: “I was so young ... only a teen that left FIT NYC to secure such a coveted position as jewellery design ... I did his rendering, public relations, cooking and entertained his clients, for the office was also his home at 110 Central Park South. [...] AIDS was never discussed. I was told it [the cause of death] was a heart condition. So little was known.” He is remembered by friends as the life and soul of so many parties. “We used to go out and dance non-stop for three days on Fire Island,” the socialite Laura Steinberg told Architectural Digest in 2012. “He really was like Tinker Bell.”
As so many did in the 1970s and early 1980s, Cipullo lived fast and died young, but his legacy is extraordinary. The Love Bracelet was a genius conceit: it was launched in the 1960s as a his-and-hers set with the suggestion that each of you buy one (priced $250) for the individual you are committing to, and that you – and you alone – must attach it to your beloved’s wrist (using the supplied Cartier screwdriver). One wonders how many couples splurged on two. “Design has to be part of function,” Cipullo said at the time. “That’s the secret of success. When you have function and design, married together, you always have a successful item.” With the Love Bracelet, part of the function is to create a generous expensive gesture. That permanence comes at a price, especially at the airport: a representative for the TSA in the US called the Cartier Love bracelet the “biggest problem faced by airport security personnel”. The palaver of unzipping your boots to put into a tray for the X-ray machine pales into insignificance next to the urgent need for specialist tools.
And yet the Love Bracelet, like Juste un Clou, remains a phenomenon. Early versions with Cipullo’s signature are highly prized, as are his other designs for Cartier – many of his necklaces and earrings have a wonderfully graphic and modernist Gio Ponti-esque style to them, indicative of the art deco renaissance that was then imminent. Fashioned to incorporate hardstones, including carnelian, onyx and sodalite, they are fabulously of their time. He also riffed on imagery from backgammon, pop art and the zodiac. Again – au courant. He created the Hamsa Hand pendant for Ellen Burstyn’s character in 'The Exorcist' in 1973. Cipullo was THE jeweller of his era.
"He created the Hamsa Hand pendant for Ellen Burstyn’s character in 'The Exorcist' in 1973"
In 2012 Cartier staged the Cartier & Aldo Cipullo: New York City in the 1970s exhibition at the Cartier Mansion in Manhattan, with 40 pieces of jewellery on display, alongside original archive drawings and videos. Lou Reed, Jay-Z and Beyoncé all showed face. In 2016, thanks to Kylie Jenner reporting via Instagram that she had got stuck in one of her six bracelets (that’s a cool £24k on a single wrist) and required professional help to have it removed, it was the most searched jewellery item on Google.
Compared to many entry-level standards for the big houses, the Love Bracelet and Juste un Clou have retained their credibility. They also hold their value. Resell sites rarely offer them for less than 80 per cent of their original retail price. Like the pre-punk sedition of Cipullo’s curved nail design, the Love Bracelet still feels fresh. It still represents modern romance. “Love has become too commercial, yet life without love is nothing – a fat zero,” said Cipullo in the early 1970s. “What modern people want are love symbols that look semi-permanent – or, at least, require a trick to remove.” Cipullo was Cartier’s magician. His work is now a fixed point in design history.