London-based jewelry designer John-Paul Pietrus is transforming high jewelry, and now, launching his first diffusion line.
On a crisp September day in London, delicate streams of light peer through the windows of John-Paul Pietrus’ flat, echoing divine motifs of 18th-century romantic paintings. Within the apartment, Filipino model Brea Umali dons a few ornate glasses that have been forged by Pietrus, and are a part of his high jewelry label, Francis de Lara. “My favorite is the one with serpents,” she tells Vogue Philippines.
On this day, the pair she refers to is suspended in the air against a stark white backdrop. Illuminated by streams of light, pink sapphires and cognac diamonds sparkle within yellow gold. The glasses’ temples are morphed into elegant and sensual snakes. “Everyone thinks snakes are evil. For me, they’re more of a symbol of protection,” Umali shares.
The model’s remarks are a slight nod to Pietrus’ longtime vision as a creative. Whether it be during his years as a fashion photographer, or his present day as a jewelry designer, Pietrus is a lighthouse of opulence, fantasy, and glamour. Nearly four years old, Francis de Lara is a direct emblem of this. And now, he’s offering a diffusion line in tandem with the artful eyewear he’s best known for. “It’s all about time,” Pietrus says. “Time is luxury, and time is a rarity. When I design these high-jewelry pieces, I design them as art pieces, not as fashion pieces.”
On the day he and Umali are together, their two worlds seamlessly merge into one. The visually striking model and Pietrus’ creations complement each other in the photographs, like a romantic duo dancing with one another.
A large heart-shaped mahogany brooch—inspired by the wooden craftsmanship of the Philippines—sits on the lapel of a dramatically-shaped coat worn by Umali. An oxidized bronze leaf-shape trickle set with a diamond, sapphire, and aquamarine, strikes through the brooch’s center. In another photo, Umali’s distinctive striking facial features are encased by a set of glasses titled “Three Serpents.” The glasses are made in grosgrain ribbon textures and are adorned with three solid white gold teardrops. One of the serpents’ heads is intricately pavéd with pink sapphire and green emerald eyes. “Someone tried to steal these at an exhibition,” Pietrus says with a quick laugh. “But they very much failed.”
While the thief failed to acquire a pair, a lucky client of his did not. “She bought a pair right before I went back to see my family in July. She was here in London and wore them to Wimbledon, and I was delighted that she did.”
Element of time
When Francis de Lara was first conceived in 2016, the line specifically posed the question: Can glasses be worn as high jewelry?
“Why not?” says Pietrus. “When I design, I take the traditional anatomy of glasses but incorporate elements that turn it into high jewelry. Serpents have been used in high jewelry for ages, for starters. Then there are precious stones of all sorts. My personal favorite are the deep-green emeralds.”
“I will admit, it was a big learning curve,” he reveals. “When I first designed the Three Serpents glasses, I made them fully out of 18-karat gold. When I tried them on, I thought, ‘God, no. No one is going to wear these! They are too heavy; an instant migraine.’ This is why they are made out of 50 percent sterling silver, which is half the weight.”
If the infusion of a wide array of precious jewels in his work wasn’t enough to qualify his glasses as high jewelry, nor the hefty five-figure price tags that come with them, consider the one reigning factor of luxury the designer mentioned earlier: time.
French couture and English bespoke suits are worshiped by fashion enthusiasts globally. This admiration is not only due to their sparkling embellishments and precise silhouettes (though they certainly play a large role), but also the excessive time it takes to create each garment. Couture dresses can take up to 1,000 hours of work done by hand. Francis de Lara’s eyewear pieces follow suit, taking anywhere from 250 to 750 hours to reach completion.
“Luxury today is about time, yes. But it’s also about rarity and most importantly, to me, the idea behind the pieces,” Pietrus says. “A designer T-shirt made out of cotton that is plastered with a massive logo and priced for 800 pounds or so, is not luxury. Something that is intricate in cutting and beautifully imagined, that’s luxury. There’s an emphasis on the designer, artist, architect, and their ideas. That is true luxury.”
Beam of light
Though born in Quezon City, Philippines, the half-Filipino jewelry designer relocated to America at the age of two. “I didn’t know any Filipinos, or half-Filipinos growing up in Minneapolis,” he says. “My mother always brought us back to the Philippines every two years, but I had this longing to understand the other half that I knew existed, but had no experience with.”
Pietrus fulfilled this longing after finishing his studies at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. Though, the decision to pursue a creative career was nearly by chance, citing that his initial love was in genetics and physics. “There’s a bit of creativity in that,” he jokes. Applying to a school that nurtured the arts was only a whim. A strong application essay gave him the golden ticket.
After finishing school, Pietrus spent half a year in the Philippines with his family where not only a personal desire was fulfilled, but a professional one, too. Photography called out to him and he worked on a few editorial projects for top Philippine publications. After a job in Hong Kong as a video jockey, the designer took a world trip ticket trotting around countries like Singapore and the United Kingdom, before eventually planting roots in London. “Throughout this time, my work as a photographer slowly built up, and there were a ton of ups and downs,” he says.
Pietrus has lensed international beauties such as Cindy Crawford, Naomi Campbell, and Claudia Schiffer. But after nearly two decades, change called out to him.
He made his way to Florence where he’d take a course in jewelry designing.
“My teachers told me that my ideas were absolutely crazy, but that I should pursue jewelry designing. In what way—[that] was something that they left for me to figure out,” he muses. “I went to the Uffizi Galleries one day. There’s a grand hall, and this beam of light just so happened to land on one of the Florentine Renaissance paintings. That’s when I knew.”
Today, Pietrus continues to forge Francis de Lara as one of the only brands that are treating eyewear as high jewelry inspired by the Renaissance era. But, he’s evolving. He’s just released a diffusion line titled FDL Editions. Launching in aviator and pentagon shapes with a three-figure price tag, the limited-edition pieces (of which there are only 500 for each stone and lens color combination) in this collection are offered in gold-plated titanium, set with precious diamonds, and are equipped with UV-proof lenses. Of course, the designer’s signature teardrop garnet gemstone elements are still present.
“I love using the teardrop motif in my work because it’s a direct reference to the Renaissance stories where teardrops miraculously appeared on the marble statues,” Pietrus shares. “Their lore plays on agony and ecstasy, and I love it.”
Light and vision. These are two words that ceaselessly beat on in John-Paul Pietrus’ career. Vision as a longtime photographer, and now vision as a high jewelry eyewear designer. His admiration for Renaissance paintings was birthed by light. And, Pietrus often notes how he is particular about how light reflects off of the fine metals and jewels in his creations.
“My hope is that the people who wear my work feel chic, confident, and sexy. But, what I most love about it is the connection with my clients,” he says. “I want my clients to be happy that they’ve not only invested in themselves through beautiful jewelry, but also through supporting an independent designer. I think that is the most wonderful thing.”
Photography: John-Paul Pietrus, Styling: Natalie Wansbrough-Jones, Makeup: Sharon Dowsett, Hair: Diana Moar, Model: Brea Umali, Nails: Edyta Betka, Makeup Artist’s Assistant: Ophelia Liu, Stylist’s Assistant: Eliza Cichowicz
This article was originally published in Vogue Philippines’ November 2022 issue. Subscribe here.