Odds are, you’ve haven’t come across an asparagus studded with demantoids, garnets, and chrysoberyls before. That’s exactly what the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s dazzling new exhibition “Jewels by JAR” offers. Featuring more than 400 works by Joel A. Rosenthal, this exhibit explores the acclaimed jewelry designer’s career over the past three decades.
A Harvard graduate, Rosenthal moved to Paris in the ’60s and gained his first commission from a friend in the early ’70s. Everything about JAR communicates painful exclusivity: His salon in the Place Vendome is by appointment only, and the vetting process is intense. Simply put, if he doesn’t like a piece on you, he won’t sell it to you. Rosenthal produces just 100 pieces per year, and each is one of a kind.
“You could put one on your coffee table and call it a sculpture,” Associate Curator Jane Adlin said. She also praised Rosenthal’s use of pavé and his unique method of mixing perfectly cut gemstones with stones that are less refined.
The comprehensive retrospective of JAR opens with a curled orange peel dripping with amber gems. His style immortalizes atypical subjects—including leeks, carrots, radishes, and bagels—in precious materials. He delights in combining the mundane with the wildly luxurious, exemplified in his creation of organic
jewelry like brooches with ostrich feathers and earrings made of beetle wings. Flowers—ranging from the pared down and contemporary to the ruffled and rococo—are a favorite motif. JAR’s attention to detail is so great that he doesn’t even forget the thorns when crafting his pavé roses. There are jawbreaker-sized jewels on display, from gobs of opals to sumptuous cabochon emeralds, and intricate webs of diamante-frosted silver seem as if they were kissed by snow. He builds off the natural shapes of his materials: An oddly shaped pearl ingeniously becomes an acorn, and a slice of mother of pearl becomes a leaf. The work is loud and glittery, bordering on kitschy, but that’s all part of the fun.
The day after visiting the exhibit, I sat in Bergdorf Goodman in Rosenthal’s JAR Boutique, when who should walk in but the white-haired media-shy man himself. “Joel!” the boutique manager cried, and I found myself frozen in my chair. Eventually, I stammered out a question: “Do you have anything to say to the students of Columbia and Barnard?”
“Do what you want! Find your passion and have the courage to do what you want,” JAR smiled and said.
It’s this irreverent attitude that makes JAR such an inimitable artist. His wit, playfulness, and sense of humor appear in every piece, from a bagel made of wood and spinel to a scoop of realistic-looking vanilla ice cream made of jasper and rock crystal. I sat as he held court and handed out advice.
When it comes to his goal as a jeweler and designer, Rosenthal quoted Degas with a twinkle in his eye.
“I want to be illustrious and unknown,” he said.