STARTING OUT IN HIS PARENT’S BASEMENT CRAFTING PIECES FROM SPOONS, THIS SELF-TAUGHT DESIGNER HAS GONE ON TO REDEFINE THE FINE JEWELRY MARKETPLACE
BY AMANDA McCOY
In 1984, seven years after the launch of his eponymous jewelry brand, master jeweler Steven Lagos created a piece that would eventually become a cornerstone of the company.
It all started with a necklace that was sheathed in hematite beading, and the textured black pattern reminded Lagos of caviar, in both appearance and symbolism. It also sparked an idea for a completely new type of jewelry, one that would involve hundreds of painstaking steps and many hours of precision craftsmanship. Using high-end silver and 18-karat gold, he created a collection of handcrafted pieces that were enveloped in the luminous beading pattern. He named the design Caviar.
“We decided on that word because it’s rich, it’s universal, and it’s pure luxury,” explained Lagos. “And the Caviar bead has evolved into an essential element for us.”
Raised in Philadelphia, Lagos knew from a tender age that his creative spirit would one day foster a career. Born into an artistic family, his parents encouraged him early to explore his love of hand making items.
“I grew up at a time in the 1970s when there was a focus on craft, and it had a huge influence on me,” he said. “I started out making spoon jewelry in my basement by bending the handles, and got hooked on making it.”
After countless hours spent exploring a variety of techniques, the young artisan opened a small trade shop. There, he was able to sharpen jewelry crafting skills under the tutelage of other seasoned practitioners. It wasn’t long before he began selling to a high-end department store in Philadelphia. Then, in the mid 1980s, a felicitous call to Neiman Marcus helped put his designs on a global stage.
“I cold-called them, and a year later, they were creating a new category of bridge jewelry, and asked me to be involved,” he recalled.
Lagos became one of the pioneer designers of Neiman Marcus’s “Designer Fine Jewelry” category in 1985. That premiere LAGOS collection, which featured his signature Caviar design, was designed to push the concept of fine jewelry forward, and the pieces were lauded not only for their sophistication and craftsmanship, but also for wearability a line that complimented a blazer and jeans as much as a cocktail dress.
“My approach to everything is that form follows function. I think it’s easy to make things that look great, but really, it’s how things fill a physical or emotional need that make women cherish them,” he explained.
Lagos’s pieces were an instant hit at the high-end retailer, and it wasn’t long before they garnered the attention of retailers worldwide. Michael Littman, the co-proprietor of Gary Michaels Fine Jewelry in Manalapan, has been a longstanding admirer of the designs.
“LAGOS does an amazing job of offering a blend of beautiful, timeless, and fashion-forward with high quality at great price points,” said Littman. “This resonates with Gary Michaels Fine Jewelry customers, who appreciate the Caviar DNA of his designs and the tremendous value it offers.”
A few years into the Neiman Marcus partnership, the jeweler noticed a trend emerging. It was the early 1990s, and women were, rather than primarily receiving jewelry as gifts, purchasing adornment for themselves. This eventually led to the launch of the “My LAGOS My Way” campaign, which encouraged and empowered women to create their own aesthetic by mixing, matching, and stacking jewelry to express individual style.
“When I started in the business, about 85 percent of all fine jewelry purchases were made by a man for a woman; now it’s closer to 65 percent of women who self-purchase. Women didn’t buy jewelry as a fashion statement back then, or build an outfit around jewelry. Now they do. There’s been a complete shift, and our brand was part of this change.”
Although his collections have evolved, Lagos’s design ethos remains the same. He explained that he incorporates “integrity and strength” into each piece of jewelry, and that the production process remains as detailed and meticulous as it was on day one.
That process begins with a rough sketch from Lagos, and after revisions and final approval, actual creation steps follow. Because pieces are made with such a high degree of intricacy and detailing, Lagos uses a venerable method of metal casting that dates back to the third century BC: Lost Wax Casting. The technique, which works by pouring molten metal in a wax mold, allows the artisan to achieve the brand’s signature details.
“The fundamentals of jewelry haven’t changed in a thousand years, but there are aspects of the business that have. One of the things that we’ve been able to do as a brand is to take Old World craftsmanship and enhance it with technology, without changing what makes it special.”
An avid world traveler, Lagos draws inspiration from the sights and sounds that envelop him when exploring a new city or country. “I consider myself a treasure hunter, because I’m out in the world always looking for new materials,” he explained.
In 2014, nearly 30 years after he created the hematite necklace that helped shape the course of his brand, it debuted the Black Caviar series. After years of research, the designer found the perfect material (jewelry-grade ceramic) to offer his trademark design in a noir color palette.
“I was looking for a way to interpret Caviar in color. I love to experiment with texture, scale, and color, and ceramic opened up a whole new world of possibilities for me,” he explained.
More than 40 years after the launch of his brand, the artist continues to search for ways to innovate. He has an office in the jewelry district of Bangkok, Thailand, where he works closely with local artisans to source gemstones, diamonds, and other precious materials.
His designs have garnered international praise over the years, to be sure, but the jeweler described one moment of approval that was among his most significant; in the early years of his career an opportunity to show his father a copy of JCK Magazine with Lagos’s face on the cover.
“He encouraged me so much and was my biggest supporter, and here I am on the cover,” he recalled with a grin. “That was a pretty big deal.”
Available at Gary Michaels Fine Jewelry / 55 U.S. 9, Manalapan Township 732.577.1030 /