Judith Leiber's pocketbooks and jewelry are art to go

January 31, 1993|By Mary Gottschalk | Mary Gottschalk,Knight-Ridder News Service

It may surprise fans of Judith Leiber to learn she isn't a jeweler.

Most women who own one of her handbags consider them as precious as any jewel.

Technically she may produce purses, but aesthetically Mrs. Leiber's pieces are often compared to the work of Peter Carl Faberge, and many are in museums, including the Metropolitan in New York and the Smithsonian in Washington.

She has made inaugural ball bags for Barbara Bush, Nancy Reagan (who later turned down one of her signature cat purses, saying she hates cats), Pat Nixon, Mamie Eisenhower -- and now Hillary Clinton. For the new first lady, she designed an oval-shaped metal clutch covered with amethyst and lavender rhinestones to go with Mrs. Clinton's inaugural ball gown.

In 1990, she sent Mrs. Bush a dog evening purse, which she named Millie. Now lots of people are advising her to duplicate the black-and-white markings of Socks on her jeweled cat bag and send it along to the Clintons.

"Maybe," Mrs. Leiber says, without commitment.

Next year she celebrates the 30th anniversary of her own firm, although she has been making beautiful handbags since 1939, when, at age 18, she became the first female apprentice accepted into the Hungarian handbag guild.

She met her future husband, Gerson Leiber, the day he arrived in her native Budapest with the U.S. contingent of the Allied Control Commission. They dated for a year, married, and in 1947 she came to New York.

After working for others, she and her artist husband launched her signature line. "I started off with four employees and 280 square feet. Now I have 25,000 square feet and 210 employees," she says.

She is also seeing her handbag designs translated into precious jewelry by the Harry Winston firm, and she's thrilled.

"I did costume jewelry for a short time around 1970, but I was never happy with the quality," she said during at a recent appearance at Saks Fifth Avenue in San Francisco. "With base metals there are certain things you can't do.

"I always wanted to do it real. When Ron Winston approached me, I thought, 'Could there be anybody better?' How could I say no?"

The first pieces in the Judith Leiber Jewelry line play off her popular jeweled fish evening handbag and the zebra motif handles of another bag. The collection of necklaces, bracelets, rings, earrings, pins and charms comes in matte and polished 18-karat gold, sterling silver and in combinations with black or colored enamels, with some accents of diamonds and other precious stones. Prices start at $200 for the silver pieces and go up to $22,000 for the most elaborate gold creations.

Mrs. Leiber points to the $300 silver zebra rings and says, "I like the stackables -- it's a lot of fun to start out with one and get a few more later."

In the works are jewelry adaptations based on her pig and teddy bear bags.

"Everybody loves animals," says the woman who knows. Her fTC magical menagerie is growing and already includes a cat, rabbit, horse, butterfly, dove, crane, elephant, monkey, lion, frog, dog and now a pig. Handbag prices start at $900 for the gold-plated versions and go to $4,000 for the jeweled ones hand-set with as many as 12,000 rhinestones.

The designer has a new cat design in the works. Her first came out in 1984, and by 1994 she hopes to have the second, patterned after the "Maneki Nekko" or welcoming cat commonly seen in store windows in Japan. The new cat has one paw raised and is awake, as opposed to the sleeping cat now in the line.

Asked which of her animals is the best seller, Mrs. Leiber says, "It's always the new one. The ladies who have them want the new one."

The "ladies" include the likes of Queen Elizabeth II, Raisa Gorbachev, Elizabeth Taylor, Georgette Mosbacher, Pat Buckley, Mary Tyler Moore and Claudette Colbert. The title of No. 1 fan belongs to Beverly Sills, who has one of every pattern Mrs. Leiber has designed in the egg shape.

Even after almost three decades in the business, Mrs. Leiber says she's still surprised at her name recognition and the devotion her designs inspire.

Recalling a party, she says: "One woman brought a purse that was 18 years old and in pristine condition,and she said, 'I want you to see I really treasure it.' Another woman said, 'I have two of your bags,' then another said, 'I have 10.'

"It's almost embarrassing. I think it's wonderful. I never expected anything like this."

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