Lagos: The Legend

Catherine D. Anspon
February 28, 2013

On the occasion of his 35th anniversary, Catherine D. Anspon talks shop with jeweler Steven Lagos at the place where it all began: Neiman Marcus Houston Galleria.

Your first Neiman’s trunk show?
My first PA at Neiman Marcus was at this store. I’ve been coming here for 25 years, and I consider myself a Houstonian. Houston is probably one of the top jewelry markets in the country. As a jewelry designer, this is nirvana. I love doing big jewelry, so I come down here with the things I’ve made, and the comment is: “Can you make this bigger?”

Your philosophy on jewelry.
It’s actually super interesting. Jewelry is part of people’s lives. So it’s not like fashion. It’s meaningful. People cherish their jewelry. I don’t think that anyone really passes their Louboutins down to their daughters and granddaughters. You know exactly where you got each piece of  jewelry, when you bought it, exactly where you bought it. You know the artist, maybe even the person that sold it to you, the shop. Maybe it was a life experience or a place you were traveling. It’s that kind of a product. It really gets intertwined inpeople’s lives.

This new Asian collection feels like something from the last emperor; it’s just so sophisticated. You can picture a grand lady in a cheongsan dress wearing these. So Art Deco, old Shanghai. What inspired you to do these pieces that are so different from your other work, employing gold and in this case hand-carved jade and diamonds.
This is actually where my roots were. I only did gold jewelry for the first 10 years. And then I started doing the Caviar design in sterling when the price of gold shot up in the ’80s. And that design really took off and became such a big part of the business … The new Couture collection … These are special, rare materials [used to] create pieces that are limited-edition, and not part of the core Lagos line, but [in this case] formed from hand-carved jade, diamonds and 18K gold.

What do you usually do in Houston?
Go out and eat Tex-Mex!  My friend owns Berryhill’s, which I love. But I’ve been all over town. I’ve been coming here for so long. This is like a second home. I love it. I’ve been to the rodeo …
I have about 13 pairs of boots, so I’m official.

Tell us about how it all began. You started in 1977?
Yes, that’s when I started the company. I was raised to be an artist by my parents. So my parents are both kind of frustrated artists. My father wanted to be in graphic design or in art but ended up getting in the dry-cleaning business. He became very successful and made a lot of money but was never really happy.

Was this in Philadelphia?
Yes. Both of my parents encouraged me to be very creative. When I was six years old, I was taking painting lessons and drawing lessons. I didn’t even know how to write yet. They weren’t focused on reading and writing. They were focused on my drawing and painting; doing all of those creative things.

People wonder why art lessons are important, and this just proves it.
That’s what I tell people all the time. You know, it’s so funny because, of course, I latched onto it and I wanted to be an artist. I remember being at the dinner table and telling other people I wanted to be an artist, and other people, like aunts and uncles, would say, “You aren’t going to make any money being an artist, that’s ridiculous!” And my parents were, like, “He’s going to be an artist!” They did not have any stigma about it. It was never “How are you going to make a living?” It was sort of like “You’ll find a way to.”

Did you ever make a special piece of jewelry for your mom?
My mom has tons of pieces of my jewelry. And my father, who passed away five years ago, got to see me be very successful and was very proud of me. So, again, he got to live his dream through me a little bit. We were so lucky. It was such an unusual thing. Growing up, I didn’t know anything else.

Where did you go to school for jewelry making and design?
I taught myself. I went to high school, but I never went to college. I started making jewelry in high school, and then got a job in a jewelry store after I graduated, at a place called Wayne Jewelers right outside of Philadelphia, in Silversmith. I worked there as a stock boy for two years, and then I started my business. I would have never done it that way, looking back. … We started as a little repair shop. We did service and repairs, we did special orders. And this was in the ’70s when dog tags were big, with the name pierced out in them, and the initial rings, with the two initials carved out in them. I really honed my craft. I learned a lot more about jewelry and learned how to make it. But I always knew I wanted to design a collection, so I started designing. And about eight years after I started designing, I was discovered by Neiman Marcus.

When was that?
I started with Neiman Marcus in 1983. And this was before they had any designer jewelry. We were one of the original seven designers in this department. And none of the other seven are here anymore. We’re the only one that’s been here this long.

Who discovered you? Was it Stanley Marcus?
Well, it’s actually a very roundabout story. I was pursuing them, and they decided that they were doing this designer jewelry department. It was actually Ron Thrash, who is now the president of Saks Fifth Avenue, and a woman named Becky Sharp. I did meet Mr. Stanley, and he was involved because he funded the whole thing. He was the leader at that point. It was a really exceptional time. So much success for people is being in the right place at the right time.

Well, you also had a vision.
I had the idea, and I knew what I wanted to do with it back then. It’s funny, because I was with my partner who started the business with me (who I bought out years ago) at our 35th anniversary party; it was the whole group of us. And again, he’s known me … we were high school friends, and as we sat at the table, he said, “You know, when this kid was 19 years old, he knew exactly … he told me we were going to be here today, and here we are.” I really did know what I wanted to do. And I was just really persistent.

How do you keep inspired? Is it kind of like a painter going to the studio?
Right. It’s just what I do. At this point, it’s become reflex. I used to have to think about it a lot harder; now I feel it. And the thing that’s interesting is that I feel like I’m just getting started. I’m super-energized. I think the best work is still to come.

What are your inspirations? Is it your customer? Is it the civilization? Art history? Or just working with the metal and the stones?
It’s a number of things. The first part is that I have a tremendous amount of respect for what we do — and what I mean is that people buy this, and … they make it part of their family. It’s not something that’s inanimate at all, it really becomes part of the person. So we take that seriously. We create things that ideally are going to last. You know, there was a great article in The Wall Street Journal where they were talking about people selling their jewelry. And they were saying that there are two types of jewelry that people sell. There’s the jewelry that, when they get it, they break it up because the parts are worth something. And then they get the jewelry that [the owner] would never break up. It’s the craft. It doesn’t matter how big the diamond is or the other parts. And we’re focused on that. It’s less about the materials and more about the craft of what we’re doing.

So, what inspires me? People inspire me, gemstones inspire me and, again, art history, jewelry history. It could be cultural … I’ve been spending a lot of time in Asia, and there’s a lot of Asian influence in what I’m doing right now. I’m like a sponge for it … for new experiences, and then how it manifests itself in jewelry … I can’t say that “I see this and therefore I do that.” It’s just more of a feeling … You get inspired and it just sort of manifests.

Do you do a maquette? How is it created?
I do drawings, and then I develop it from there. You know, I was a bench jeweler, so originally we used to make the pieces ourselves. Today, I have people that do all that work for me.

Where do you make the jewelry?
Everything is designed in our studios in Philadelphia, but we do almost all of our production today in Asia because you just can’t get the workers anymore. It’s really unfortunate. We have a little unit, though, where we make special one-of-a-kind pieces, all in Philadelphia.

What are you thinking about next, and what will we be seeing?
I’m expanding this new collection a lot. And I could really take any one of them and just really explore it like crazy. I’m really proud of this collection. And it’s interesting, too, because you come into a store like this, and the customer is so sophisticated. And you have people here that can buy anything they want. So for them to appreciate what we’re doing is something pretty special. It’s a super fun job right? I get to play with something I love, and then people come and give me money for it

They want something that’s extraordinary, like these jade pieces …