He was born in Naples, Italy in 1936 but grew up largely in Rome. After leaving school he began an apprenticeship with his father who ran a successful costume jewellery manufacturing business with factories in Rome and Florence. However, by his early twenties his ambition had driven him to New York where he arrived in 1959 to study at Manhattan’s famed School of Visual Arts.
After graduating he found work designing for the American jeweller David Webb before leaving to join Tiffany & Co. It was his move to Cartier in 1969 however that would bring him to the attention of jewellery aficionados worldwide. Within months of arriving he had designed a simple and sleek gold bangle inspired by antiquity but interpreted in a thoroughly modern style. The ‘Love’ bangle was created in two halves which were placed around the wrist and ‘locked’ together via two screws which were tightened with the tiny screwdriver that accompanied every bracelet. A couple of years later in 1971 he produced another now iconic design, the Juste un Clou (just a nail) bracelet which was celebrated for its daring, masculine motif that he had made feminine and sexy. Discussing his approach to design, he said he believed that, “Design has to be part of function, that’s the secret of success. When you have function and design, married together, you always have a successful item. It’s not always easy to come up with, but when it comes, it’s wonderful.”
During his time with Cartier, Cipullo created multiple collections and was the only designer allowed to sign Cartier pieces. He believed that inspiration could be found all around and he had the ability to transform everyday shapes and motifs into desirable jewels. This talent, coupled with his fondness for whimsical motifs such as gaming symbols, fish and anchors revealed a man with his finger firmly on the pulse of American contemporary culture. So much so that he was invited to design jewellery for the hugely successful 1973 movie ‘The Exorcist’ for which he created the ‘Hamsa Hand’ pendant worn by Ellen Burstyn.
He left Cartier the following year, 1974, in order to establish his own freelance atelier and gain complete design freedom. He created an award winning men’s jewellery collection and a costume jewellery collection for Trifari as well as his now famous pieces featuring the US dollar sign which he described as being like “the electric eye that reflects the mood of this country”. Cipullo was a handsome and charismatic man who embodied the ‘work hard play hard’ ethos and took full advantage of everything New York had to offer during the hedonistic 70s. A regular at places like Studio 54, his friend Laura Steinberg remembers him as “…fun, a great friend, joyous. We used to go out and dance nonstop for three days on Fire Island. He really was like Tinker Bell.”
In 1978, he was commissioned by the American Gem Society to create a collection of jewels showcasing the gemstones of America. The 31 pieces were set with gems such as sapphires from Montana, diamonds from Arkansas and turquoise from Arizona and after a tour of the United States were donated to the Smithsonian Museum.
Sadly Cipullo’s success was cut short in 1984 when he suffered a double heart attack and died at the age of just 48. Decades later his designs have withstood the vagaries of fashion and many have become iconic, collectable pieces loved by people every bit as stylish and fun-loving as the man who conceived them.