The hyper-exclusive jeweler Joel Arthur Rosenthal, better known by his initials, JAR, is considered to be the most coveted contemporary jewelry designer, and some say the prickliest. He decides who gets access to his private Paris salon and who will buy his jewelry, and he’s been known to turn away eager clients regardless of their stature. He doesn’t do interviews or make public appearances, and when a New York Times fashion critic rang his Paris doorbell some years ago, she reported that he poured water on her head from his second story window without explanation. But all of this doesn’t detract from the magnificence of his work and a collectors’ desire to own a JAR design. His jeweled creations, made in a painterly palette of gemstones and rare natural pearls, are daring in scale yet remarkably light, and are even often described as transformative by the women who wear them.
For all those collectors who have dreamt of owning a piece from the elusive designer but haven’t been able to access his atelier, there is a big opportunity coming up: Christie’s is offering the largest collection of JAR jewels ever to come to auction on June 8. The auction, The Jewels by JAR: Property from an Important West Coast Collection, features 19 pieces, from a pair of fabulous natural pearl earrings that effortlessly swing between delicate diamonds to a sculptural branch cuff that envelopes the wrist and is decorated with faceted diamond beads that appear like glistening snowflakes. Each singular piece highlights the beauty of the stones and features a lightness and femininity in style and weight, and a remarkable attention to detail that is signature JAR.
“JAR is the most collectible designer alive today,” says Daphne Lingon, Christie’s head of jewelry for the Americas. And since he only creates about 70 pieces a year, there simply isn’t enough to meet the worldwide demand, she explains, which adds to the urgency of buying a piece on the secondary market. “To have access to a piece by him is quite rare because people don’t want to part with them; it’s something they keep and hand down.” This is only the auction house’s third significant sale of JAR pieces over the past 15 years.
Owning a jewel by Rosenthal (who was called “the Fabergé of our time” by Diane von Furstenberg) means being part of an exclusive club that includes celebrities Elizabeth Taylor, Ellen Barkin, and Gwyneth Paltrow, and philanthropists Lily Safra and Jayne Wrightsman. He’s the only living jeweler to have a retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum Art, which staged a 400-piece exhibition in 2013—three pieces from that show are coming up for sale at in the Christie’s auction.
When Lily Safra, a longtime JAR collector and friend, sold 18 pieces from her JAR collection at Christie’s in 2012, with the proceeds going to charity, it proved that there are no limits to what people will pay to own some of the designer’s prized pieces. A life-sized camellia brooch with 170 carats of rubies sold for $4.3 million, a record for the most expensive JAR design ever sold at auction. The sculptural brooch embodied JAR’s extraordinary craftsmanship, with thousands of stones delicately set in what appeared like a swath of undulating, velvety ruby fabric.
“For decades JAR’s jewels have pushed the boundaries of what it is possible to create from precious metals and gemstones,” says jewelry designer Renna Brown-Taher, who creates pieces under her RENNA brand and is a collector of JAR. “What interests me most is the transformative and emotional power of his creations. JAR celebrates the imperfections and variations in the stones he features, amplifying daring color combinations that resonate with collectors all over the world.”
The Bronx-born Rosenthal, who turns 78 this year, attended Harvard, worked briefly in the film industry, and opened his Paris salon in 1977 with his partner, Pierre Jeannet, on Place Vendôme, alongside the world’s premiere jewelry houses. Anyone in-the-know from Paris to New York soon learned about the designer’s visionary jewelry style. By the time actress Ellen Barkin sold her 17-piece collection of JAR jewels at Christie’s in 2006 (they were all gifts from her ex-husband Ronald Perleman that she was ready to purge), crowds lined up around the block in Rockefeller Center to view the cult jeweler’s pieces. For many, it was the first time they saw JAR designs in person.
The upcoming Christie’s auction is likely to generate just as much excitement given the size and scope of the collection coming to auction—and today’s appetite for collectible jewelry. “Jewelry collectors are always asking for JAR,” says Lingon. “It’s on several of our clients’ wish lists.” A great example of his imaginative work is the large-scale sheep brooch realized in aluminum, pearls and sapphires, which was part of Baroness Marion Lambert's collection offered at Christie's on May 25. A renowned collector of contemporary art and photography, Lambert was also a fan of JAR's artistic vision. Her playful jeweled sheep brooch, which was featured in the Met exhibit, fetched $610,000, way beyond the pre-sale estimate of $100,000 to $150,000.
A highlight of the upcoming Christie's sale is the Branch Under Snow bracelet which also appeared in the Met exhibit (estimate $400,000-$600,000). “When I put it on, it felt almost transformative," says Lingon. "Its bejeweled sculpture, a piece of art that can be worn.” Another jewel likely to command great attention in the sale is the pair earrings with eight natural pearls (estimate $700,000 to $1 million). “One natural pearl of that size is special, but to have so many matching natural saltwater pearls is extraordinary,” she says. The sale also includes his simpler designs, like the Caterpillar bracelets in black and brown diamonds. But even in its simplicity, JAR’s work stands out for its unique flexibility and exceptional pave workmanship which create a canvas of painterly hues and tones.
“You are kind of on the edge of your seat every time you see one of his pieces,” says Lingon. That’s what keeps collectors wanting his pieces—you don’t know what’s next.
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