Ruth La Ferla
She’s been tagged the original influencer, her familiar unibrow, coiled braid and hoops showing up on key rings, coffee mugs, dish towels and dinner plates. Even a Barbie has been cast in her image, down to her signature flower crown and the ropelike chains snaking to her waist.
She’s Frida Kahlo, of course: artist, activist and feminist idol, her image invoked in regular cycles since at least the late ’70s, with a reverence more often reserved for popular saints.
She’s back once more, her sway, strong as ever, reflected in an outpouring of Frida-inspired jewelry: sculptured hands suspended from earrings and necklaces, Day of the Dead skulls charms, bracelets and pendants stamped with the artist’s vivid features.
“Frida Kahlo: Making Herself Up,” an exhibition last fall at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, helped spark this latest revival, and with it an influx of Frida-like baubles. A version of that show, “Frida Kahlo: Appearances Can Be Deceiving,” at the Brooklyn Museum this year, is focused largely on Kahlo’s wardrobe and accouterments, not least the painter’s penchant for piling on rings, layering weighty chokers and silver bangles, and weaving garlands through her hair.
Making the most of the moment, jewelers at every level of the marketplace are racing to cite Frida as their muse. “She was the 1940s counterpart to an influencer; a walking painting,” said Holly Dyment, a Canadian jeweler with a Hollywood following.
Like Kahlo’s personal jewellery, Dyment’s collection of gold and enamel portrait rings have a talismanic quality. “Wearing one,” she said, “is like having a little piece of Frida that might give you strength and courage.”
Terry Gibralter feels a similar connection. House of Terrance, her website, is awash in items meant to conjure the artist. Like the Kahlo originals, some pieces, including evil eye earrings and hammered gold hands resembling a pair Picasso was said to have given Kahlo, are imbued with touches of mysticism. “Wearing them can make you feel kind of protected,” Gibralter said.
The artist predates Madonna, Lady Gaga and Cardi B as a mistress of self-invention. “Kahlo’s jewels were a crucial and carefully considered part of the face (and hands) she presented to the world,” Clare Phillips writes in the volume of Frida lore that accompanied the V&A exhibition. They offer, she adds, “a compelling vision of strength and power.”
For Kahlo, debilitated throughout her life by a spinal injury she suffered in her youth, heaping on trinkets was a way of arming herself against pain. It was also a form of celebration. As American muralist Lucienne Bloch told Kahlo biographer Hayden Herrera, Frida tore through New York dime stores “like a tornado; she’d find cheap costume jewelry,” Bloch recalled, “and she’d make it look fantastic.”
Often confined to her bed, she travelled widely in her imagination. She welcomed small gifts of jewelry from visitors and freely dispensed her own. “If receiving gifts was a way of bringing the world to her, giving was a way of extending herself out into it,” Herrera observes in the 1983 biography.
Kahlo countered her frailty by threading flowers through her hair, freighting her torso with Colombian jade and her fingers with gobstopper rings. “She dressed every day as if she were preparing for a fiesta,” Herrera writes.
Her exuberance is contagious even now. “She has invented a style that everybody wants to follow,” said Carole Le Bris Perez, whose ornate pieces including tourmaline, sapphire, turquoise and diamond encrusted skull rings and pendants were created in homage to Kahlo’s fascination with the Mexican cult of death. “I do try to create her vibe,” Perez said.
Kahlo-inflected jewellery is proliferating on Etsy, the online bazaar full of Mexican silver marketed as Frida-inspired and highlighted by items including Day of the Dead skull brooches, hand-painted wooden pins, glass drop earrings, bracelets and bangles, many of them embellished with the artist’s strikingly androgynous, widely recognizable features.
That influx is in tune with a perceptible shift in fashion’s direction, said Dayna Isom Johnson, who charts trends for Etsy. “People are moving away from the minimal look and embracing maximalism,” she said, “piling on color and texture, which is the definition of Frida style.”
Even jewellers whose connection to Kahlo is tenuous at best are claiming some kinship these days.
A relationship is evident, Deirdre Featherstone maintained, in the fanciful drop earrings and necklaces she designs and sells at Bergdorf Goodman, pieces carved from pale coral, tourmaline and lavender jade.
“Frida adorned herself in color. She lived in color,” Featherstone said. And, she added blithely, “She could rock a pair of earrings.”