Paloma Picasso: Breaking Free
Town & Country, November 2000
She thought she had escaped by making a name for herself as a jewelry designer, yet there are a lot of heavy chains in her collections.
“She’ll be the perfect woman,” Pablo Picasso said once about his young daughter Paloma, alluding to the fact that she was quiet and self-possessed. “Passive and submissive. That’s the way all the girls should be,” he added in what was presumably a jest.
Paloma certainly proved him wrong on this later point. She grew up to become an artist with a strong personality, reclaiming her father’s name as her own. Now a formidable jewelry designer who celebrates this month her twenty-year association with Tiffany, the still quiet and self-possessed Picasso is a woman of singular distinction.
She learned to stand for herself by following the example of her mother, Françoise Gilot. Only 21 when she met Picasso in 1943, Françoise, a painter, was 40 years younger than the celebrated artist. After a tempestuous and passionate ten-year relationship, she courageously broke up with the 71-year-old monstre sacré, taking with her their two children, Claude and Paloma who was then four years old.
“Paloma grew up in a richly-textured background,” explains John Loring, senior vice president and design director of Tiffany, a friend of Gilot who became fascinated with Paloma when she was only a teenager. “It was clear right from the start that Paloma had no interest in the timid and the faceless.”
A painter who lived in Paris, Loring acted as both a mentor and a playmate for young Paloma. “We both wore outrageous clothes back then and would go shopping at various flea-markets, looking for exotic jewelry,” he recalls. No one in their right mind could have predicted then that free-spirited Loring and Picasso would some day collaborate at Tiffany.
In the late 1960s, Paloma freelanced as a stylist for avant-garde Parisian theatrical productions and studied jewelry making. Eventually, she landed an assignment designing jewelry for Yves Saint Laurent and was hired a year later by the House of Zolotas, a Greek firm, where she perfected her skills. “Already she was a completely new force in the field,” says Loring. “Her inspiration didn’t come from stogy Place Vendôme, but from the extravagant Sixties.”
After Pablo Picasso’s death in 1973, Paloma took time off from her career to deal with her father’s complicated estate and help her brother Claude establish the Musée Picasso in Paris. In 1978, she married Argentine playwright and director Rafael Lopez-Cambil, and, embracing a chic and glitzy social life, quickly became the toast of the international disco scene.
In the meantime John Loring had been hired by Tiffany as design director to “move things ahead, and create vigorous, simple and powerful jewelry.” He called Paloma and convinced her to submit her ideas. She came up with designs that were “aggressively chic” — unique, sculptural, bold. It was an instant success. By 1983, her ‘Scribbles” were the rage. A year later, Tiffany introduced her “Hugs and Kisses” line, made of Xs and 0s. That same year, Paloma teamed up with her husband to create the Paloma Picasso brand, a luxury label that included fragrances, cosmetics and accessories. Her famous bright red lipstick, Mon Rouge, launched in 1989, became one of the best-selling lipsticks in Europe.
Six years ago, Paloma and Rafael separated, and not surprisingly their business relationship fell apart. But neither their divorce nor its ugly legal battles over Pablo Picasso’s legacy seem to take their toll on Paloma’s creativity. On the contrary. Free now to concentrate on her jewelry line — and on her new French husband, Dr. Eric Thevénèt — she came into her own artistically.
“Paloma today is as happy and lively as she was when I met her 34 years ago,” says Loring. “Her jewelry designs are an expression of her generosity of spirit. Each piece is an offering, a way to give something of herself without saying a word.” In a rare interview, a poised and serene Paloma talks about standing tall, feeling confident, becoming more assertive — and what jewelry has got to do with it.
Véronique Vienne: Like your famous red lipstick, your jewelry makes a strong statement. Independent women identify with you. How come?
Paloma Picasso: Jewelry today is more than an ornament—it’s a talisman, it has significance. Over and over women will tell me that buying one of my jewelry pieces is “something I wanted to do for myself.” They may love to receive it as a gift too, but if they have made this investment themselves, they feel it’s a sign of personal achievement.
VV: Could it be because your jewelry is big and bold—it doesn’t apologizes for itself?
PP: Not all my pieces are big, although I have to admit that I am often photographed wearing large rings and bulky necklaces. That’s why everyone assumes that I am a big woman who can carry off bold designs. In fact I am petite by American standards. Most people are very surprised at first when they meet me. They always tell me that they expected I’d be larger-than-life, a brunette Walkyrie!
Bold for me is about attitude, not size. Something about the look of my jewelry gives women the courage to stand up for themselves when they face the world. Diana Vreeland and Helena Rubinstein were small women who wore big jewelry and looked taller as a result. Perceived size has nothing to do with height. My father was a small man too — smaller than I am — and yet he exuded so much energy he was bigger and taller than anyone I ever met.
VV: Is the size of the jewelry you wear one of the reasons you look so much taller than you are?
PP: That’s not the only explanation. There is also the fact that I had to learn to overcome my reserve and stand tall. Early on I realized that I would have to be strong to carry off my father’s name. When I was very young, I had no inhibitions and I was able to draw. My mother is a very talented painter too, and so art came naturally to me. But later I became self-conscious and redirected all my creativity into the way I dressed, into my clothes. But it was still difficult to be myself.
I’ll always remember one night in Venice when I was about seventeen, when my father was still alive. No one knew what I looked like back then. That night I dressed up for a ball — I wore a seventeenth century vestment with an antique silver belt I had found in London, a head dress made of small glass flowers from a boutique in Venice, and no shoes because I couldn’t find the right thing to wear on my feet. I looked like I had just stepped out of a Persian miniature. Everyone paid attention to me simply because I was so strikingly different. It was quite exciting. For the first time perhaps I felt like I had found a style of my own. And then at some point during the evening I heard someone whispered: “She is Picasso’s daughter.” It broke the spell. The ball turned into a horror movie for me, with everyone pointing at me. I tried to get away from the crowd by sneaking up a grand staircase, but just when I though I was safely out of reach, someone stopped me to stare at me. This moment was an epiphany. I realized that unless I managed to escape my father’s fame, I would be stopped every step of he way.
VV: You escaped by making a name for yourself with your signature jewelry, yet, strangely enough, there are a lot of chains in your collection—heavy chains, big rings, bold links, hefty circles…
PP: I love circles! I always thought that jewelry was something to be worn around you. There are no straight lines in my jewelry. Everything is slightly curved, rather sensuous—it has a flow to it. And I like heavy pieces because the weight of a big necklace forces you to have a better posture. You stand straighter and gain stature. For the same reason I like high heels—they influence my attitude. With heels on I walk in a different way, with more determination. All those things are more than tricks, really. What you wear can help you be yourself—be strong. And if you stand taller, you are going to be more assertive and by the same token more successful. Liberated women should not be surprised if in the process they also become more attractive to men.
VV: And if they wear your bold jewelry, they will also feel more feminine…
PP: My jewelry isn’t just bold, it’s also playful. I believe that one should be able to do more than one thing with it. Rings, for instance, are not just adornment. They are also something to touch, to twist, to fiddle with, like worry beads. Rings give you something to do when you are nervous, or when you are listening to someone talking. I recently designed a line of rings that can stand up vertically, so that you can take them off and line them up in front of you—for fun. I always play with my rings when I am deep in thoughts.
Last year, we launched a new line of necklaces, bracelets and earrings called Magic. The pieces look like chains of round disks that are silver on one side and gold on the other. They are completely reversible. Without taking your jewelry off, your can switch the disks from silver to gold and vice-versa. And I wouldn’t want you to think that I always wear oversized pieces. In fact, Magic comes in three different sizes: big, medium and mini, and recently, I saw someone wearing the smaller ones, and I thought “how nice, it would look very good on me!”
VV: Your first collection for Tiffany, the Xs and Os—the kisses and hugs—are rather dainty. And so is your Scribble line.
PP: Yes, for me, bold jewelry doesn’t have to be big—but the concept has to be bold. My scribbles for instance were inspired by the graffiti on walls and in the subway in New York. At the time, everyone was complaining about it. Well, I thought, if I give people a positive version of the spray-painted scrawls, maybe they’ll love it! And they did.
Bold also means not matching. Even though my collection comes with matching necklace, bracelets, rings and earrings, I wouldn’t wear them all together. Maybe only two matching pieces at a time, combined with something else. There is no formula though — it’s best to decide at the last minute what feels right. It’s the same with clothes. A lot of what I wear depends on my mood more than on the occasion. Breaking the rules is very French, I guess. I sometimes show up at events overdress or underdressed, just because that morning I felt this way or that way.
VV: By breaking the rules you ended up on the Hall of Fame International Best Dressed List!
PP: That was 1984 — a long time ago! Today, I don’t spend much time buying clothes anymore. My private life is more important than my wardrobe. At the same time, I have to have the confidence that what I wear is going to take me where I want to go. But I believe that accessories and jewelry, more than clothes, make the difference in my looks. That’s why, until a few years ago, along with my jewelry line for Tiffany, I also had an accessories line with my former husband Rafael Lopez–Cambil.
I always loved to play with scarves, belts, gloves and bags. When I was young, I wore my bags with the handle wrapped around the wrist, like a bracelet—and everyone wanted to copy me. Then I saw that American women wore shoulder bags with long straps — very practical. So I made long-strap shoulder bags. But soon, I was on to the next thing and introduced short-straps shoulder bags which are still very popular. At some point I also designed pocket books that looked like real books: leather-bound books for daytime and small satin books for the evening.
Today I no longer design accessories — I only have a line of sunglasses and reading glasses. I learned to simplify everything.
VV: Recently, you also gave up your bright red signature lipstick. What prompted you to do so?
PP: For twenty years, I wore bright red lipstick everyday. That was the first thing I did in the morning: put my lipstick on! And because red lipstick looked nice on pale skin, I systematically avoided the sun—I simply stayed in the shade. I believed of course that too much sun exposure was bad for my skin, even though, being half-Andalusian, with olive skin, the sun didn’t actually burn me.
And then one summer I accidentally got suntanned while talking with a friend at the edge of a pool. To get rid of the sun lines on my arms and legs, I had no choice but get tanned all over. And since for me bright red lipstick doesn’t look good on dark complexion, I switched to a lighter shade. And little by little, I got used to the softer lipstick, even on pale winter skin. And so while the world at large still identified bright red as my trademark, I was quietly wearing much more discreet reddish tones on my lips.
I am sure that at some point I am going to want to wear red lipstick again. Just in case, I always carry bright red lipstick in my bag, but so far I have felt no compulsion to use it. Recently I saw my mother wearing bright red lipstick and I thought she looked incredible. My own mother — this amazing artist who is such a role model for me — was wearing the bold lipstick of my youth! It’s funny, I am still not ready to wear it though. But I know that sooner or later, I will rediscover the pleasure of Mon Rouge. Being strong also means not being afraid to change your mind, evolve, and periodically reinvent the way you do things.
1/5 - Paloma Picasso by Robert Mapplethorpe, 1980
2/5 - A gold link bracelet by Paloma Picasso for Tiffany & Co.
3/5 - The "Three-heart" ring by Paloma Picasso for Tiffany & Co.
4/5 - Still wild at heart: Paloma Picasso in 2000
5/5 - Helmut Newton photographed Paloma Picasso in 1973