NEW YORK - November 20, 2013, 7.00pm.  European Sculpture Court, Metropolitan Museum of Art:

“Is that really him? I didn’t think he would show.  Look at everyone swarming around him.  How embarrassing.  Let’s go have a closer look.” 

“They’re not exactly the most practical pieces, but I’d be willing to sacrifice a dress or two.”

“Well of course he doesn’t meet with just anyone . . . I did visit his boutique once.”

Excited whispers ricocheted from neoclassical marble to wine glass, a giddy air of anticipation that seemed as though pulled from The Great Gatsby. Just who is Joel Arthur Rosenthal, better known as the creative-half of JAR, the famously exclusive jeweler? JAR, who pushes the boundaries of design while remaining a devoted naturalist. JAR, who has inspired a cultish following, compelling many a stylish woman to convince herself that if she tilts her head no more than twenty degrees and avoids the dance floor, she will manage to keep those fabulous works of art clipped to her ears.  

JAR Hellebore Brooch in its Snowball Box, 2004. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The Met’s reception on November 20th was one of many events celebrating Jewels by JAR – the landmark exhibition drawing blockbuster crowds this winter – and all those in attendance felt they were taking part in something special. It is the first retrospective of a jeweler’s work ever to be held under what Mr. Rosenthal has called New York’s “greatest roof.” I have viewed the exhibition three times and I could see it another thirty and still leave feeling convinced I’ve missed some treasure.

Cameo and Ruby Rose Petal Brooch, 2011. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

There are over four hundred jewels on display representing thirty-five years of production, all of them teasing out my inner magpie. The barely-there lighting sets up each vitrine as a discovery, proving both frustrating and enticing. I’ve agonized each time I’ve reflexively reached for the keys to the cases, only to remember that my jewelry specialist privileges do not extend to Fifth Avenue. Within the context of his own oeuvre, JAR’s creations are timeless: pieces created in the 1970s possess the same aesthetic sensibility as those produced today, foiling jewelry historians who love to obsess over circa dates. What leaves me struggling for the right words when viewing this exhibition, however, is the breathtaking intricacy and often surprising nature of each piece, rendered from gemstones and metal and . . . beetle wings? 

(left) JAR Ribbon Earrings, 2012. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. (right) Alexander Calder’s Bracelet sold at Sotheby’s on 14 November 2013.

Mixed among the innovative materials and unorthodox designs are nods to previous generations of jewelers.  Contemporary materials such as aluminum, tsavorite garnets and fire opals interface with Victorian favorites: cameos (above), micro-mosaics and yes, beetle wings. I am continually fascinated by how JAR, arguably the greatest jeweler of our time, constructs dialogues with earlier artist-jewelers such as Calder, Boivin and Fabergé.

(left) JAR Zebra Brooch, 1987. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. (right) A Boivin Horse Brooch sold at Sotheby’s on 11 December 2013.

I shared my deep thoughts with a senior colleague. “Of course,” she said, “but nobody does Boivin better than JAR, and only JAR can do JAR.” Rosenthal re-interprets aesthetic templates with a witty virtuosity, but his innumerable copyists prove that imitation isn’t always the kindest form of flattery.

JAR Wave Brooch, 2006. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

JAR’s artistic references can at times seem quite literal – pavé-set brooches echoing Hokusai’s wave or anticipating Hirst’s butterflies – and in other moments appear as mere suggestions. When I first saw his “Bagel,” for example, Duchamp’s Fountain immediately came to mind. Could JAR be turning toward Dadaism? As I looked more closely, I realized the meticulously rendered bagel was not, in fact, a “found” object but fashioned from wood. An even closer inspection revealed small gemstones dotted across the dough to form “Forty Five Years and Still Fresh.” There I was, surrounded by micro-explosions of color and light, and it was the wooden bagel that made me rush over to curator Jane Adlin for further insight. She explained that the piece, representing one of New York City’s most iconic foods, was commissioned by two native New Yorkers who wished to commemorate their forty-fifth anniversary. Yes, it would seem that Joel Arthur Rosenthal, himself a boy from the Bronx, has a sense of humor. JAR, the genius who famously granted his Financial Times interview over peanut butter sandwiches at the Candy Kitchen. JAR, the wizard of the Place Vendôme, who manipulates gemstones like a high-roller handles dice, doesn’t appear to take life, or himself, too seriously.

JAR Butterfly Brooch, 1994. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

“Now this is someone I would like to meet,” I whispered to my companion, realizing the relative absurdity of my statement as the words passed over my lips. JAR is not exactly known for his open-door policy. My friend laughed and then, so as not to cause offence, added “oh no, I’m sure he would like you.” “Do you really think so?” I asked, hoping not to sound as earnest as I felt. He paused for two beats and answered, “you’re right. Perhaps not.”

Perhaps not, but I have seen the wonderful retrospective at the Met and, on occasion, have had the opportunity to handle JAR’s works in-person, to appreciate their exquisite construction close-up and at all angles. And on these lucky occasions, if I keep my head tilted just-so and glide ever-so gracefully to my desk, I can write about the great JAR, with fabulous works of art clipped to my ears.


Jewels by JAR runs through March 9, 2014.