By Vivienne Becker
An American in Paris, Joel Arthur Rosenthal’s initials make up the unassuming, understated name JAR, the name above his disarmingly low-key Paris boutique, and the name that marks each of his masterpieces. It is also a name that has come to be the by-word for the ultimate in near-untouchable exclusivity, sophistication and exquisite artistry in jewels and gems, taking on a particular mystique in elite circles of the international jewellery world.
Harvard educated, supremely cultivated, Rosenthal is first and foremost an artist who happens to paint with gems and metals. Almost single-handedly, since he first began creating his own designs in the 1980s, he has lifted the jewel onto the level of a true art form, with a depth of meaning, cultural layers, lyrical beauty and, above all, a poetry and poignancy that had been missing in precious jewellery for decades. With each intensely individual JAR jewel comes a powerful visual and emotional impact, a visceral response generated by a sublime balance of concept, colour, materials and craftsmanship.
Rosenthal is an unrivalled master of colour. One of his strongest and most influential signatures is his courageous and provocative use of gem-colour, in meltingly tender combinations or vibrantly arresting contrasts. Rejecting judgmental preconceptions of preciousness and the established hierarchy of gemstones that governed jewellery in the 1980s, he has always chosen his stones and pearls, as an artist selects paints, for their individual beauty, tone, nuance, light, sheen; for their ability to tell a story and bring his creative visions to life. Rosenthal is responsible for re-introducing long neglected coloured stones: sapphires of all shades, as seen to perfection in the button earrings offered here, spinels, garnets, tourmalines, and rarities like the perfectly matched, blush pink morganites set in these dramatic drop earrings. He selects gems, one by one, painstakingly arranging them himself to conjure painterly compositions, shaded in the signature shaded “dégradé” style that has shaped an entire generation of jewellery.
Rosenthal has a passion for antique gems and pearls; early Indian Golconda diamonds, Burmese rubies, Colombian emeralds, natural oriental pearls – gems with a past, with soul. This same sensibility, Rosenthal’s grounding in art history, his appreciation of jewellery history, also informs his themes and the craftsmanship of astonishing finesse that characterises all JAR creations. Known to be exacting in his pursuit of perfection, he has pioneered the use of darkened, patinated silver settings, inspired by antique diamond jewellery, that melt into and highlight his spectacular colour compositions, underlining mood and mystery. JAR jewels are famed for their exquisitely refined pavé work, stones set, breathtakingly, on complex, undulating forms, for the micro-pavé work, (another influential JAR innovation) creating silken threads of light and lustre. Rosenthal is courageous in his experimentation with new, unexpected materials such as titanium, aluminium, wood, grosgrain ribbon and beetle wings. And in his revival of the noble art of stone carving, carrying on where Fabergé left off, making flowers of velvety white agate, a proud zebra head of black and white agate. JAR jewels push virtuosity of craftsmanship to its boundaries and beyond, creating new volumes, lightness, fluidity, injecting the timeless majesty of jewels with thrilling new dynamism, energy and movement.
JAR draws on a rich treasure-chest of cultural and historical references – from Fabergé, Indian architecture, great royal jewels, tassels, cameos, food – all re-imagined and re-interpreted with both wit and reverence to create jewels of great originality and modernity, with seductive echoes of the past. Rosenthal has a particular passion for flowers, (as he does for perfume); his roses, peonies, irises, pansies and sprays of lilac are luscious and sensual, world-weary or captured in the chaos of constant growth and renewal, while his celebrated butterflies evoke the terrifying beauty of Art Nouveau masterpieces by Lalique. This favoured theme of naturalism seeps into so many of his designs; the mounds of shaded violet and lavender sapphires on the voluptuous button earrings in this sale, for example, are overgrown with a tangle of diamond roots, or the veins on a leaf or butterfly wing. Demonstrating another favourite JAR device, beautifully balanced asymmetry, the centre of each earring is studded with a single stone, a diamond on one, a Burmese ruby on the other, the ruby making a striking contrast with the purple sapphires.
As these superb examples demonstrate, earrings are among the most theatrical of all JAR jewels; Rosenthal clearly enjoys playing with their shapes, forms and conventions, their high drama, their ability to illuminate a woman’s face. The quatrefoil earrings, with their suggestion of medieval architecture, are made soft, feminine and flirtatious, in ravishing rubies and diamonds, centred with extraordinary pearls, one pink, one silver-grey; the huge button earrings, a favoured JAR form, and the pendant earrings, contemporising one of the greatest jewellery classics, the drop shaped stones bordered in a distinctively JAR style of diamonds and tiny gem cluster accents.
Through the years, part of the JAR mystique has come from the fact that the jewels, elusive objects of desire, were so rarely seen in public. An exhibition at London’s Somerset House in 2002–03 caused a sensation, and last year’s milestone retrospective, Jewels by JAR, at the Metropolitan Museum, New York – the museum’s first ever exhibition of the work of a contemporary jeweller – not only demonstrated the full force of Rosenthal’s protean talent, but set the seal on these modern masterpieces as heirlooms and museum treasures of the future. They will rank among the great art jewels of history.
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