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ZEBRA BROOCH of agate, diamonds, silver, gold, 1987.

Retrospective

 


Jewels by JAR

 


 

Though he may have the requisite Place Vendôme premises and celebrity clients, Joel Arthur Rosenthal is unlike any other luxury jeweler working today. To find his equal, you would have to go all the way back to Carl FabergĂ©, whose high-concept, high-priced bangles and bibelots combined a decidedly modern sensibility with old-school craftsmanship.

The Bronx-born Rosenthal, now seventy, moved to Paris shortly after his graduation from Harvard in 1966. There, he met partner Pierre Jeannet, and together they opened a needlepoint shop; their clients included the house of Hermès. But Rosenthal soon discovered his calling as a jeweler and, in 1976, he went back to New York to work for Bulgari. By 1978, he had returned to Paris. With Jeannet, he opened JAR, a tiny shop in the Place Vendôme that took its name from Rosenthal’s initials. In 1987, the growing business moved to a larger space next door, which it still occupies today.

Small by choice, JAR produces just one hundred twenty one-of-a-kind pieces a year. The company does not advertise or lend to celebrities or fashion shoots, and the unmarked storefront welcomes clients by appointment only. It is said that even those who reach the inner sanctum may not be allowed to buy anything if Rosenthal does not like the way his jewels look on them.

So the chance to view more than three hundred and sixty pieces by JAR on display is a rare treat. The Metropolitan Museum of Art recently offered Jewels by JAR, the first U.S. retrospective of Rosenthal’s thirty-five year career. Amazingly, it is also the first time the Met has showcased the work of a contemporary jewelry artist, and only the third time the reticent Rosenthal’s work has been shown publicly at all. His reluctance is understandable; as more JAR jewels have appeared in museums and at auction over the past decade, they have spawned copycat disco-ball necklaces, handkerchief earrings and oversized floral rings. The exhibition demonstrates just how far and wide this cult craftsman’s influence has spread.

central-asian-Ikats
TULIP BROOCH of rubies, diamonds, sapphires, garnets, silver, gold, enamel, 2008.

Rosenthal is best known as a master of the pavé technique, in which a large amount of very small stones are set together to create a smooth, ‘paved’ surface. (His background in needlepoint is evident in his precise, Impressionistic gemscapes—what Rosenthal calls his “tweed settings.”) The stones may be small, but the pieces themselves are enormous: brooches, earrings, rings, and pendants are so generously scaled that it is difficult to tell which is which. Some look as if they would be agony to wear, but, in fact, are made of lightweight metals like aluminum and titanium. Rosenthal has boasted that he is not afraid of any materials, working in faïence, mosaic, and even silver, rarely used in fine jewelry these days. (He blackens it, to enhance the contrast with the stones.)

JAR’s pieces are not frames for impressive gems, but works of art in their own right. Although there is no shortage of bling in the exhibition, Rosenthal often chooses stones of modest size and variable value, prioritizing color and contrast over carats. Natural zircons, tsavorite garnets, fire opals, and black spinels are among his favorites. He sets diamonds face down or buries them in whimsical forms, like his Leek Brooch. Among the thirty-seven carat rocks are materials that are less traditional and harder to identify. Precious and not-so-precious metals are sculpted and enameled to look like porcelain, paper, silk, grosgrain ribbon, or coral.

A Frost Bracelet of rock crystal and diamonds recalls Fabergé’s Nobel Ice Egg. But the Fabergé comparisons are even more apt when it comes to JAR’s precious and often witty objets, virtuoso trinkets intended for pure visual delight. An ebony box with a silver tube of Windsor Blue paint perched on the lid belongs to the watercolor-loving Prince of Wales. A wooden bagel is positively mouth-watering; a scoop of rock crystal vanilla ice cream melts convincingly on a jasper plate.

Nature is everywhere in Rosenthal’s work: snakes, seashells, coral, acorns, raspberries, elephants, and a diamond-bridled zebra. A wall of butterfly and dragonfly brooches evokes a taxidermy display. One pair of earrings juxtaposes emeralds with iridescent green beetle wings. But Rosenthal is justly renowned for his floral pieces, the highlight of the exhibition. A camellia bracelet of enameled silver with rubies was the first JAR piece to enter a museum collection; it is on loan to the Met from the Musée des Arts Décoratifs. JAR’s jewel-encrusted flowers are both realistic and otherworldly, their naturalism and sensuality disconcertingly at odds with their precious materials. Blossoms are wrinkled, wilting, or not quite yet open; they have pollen, leaves and vines. An iris brooch includes a discrete ‘fallen petal.’ A ruby-encrusted rose necklace comes complete with thorns.  

Rosenthal seems to be almost contemptuous of gravity. Bulbous diamonds erupt from a bursting heart brooch with no visible moorings; the result is both cloying and jaw-dropping. Floral pieces are pierced around the edges and studded in the center to achieve dizzying depth. JAR’s earrings, especially, defy gravity: free-floating curlicues of diamond and titanium, unspooling ribbons, and arcing seesaws.  

PHILLY_PARK
BUTTERFLY BROOCH of sapphires, fire opals, rubies, amethysts, garnets, diamonds, silver, gold, 1994.

The Met show has drawn fire for being too commercial, presenting the works of a living artist uncritically, without didactic labels, as if they are on display in a shop window, not a museum. It is true that the exhibition could have used a firmer curatorial hand, interpreting as well as editing; some pieces are so banal (or idiosyncratic) that they seem to reflect the client’s vision more than the creator’s. The catalog was largely written by Adrian Sassoon, a jewelry dealer, not a curator. But unlike Tiffany and Cartier (both subjects of previous Met exhibitions), JAR’s doors are not open to the public; even his shop windows are secretive, sometimes displaying a fresh flower or a nonprecious stone, but never jewelry. For most of us, this exhibition is as close as we will ever get to seeing a JAR piece, much less wearing one.  

More disappointing is the fact that we cannot appreciate these jewels as they were meant to be seen: on the body. JAR pieces are so massive and sculptural, it is difficult to imagine how they might be worn. And considering Rosenthal’s reported concerns about how they look on his clients, it is curious that we are not shown pictures of the end result, or told who the many private collectors who loaned pieces to the exhibition might be. Only a handful are named, and just a few of those names are instantly recognizable: Gwyneth Paltrow, Stephanie Seymour, Diane von Furstenberg. For a jeweler known for his highly customized, couture approach, the exhibition is surprisingly impersonal. Literally disembodied, JAR’s kinetic jewels are reduced to mere museum pieces.  

 

 


 

 

Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell
Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell is an art historian specializing in fashion and textiles. She has worked as a curator, consultant and educator for museums and universities around the world. Recent publications include Paris: Life and Luxury in the Eighteenth Century (Getty Publications, 2011) and Fashioning Fashion: European Dress in Detail, 1700 - 1915 (Prestel, 2010). She has appeared as an expert commentator in Biography Channel documentaries on fashion designers. This issue’s contribution covers the recent JAR (Joel Arthur Rosenthal) jewelry exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.


 

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