As a long time admirer of JAR, I was eagerly anticipating the exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I simply could not wait to see how the museum would display his jewels. After all, when will I have the chance to see such a large retrospective of JAR’s work again? Probably never seeing as he’s pushing 70 and doesn’t seem too concerned about his diet (‘Lunch with the FT: Joel Arthur Rosenthal’).
However, as I exited the 400-piece exhibition through the specially made ‘Jewels by JAR’ gift shop, I couldn’t help hold back my feeling of being sorely underwhelmed. Sure the lighting did not do the jewels justice, but there was something much more critical that was missing from the show: an overarching purpose for this historic retrospective on the living designer. The sheer lack of information on either Rosenthal or his jewels was baffling…
I had been hoping that the Met would provide answers to some questions I had long wondered about, mainly JAR’s sources of inspiration. A tour guide explained how JAR’s works were not influenced by other jewelers, how Rosenthal was a maverick trailblazer in the jewelry world. This statement stuck in my mind, because it seemed so utterly improbable. Every artist is influenced by the period in which he lives, by his peers and artistic predecessors to some extent.
How could he not be influenced by anyone? Prior to founding his own workshop, Rosenthal spent a year working at Bulgari under Gianni Bulgari. Certainly some of the designer’s aesthetic must have rubbed off on the young Rosenthal.
There is no question of JAR’s brilliance in jewelry design; his jewels are breathtaking and creative, but not all are one hundred percent conceptually original. Although no other jeweler would ever accuse Rosenthal of artistic plagiarism, some of his designs are loose adaptations of earlier works, oftentimes incorporating figurative elements of his predecessors.
In addition to gorgeously colored, seldom-used, and often unconventionally shaped, gemstones, JAR is best known for his nature-inspired jewelry, particularly of flowers and butterflies, and jewels that are studies of spirals, spheres and science. Another hallmark of JAR’s jewelry is the use of many different metals, both precious and non-precious, the most prominent being that of blackened gold – which Rosenthal believes draws the attention to the exquisite stones rather than the glowing gold setting.
However, nature is one of the most common inspirations for jewelry. Moreover, the use of dark metal is certainly not unique to JAR. From the Georgian period until the late eighteenth century, jewels were set in silver-topped gold; and as the silver tarnished over time, the settings were often dark rather than silvery white – much like JAR’s blackened gold settings today.
The point of this survey is that JAR clearly drew inspiration from earlier jewelers, as well as his contemporaries. As is the case for the vast majority of artists, JAR’s style evolved in the context of the works that came before him. He was not stranded on a remote island to develop his technique bereft of outside influence. Although his setting style and the dimensionality of his designs display a rare genius, the underlying form of his works was oftentimes directly inspired by other jewelers. To claim otherwise is to commit a hubris that refuses just tribute to many of the finest jewelers of times past.
Rather than ramble on, I’ll let some pictures do the talking.
One of JAR’s earliest pieces, a wide diamond band ring in white gold made in 1978, echoes Bulgari’s design aesthetic from that period.
The distinction is minimal, mainly the arrangement of the stones and how that affects the band, but the overall ring design with the “Tubogas”-like band and twin diamonds are very similar to rings made by Bulgari during this time, quite possibly designed by Rosenthal.
Another early JAR ring from 1978 is practically identical to its Bulgari counterpart:
Early Boucheron Influences
It has been posited that a particular sapphire and diamond Boivin ring auctioned in the 1960s (a photo of which I unfortunately do not have) was the catalyst that propelled Rosenthal’s career and overall design aesthetic. Another speculation is that Rosenthal found his initial inspiration from a Boucheron chatelaine watch circa 1890-95- the watch pendant is designed as a colorful pansy. Rosenthal is “known to have handled” this Boucheron watch, asserts renowned jewelry historian and author Marion Fasel.
Unfortunately, the photo is not very clear, but you can see the slight color variations of the stones that give the flower a more realistic, three-dimensional effect. The meticulous arrangement of colored pavé stones to create color fields is a well known facet of Rosenthal’s design repertoire, one which could potentially have been inspired by this Boucheron pansy pendant watch. The similarities between this late 19th century jewel and Rosenthal’s pansy rings below are striking.
Natural Realism of Art Nouveau & Paulding Farnham
With respect to JAR’s flora and fauna jewels, the short-lived but highly creative Art Nouveau period comes to mind. Whereas the Art Nouveau jewelers favored intricate design using plique-a-jour enamel over superfluous pricey stones, Rosenthal’s similarly realistic renditions of flowers, not in their perfect presumed state but instead appearing to be caught in the middle of a draft of wind or pre-blossom, are swathed in pavé stones. Comparisons can be made between JAR and the leading Art Nouveau jewelers such as Lalique, Vever, and, most notably, Tiffany & Co.’s Paulding Farnham.
During his years at Tiffany & Co. in the late 18th to early 19th centuries, Paulding Farnham’s attention to detail and realism captured in his works are astounding. Known best for his orchids, Farnham’s lilac brooch is yet another superb study of flowers in precious materials. All too similar is JAR’s pair of lilac brooches awash with pavé diamonds and purple sapphires.
While the type of flower in the above images is different, the similarities of the variously sized and shaped pavé stones used for the petals of Farnham’s lilies and JAR’s camellia is unmistakeable, as well as the settings themselves. Another characteristic championed by JAR, the use of less common and unfamiliar stones, is also one frequently employed by Farnham in his works. Case in point are the stones used in the two iris brooches above: the first iris brooch is made with rhodolites for the petals and demantoid garnets for the stem while the second utilizes cornflower blue Yogo sapphires found exclusively in Montana.
Here, the three dimensional morning glory blossoms of Marcus & Co.’s brooch and JAR’s bracelets are brilliantly articulated in plique-a-jour enamel and pavé settings, respectively.
Drawing Inspiration from Egypt & India
A number of JAR’s jewels remind me of early 20th century works by Cartier. The first and most obvious example is a pair of ‘Falcon’ ear clips by JAR made in 1981, each designed as a turquoise-colored faience Egyptian falcon with coral headdress and collar and cabochon emerald detail. Cartier’s unique use of Egyptian faience in jewels during the Art Deco period is well known and documented; the aesthetic of these JAR ear clips seems to have clearly been inspired by Cartier’s Egyptian Revival works.
India was another exotic source of inspiration for Cartier and JAR. Many of Cartier’s most iconic jewels during the Art Deco era were inspired by Indian Mughal jewelry. Carved gemstones, vibrantly colored enamels and unconventionally-cut diamonds were among the precious materials that comprised Indian jewelry during the 19th and 20th centuries, all of which were re-interpreted in Cartier’s designs. JAR’s necklace below is a stylized, modern reproduction of the famous Patiala Necklace by Cartier, made for the Maharaja Bhupinder Singh of Patiala.
Derived from the ‘turah’, an Indian turban tassel of several strings of pearls fitted to a curved enamel bar, the Cartier tassel was by far the most popular pendant motif of the Art Deco period. While the tassel is hardly exclusive to Cartier, a few of JAR’s works with tassels appear to have been influenced by Cartier’s tassel or the jeweled tassels of India.
The following JAR jewels are clearly inspired by Indian jewelry aesthetics; they include a number of stylized Mughal motifs.
Avant Garde Originals: Belperron & Boivin
René Boivin and Suzanne Belperron are the jewelers who I find most similar to JAR. In the introduction to the ‘Jewels by JAR’ book, Adrian Sassoon, the writer, reveals a young Rosenthal heard about the sale of the Boivin atelier while in New York in 1976, and he was convinced that there were opportunities to work there. Though that is the book’s only mention of Rosenthal’s interest in Boivin, one can deduce that Rosenthal respected and must have been influenced by Boivin’s talented designers and their jeweled works. For example, look at the design similarities of the aforementioned JAR morning glory bracelets and the following Boivin “Bindweed” brooches:
One may be a brooch and the other a bracelet, but the pairing of diamonds and sapphires, as well as the composition of the flowers are incredibly similar.
Or, consider the similarities between these two flower brooches by JAR and Boivin:
Even though the brooches depict different types of flowers, the diamond blossoms of Boivin’s Queen Anne’s Lace flower share a number of similarities to JAR’s Carrot flower.
Boivin was well known for his beautiful, realistic flowers, which include brooches made in the form of camellias, violets and orchids. Although JAR’s masterful settings breathe an exquisite life into his pavé flowers with three dimensions of sculptural reality, Boivin’s floral jewels may have served as an excellent starting point for Rosenthal.
Another common technique used by JAR is the setting of precious gems like diamonds in semi-precious stones like rock crystal or chalcedony. Suzanne Belperron specialized in this technique, as did Boivin. It’s hard to believe that Rosenthal did not draw inspiration from their early genius.
There is also this undeniable similarity between a pair of earrings made by Belperron and JAR’s later fan earrings.
Red bead necklaces seem to have been shared by both JAR and Boivin as well, however the materials are quite different as are the vivid colors.
I was so surprised by the intriguing similarities between the tassels in following two necklaces by Boivin and JAR that I had to include them in this survey, despite their differences in figurative design.
Though the following comparison is arguably different, the idea of using pearls to insinuate curly hair is congruous.
The number of jewels by JAR that I find strikingly similar to works by Belperron and Boivin are overwhelming- consider the design of the wide clasps in darkened metal and the use of multiple strands of large pearls in these two pieces by Boivin and JAR, respectively.
The following pair of earclips- again by Boivin and JAR- also share intriguing similarities.
Like Boivin, JAR also uses ebony frequently in his jewels. The overall aesthetic of each of the following ring designs by both jewelers is difficult to distinguish.
A really neat pair of coral bracelets by JAR take the coronet design to extremes when compared to two pairs of coronet bracelets once owned by the Duchess of Windsor.
JAR ‘Hearts’ Verdura
JAR also clearly drew inspiration for some of his works from Fulco di Verdura. For instance, Rosenthal’s sea shell brooches and earrings are strikingly reminiscent of Verdura’s early seashell brooches.
While the first photo shares only three of JAR’s shell-inspired, gem-set brooches, the JAR II book includes a few more pieces that are actual shells set with diamonds and other precious stones. Again, JAR’s take on the shell is different than Verdura’s, but the design concept and similarity is undeniable.
JAR also drew inspiration from Verdura when he created his Night & Day Earrings in honor of Cole Porter, the musician and close friend of Verdura.
Also following in the footsteps of Verdura (as well as Paul Flato, for that matter), JAR loved to use heart motifs in his works. The following two examples employ similarly colored stones and pavé techniques.
JAR’s ‘Bursting Heart’ brooch may have been inspired by the ‘Puffy Heart’ ring attributed to Paul Flato.
A series of more heart jewels from JAR and Verdura…
One last comparison, JAR channeled the camera-shy Harry Winston when posing with his favorite gems.