In the halcyon days of the late 1960s and early 1970s, the counterculture children of Love and Peace dictated fashion far more than the couturiers of Paris and New York. Modern fashion became an expression of liberation, experimentation, and an embrace of the organic: “Nature is natural.”
Alex Mate and Lee Brooks in 1974, surrounded by pieces from the collection of the Estate of Lee Brooks.
It was 1970 on Fire Island, and Lovers Alex Mate and Lee Brooks believed the stars had brought them together for a reason. The pair loved trawling the beaches collecting the gifts of the sea: bits of wood, polished glass, stones, shells, and feathers.
“I think the appeal is that these pieces are not just jewelry, they are sort of magical in a strange kind of way.”
Once gathered, these romantic treasures were fashioned into jewelry, along with old-fashioned French passementerie. They signed their creations with a label featuring the Eye of Providence and their names.
Salvador Dalí was instantly smitten with Alex&Lee’s work and purchased several necklaces , including one bearing his likeness. That necklace now hangs in the Yellow Room of the Dalí Museum in Portlligat, Spain.
In little time, their jewelry developed a cult following and not just with the hippies and bohemians. Celebrities and socialites clamored to own an Alex and Lee: People like Ann Getty, Danielle Steel, Cher, Elton John, and Salvador Dalì.
“I think the appeal is that these pieces are not just jewelry, they are sort of magical in a strange kind of way,” says Gray Franke, Lee’s partner, and co-creator following Alex’s death in 1992.
“They just don’t look like anything anyone has seen before. They feel so precious and magical. These raw minerals, little antiquities, and animal fibers. They seem to have an almost mystical power.”
Above left, fashion model Donyale Luna covered in Alex&Lee — and nothing else — for a Playboy Magazine shoot. At right, a superb example of a winged scarab from 1976-77.
By the 1980s, Alex and Lee epitomized the rise of “art jewelry,” a growing trend on the West Coast where boutiques like Obiko in San Francisco became the crossroads of avant-garde fashion. In turn, Bergdorf Goodman and Saks Fifth Avenue came calling – and so did everyone else. Designers begged for special collections made just for them: Geoffrey Beene, Giorgio di Sant’ Angelo, and Oscar de la Renta.
“The earlier pieces were more surreal and savage – even kind of crazy and funky with things like a weird little doll-faces or scarabs,” Says Gray, who speaks to us from the home he and Lee shared near Sea Ranch.
“But by the ’80s pieces started to get really sophisticated and high-fashion with more semi-precious stones. Then in 1980, they won the Coty Award and suddenly they were celebrities in their own right.”
In later life, Lee Brooks settled into a quieter life with his partner Gray Franke near Sea Ranch, California.
After Alex died, Lee felt adrift and for a time, wasn’t sure he could continue creating. And then he met Gray.
“I met Lee in 1995, and at this point, he was moving more into the minimalism of Donna Karan and Calvin Klein. I think he was just trying to stay afloat. At first, I didn’t really understand what he was making but then I tried on a piece and I was like: wow, now I get it.”
Lee’s atelier was filled with boxes upon boxes of trinkets and talismans, bits of driftwood, antique Chinese stones, and lots of feathers. Soon, he and Gray were reigniting the magic of Alex and Lee.
But in 2017 Lee passed away, leaving Gray to sort through the dozens of jewelry pieces Lee couldn’t bear to sell, not to mention the mountains of materials in their atelier.
Two pieces from the Fonfrège collection of Alex&Lee jewelry dating from the late 1970s – early 80s. Center, the signature hallmark found on the reverse side.
Today, there are collectors around the world who covet these increasingly rare works of wearable art which now, are worth thousands of dollars. Each piece is not only one of a kind, others can push the boundaries of just out-and-out bizarre.
“I think maybe the weirdest one was owned by this tie-dye artist who had a boyfriend named Bob. Well, Bob died when they were having sex so after he was cremated, she found one of his ribs in the urn and asked Alex and Lee to make a necklace be made with it. There were even people who gave us glass eyeballs and false teeth to put in a necklace. I’m pretty sure Dalì’s necklace had an eyeball. I’m sure that appealed to him.”
Gray hasn’t decided yet if he is prepared to continue the Alex&Lee brand story. For now he is spending time discovering himself and his own artistic expression; no longer living in the shadow of those two very magical and mystical men named Alex and Lee.
>> Fonfrège is proud to offer for sale a special collection of vintage Alex and Lee jewelry at fonfrege.com.