As for his foray into design, Bittar was drawn to jewelry for more than one reason. Aside from finding it “super-enchanting,” he considered it an appealing alternative to college (he did a short stint at the University at Albany–SUNY). And jewelry provided a cover of sorts. “I didn’t come out to my parents until much later. For some reason I thought they were going to know I was gay if I were a fashion designer,” he says with a laugh. “Also with jewelry, it’s much easier to be a self-starter; I thought I could make my own jewelry, and I could.”
And he did, beginning from his East Village apartment. Bittar started with a box of Depression-era glass and antique chandelier parts that he repurposed as necklaces and then sold alongside vintage carved Bakelite pieces. A fusion of the two materials produced his big hit: Lucite, which he whittled and painted in a way that made it appear almost luminescent. “I had seen someone carve a sheet of Lucite and I thought, Wow, you can carve it,” he says. “At first it was a bit of a hard sell. People liked it, but they didn’t really know what to make of it.” Once it caught on, Bittar says, he banked about $1,000 a day selling it on the street. “Back then you could really find something amazing and creative,” he recalls. “[Now] I feel like there’s been a wave of mass crap that just landed on the street. People aren’t really looking for artisan. But back then I would be mobbed, and I would sell out of what I made.”
When Henri Bendel and the Guggenheim Museum shop came calling in 1992, Bittar got the confidence boost he needed to move forward. “I didn’t know anyone in the business, and it wasn’t like my parents had a trust fund,” he says. “I had to learn the whole thing myself, and I decided to do a trade show.” From there Barneys New York picked up the jewelry, which piqued the interest of other stores. Eventually it came down to an ultimatum of exclusivity: Barneys or everyone else. Bittar’s collection now sells at Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman Marcus and roughly 800 other stores, including two of his own—in New York’s SoHo and West Village neighborhoods—which opened in 2004 and 2008, respectively.
“We consider him a major growth vendor,” says Terron Schaefer, Saks Fifth Avenue’s senior vice president, creative and marketing, who wouldn’t mind seeing the designer expand in a different direction, if only for personal reasons: “I hope at some point he’ll do men’s cuff links. The color and the texture of what he does are so special. It would be fun to have cuff links that are not about serious stones.” Until then, Bittar has his hands full with his women’s collections. (He offers four groupings a year.) In addition to his Lucite collection, he designs two metal-based ones: Elements, with an organic feel, and the more graphic and sculptural Miss Havisham, which was introduced four years ago. He has collaborated on runway collections with Burberry and creates custom pieces for some of fashion’s top stylists, including Patti Wilson and Marie-Amélie Sauvé—something that, judging by the number of times he drops their names, obviously excites him.