As soon as the JAR exhibit was announced, I promised myself that I would make it over to the Met to see it in person (I'm still berating myself about missing the Alexander McQueen retrospective, no excuses!) When I found out that the American Society of Jewelry Historians was offering a private, guided tour to its members, I promptly signed up, as I'd heard that the exhibit included very little notation on the individual pieces.
Walking through the museum at 9:30 am, before it opened to the public, was a treat in and of itself... it's so rare to be there without the crowds. As we trekked through Antiquities then 20th Century, I found myself facing a wall of Georgia O'Keeffe paintings and caught my breath, happily surprised by the serendipity. Since I was a little girl, I've revered O'Keeffe's work and studied her life/career pretty seriously when I was working on my senior thesis, a third of which was devoted to poems inspired by her paintings. But I digress... we soon departed the bright white salons of modernity and entered the mysterious world of Joel Arthur Rosenthal.
My confirmation from ASJH included a note to bring a flashlight to the tour, which I found odd but understood immediately when we stepped into the exhibit space. It was dark, really dark, and the jewelry was lit dimly from above. I kind of felt like a voyeur, peeking into a forbidden window, and I have a feeling that's exactly what the curators were going for. The space is sort of a convex, egg-shape, with 2 main walls and a forest of 4-sided lightboxed pedestals set in between. Although over four hundred one-of-a-kind works were displayed, the layout allowed each piece to breathe and get noticed, which I really appreciated.
At first I listened attentively to the docent, eager for any background info on the notoriously private designer. Here are some of the takeaways:
- JAR was born in the Bronx and had a very New York upbringing. Before transferring to Harvard (and graduating with a degree in art history in only 2 years!) he spent a year at City College.
- The Met exhibition is only his second; the first major exhibit was at Somerset House in London a few years ago; his final will be in Venice in 2 years
- Although never formally trained as a jeweler, he ran in the art circles once he moved to Paris, and managed to land a gig working for Bulgari. He also became a sort of artisan of high-end needlework, collaborating with his partner Pierre Jeannet until they opened their boutique.
- He created his first piece at the age of 35, and so now at age 70, he's spent half of his life devoted to jewelry
- When he opened his shop on the famous Place Vendome, it was a modest atelier designed to exhibit his work. The location is nearly hidden, and over the years a sort of mythology has developed surrounding the ability not only to find it, but to be invited inside.
- Although he maintains a small staff in the boutique, JAR sends most of the metalsmithing and setting work out to some of the finest artisans in Europe. No one knows exactly what his process is, but it must be painstaking, as many pieces took years, even almost a decade, to complete.
- JAR is most interested in fulfilling his elaborate visions, and creating a private dialogue between himself and the wearer. Many pieces include stones and designs that can only be seen on the back when they are flipped over.
- Known for his superior sense of color, for selecting materials for their intrinsic value and properties (from priceless diamonds to wood, enamel, even aluminum), and for techniques and applications that fly in the face of time-honored "rules" (like mounting stones to show the pavilion cut - basically upside-down), JAR pushes boundaries and designs for effect, not comfort. Apparently the ladies who JAR know that numbing cream is required when one wears many of his gem-encrusted, heavy earring designs!
After about 20 minutes I'd gleaned all the info our guide had to offer; since she was a decorative arts, rather than fine jewelry expert, she couldn't really answer a lot of the group's questions. In fact, many of the attendees volunteered information that she seemed really happy to learn about. I think that, however lovely our guide was, it would have been a much better experience to have someone explaining more about what made these techniques so unique. But it did give me plenty of time to break off from the group and spend one-on-one time with the individual pieces.
This exhibit has been somewhat controversial in the fine jewelry industry. First of all, JAR doesn't credit the exceptionally-skilled artisans who execute his often convoluted visions. Over the years, all of the major houses like VCA, Cartier, Tiffany etc. have begun to credit the designers who created under their brands, so this kind of flies in the face of "the right thing to do." Secondly, he's still living. Most artists don't get retrospectives until they've passed. Thirdly, there's a celebrity or maybe more like a cult-of-personality element that rubs some the wrong way... JAR was highly involved in this exhibit, from the lighting to the color of the velvet displays to recruiting his socialite and celebrity friend/clients to contribute pieces from their collections for the event. It seems that he's quite controlling and demanding... but really, what uber-talented person isn't?
I've no idea if M. Rosenthal is a complex, domineering person, but history has shown that the geniuses who produce truly exceptional work, who won't compromise on their vision and tend to drive their support teams crazy are not necessarily candidates for Mr./Ms. Congeniality (i.e. Steve Jobs, Picasso, Sheldon from 'The Big Bang Theory.')
In the end, since I haven't heard that JAR is a horrible person, what counts for me is the work. The incredibly impressive body of work. I can't stop thinking about the fantasy, the level of detail, the way he creates meta-versions of flora and fauna - these pieces are captivating, almost animated despite being made of cold, hard materials. I stood in front of the wall of butterflies/dragonflies for nearly 1/2 hour with a jewelry designer as we tried to understand HOW - how did he make enamel look like watercolor paint, how did he carve something so delicate from agate, how did he come up with these ideas?!? I'm pretty sure that's what JAR wanted the attendees to experience - a sense of wonder as you contemplate.
Three days later, I'm still thinking about some of these pieces. I covet them, I marvel at them, I keep looking at my Instagrams that I surreptitiously took (ok I got in trouble twice for taking pics but I couldn't help myself, I wanted to capture everything!) If you have a chance to visit the exhibit, make sure to bring an LED flashlight (my colleague brought a regular one but my LED white light brought out much more authentic color than her yellowish incandescent.) It's truly an extraordinary journey if you love jewelry, craftsmanship, and the pursuit of beauty.
For more on JAR:
One more note... you can buy JAR jewelry designed exclusively for the Met retrospective when you leave the exhibit. When you see the pricetag on the coffee table book set you'll understand why I took so many of my own photos!
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