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A gem

The world’s greatest and most mysterious jeweller

Isabel Lloyd | September/October 2015

South Africa, three million years ago. An Australopith, a distant, red-pelted relation of man’s earliest ancestors, lopes along by some long-forgotten riverside. He – or she, or it – sees something glimmering under the water: a large pebble of a reddish-brown mineral distant descendants will call jasperite. He, or she, or it, picks the pebble up and takes it back home to their cave. Why? Because, according to the anthropologist Raymond Dart, who will find the pebble millennia later, in 1924, it has three indentations that together look like two eyes and a mouth. The “face” may have occurred naturally, or may have been chipped in. Either way, Dart claims it as the earliest example of art: because the creature that owned the pebble saw it represented something more than just itself.

Paris, October 2013. The JAR jewellery store. A small, square room, the walls lined floor to ceiling with dusty velvet, the carpet a faded bois de rose; padded screens covered in the same faded colour block the light from outside. Nothing in here is either shiny or new. At one end is a Chesterfield sofa upholstered in scratched, dark-green leather; behind it and to one side, paintings and drawings (a beautiful youth sketched in sienna ink, a huge black-and-white photo of a toreador, an oil of three blown peonies) are stacked against the walls. Opposite is a plain, rectangular wooden desk. Its centre is clear, apart from a varnished-pine hand-mirror. But at either end it is crenellated with small, talismanic objects. A toy London bus. Ceramic rabbits. A lump of lapis lazuli. Three glass paperweights. Two model terrapins. A ridged lump of coral. A cream porcelain flower. A block of Perspex inlaid with several strands of glowing, red-gold hair. A plain pebble that looks a bit like a face.

London, April 2015. A bright-lit viewing room behind locked doors in Christie’s. Angela Berden, the jewellery specialist at Christie’s Geneva office, is balancing a single, pear-shaped diamond between finger and thumb. Just over an inch long from base to tip, the stone is of a quality known as D-colour flawless: a chunk of coruscating carbon perfection, estimated to be worth at least £5.85m. Which would you prefer to own, I ask her, this diamond, or a piece by JAR. She doesn’t hesitate. “Oh, a piece by JAR.” Why? “Because he’s making art. Whereas this – this is just a stone.” 

Unpeeled: orange peel and orange blossom brooch, in garnets, diamonds and enamel, silver and gold, from 2001. The garnets are mounted in blackened silver, a material Rosenthal uses so as not to distract from the stones

The collections that fill the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York are not confined to painting and sculpture. In the corridors leading off its great domed entrance hall are cabinets of jewellery from pretty much every age of history: enamelled necklaces from the Byzantine empire, gold Roman rings and Celtic torcs, diamond-studded eggs from Fabergé, trinket-maker to the tsars. But until 2013, no living jeweller had ever been granted an exhibition there. Then, in November of that year, the Met opened “Jewels by JAR”, handing over an entire room on its ground floor to the work of one man. The show ran for 15 weeks and was seen by more than a quarter of a million people. Joel Arthur Rosenthal, Bronx boy turned Parisian aesthete, had come home.

Rosenthal is, very probably, the greatest jeweller in the world. He’s certainly one of the most expensive. His pieces – he creates only 80 or so a year, with the help of a clutch of artisan workshops in Geneva and France – are bought by a small but fanatical circle of the super-rich, for prices starting at £20,000 and ending at if-you-have-to-ask-you-can’t-afford-it. The occasional JAR piece will appear at auction, and when it does there’s fighting in the saleroom: earlier this year fierce bidding for a sapphire, amethyst and diamond ring from 1988, estimated at $376,000-590,000, led to a final price of $784,500. That will have been several multiples of what it originally cost – no other living jeweller, Berden says, sells at auction for so much more than the owner paid for it.

Money aside, museums and collectors venerate Rosenthal. Somerset House in London jumped at the chance to put on an exhibition of his work in 2002; Il Correr in Venice will follow suit in 2018, with an exhibition of 100 new pieces which he is still in the middle of making. (This will infuriate the Louvre. It tried to stage a show in the late 1990s, but he didn’t like its attitude.) But unless you’re a jewellery buff, you’ve probably never heard of Rosenthal. Unlike the big, heavily branded jewellery firms – Cartier, Graff, Harry Winston – JAR has just one small shop, a blank-fronted place in a dull plaza in Paris, and doesn’t spend a sou putting adverts in glossy magazines. Or indeed anywhere. Because secrecy is JAR’s secret weapon. You won’t find the shop’s address in any directories; as a rule, would-be customers have to be vetted and introduced, like Freemasons, by a friend. Rosenthal himself maintains a Garbo-like silence in the face of the press, giving only a handful of interviews in his 37-year career and – at least partly for reasons of security – never, ever allowing himself to be photographed.

Which is a pity. Because he has a lovely face.

The first time we meet is June 2013, just after his 70th birthday. His partner in business as in life, a former psychiatrist called Pierre Jeannet whom he met in 1966, has asked me to come to the lobby of the old-school luxury hotel where the pair stay when they’re in London. (Much later, when I ask Rosenthal to pick somewhere that means something to him personally, he chooses not his childhood home, nor one of his current homes in Paris or Geneva, but a room at this hotel.) Jeannet, a polite man with composed, even features, stands with his feet close together and offers me a soft, dry hand, before leading us through the roses and mirrors of the foyer restaurant. On the way, he stops to greet a good-looking young couple, the man dark-haired, crew-cut, with a jumper over his shoulders, the girl a clean blonde. “Did you like the bracelet?” Jeannet asks, in lightly accented English. “It’s fantastic,” says the man, his hand on Jeannet’s arm. “Thank you so much. It really is perfect.”

We move on, through an archway. At a table by the wall, backlit by plaster sconces, sits a bulky walrus shape, in a crumpled grey suit and open-necked white shirt, pure white hair swept back in waves away from his face, stomach sloping down towards the table. A long, heavy jaw, a large nose; a twinkle in the slanted blue eyes. He levers himself up and reaches out a hand, smiling broadly.

“Mr Rosenthal, we meet at last. It’s an honour.”

“Ah,” he says, in pure native New York, “don’t be cute.”

Rosenthal has a leonine reputation, the kind that bites your head off. Stories abound of him refusing to sell to customers, however much money they offer

Rosenthal, it seems, is a pussycat. (“You know that,” he tells me. “Others don’t.”) But he has a leonine reputation, the kind that bites your head off. Stories abound of him refusing to sell to customers, however much money they offer. He admits to me that he is opinionated – “I say what I think and that doesn’t suit a lot of people”; he’s notorious for insisting that he knows what suits a customer better than they do. He claims to hate selling, saying that, “If I open the door of the shop and someone says, ‘Oh, are you Mr Jar?’, I say, ‘No, he is’ [pointing to Jeannet] and I leave. Let him deal with them. He’s much nicer than I am.”

Pretending to be someone else is the least of it. I was told by a source in the business that a customer who dared return her earrings because the fittings were wrong saw them flung in a fury into the street. An American journalist who was promised an interview and flew at great expense to Paris was refused access at the last minute; piqued, she wrote that Rosenthal’s noli me tangere pose was all a shtick, a marketeer’s way of making customers want what they couldn’t have. Treat ’em meanly, charge ’em keenly.

At first I thought she might be right. What, after all, is the actual value of a JAR piece? Gem dealing is a hidden world where, if you don’t know the right people it’s impossible to get a straight answer about wholesale prices, but what is clear is that a stone that might cost one buyer £1m could be offered to someone else for £100,000. That means the apparent value of Rosenthal’s jewellery is all a trick, isn’t it? After all, you can’t eat stones, I tell him. “No, but nor can you mount a meat pie as a ring,” he says, slyly. “Different purposes. There. That’ll shut you up.”

Rosenthal likes to tease, to offer then withdraw. He is a flirt. We talk for a while about the kind of interview he wants. He complains that other writers haven’t been tough enough on him, or – the distaste flowing off him – that they have just wanted an in, the better to get to his jewellery. Then he suddenly asks, “Do you like perfume?” I say yes, and see he has magicked a couple of small brown glass bottles onto the table. He withdraws a stopper and passes it to me. “Put it on,” he commands. “No! On the back of the wrist! Always the back of the wrist or it rubs off. Now, smell it. It’s a very old perfume. Do you know it? No? See if you can work it out and tell me later; then I’ll tell you if you’re right.” Of course I have no way of recognising it, but find myself sniffing the back of my hand all the rest of that day, and the next, wondering what it could be, wanting to frame this “very old perfume”. Rosenthal has me snagged.

Nature, pinned: lilac brooches in diamonds, sapphires, garnets, aluminium, silver and gold, from 2001 and 2002

Joel Arthur Rosenthal’s jewels are nothing if not contradictory. They are both very, very small and, often, very, very big. The small bit is micropavé, a kind of pointillist technique of stone-setting that Rosenthal invented (though he refuses to acknowledge the name, saying it was coined by an American competitor he clearly has no time for). In traditional pavé, small gemstones are laid close together, but with plenty of the metal setting still visible, usually with a bobbly texture to trick the eye into thinking it’s seeing a continuous run – or “pavement” – of glitter. In the JAR version, stones ranging in size from matchhead down to pinprick are cut and set so close the joins are all but invisible: what the eye sees is a textured surface of pure precious colour.

The big is in the results – many of his show-stopping pieces would barely fit in an outstretched hand. At the Met exhibition, a pair of black-feather earrings with diamonds at their nub came in at about nine inches long; a fat rose, its petals surfaced with tiny pink rubies and rimmed with blackened silver, was as big as a clenched fist. Larger, truly, than life – and often as hard to wear. The American philanthropist Marion Lambert, by her own account one of very few JAR customers who can return things if she doesn’t like them, says,“Joel doesn’t care if a pair of earrings are so heavy they tear up your ears.” Which makes you wonder what he does care about.

Well, stones, for a start. Rosenthal adores them, and ignores them. He likes to have one in his pocket, a mineral comfort between his fingers – an unusual pebble, maybe; a piece of bi-coloured jade; an emerald ring he once dropped in the Grand Canal in Venice and had to pay police divers to rescue. Physically he keeps his stock of gems, bought from dealers and at specialist auctions, in boxes. But where they really are is filed away in his head, in all their particularity of size and colour. His favourites he refuses to use or sell for years at a time, a practice he admits would drive any business-minded manager to distraction. It costs him, no doubt; but “they’re like my tubes of paint, you can’t paint without the tubes.” Then, when their time does come, he treats them with what might be disrespect, setting cut diamonds upside down in a ring so that their pointed bottoms stick out, or dangling a stonking great gem as big as a gull’s egg off an otherwise hyper-realistic rose brooch. He’s no naïf: the business made a profit from the off, and he knows his stock’s value down to the last tenth of a carat. “But even if tomorrow you told me that every stone we owned was worth ten dollars a pound, I wouldn’t love them any less.”

“Colour”, Rosenthal says of his designs, “is as much the object as shape.” When he was three, the adored only son of an administrator in the Bronx postal service and a high-school biology teacher, his favourite toys were marbles, his mother’s “round, metallic chartreuse-coloured” button box (“it had a certain smell, which I liked”), and glasses of water which he’d tint with paints. Before he became a jeweller in the mid-1970s, he spent six months running a tapestry shop with Jeannet, “painting” pictures of cut flowers on canvases with coloured wools. “It was an amusement. Since a kid, I was going to be a painter.” He certainly started on that course, attending New York’s High School of Music and Art, but then chose to study art history and philosophy at Harvard, rather than, say, painting at Cooper; a friend of his from student days told me, “I always knew Joel would be a designer.”

While the odd piece Rosenthal makes is all-diamond white and sparkle, the best are rainbow-rich, with waves of colour that seem to move across them – purple next to red next to pink. Many of his jewels are very sexual, in a round, full-blooded, lushly sensual way. They occupy their space with certainty; they drip, they fold, they shower, they stand their ground. And of them all, flowers bring out the best in him: streaked and frilled tulips, drooping heads of lilacs with drops of green dew trembling at their tips, purple hellebores, their centres heaving with vivid green enamel stamens. They seem alive, about to move, on the point of rottenness or collapse – and yet static, locked in stone. You think of “The Tempest”, the drowned king – those are pearls that were his eyes. Nature becomes both rich, and strange.

His jewellery is serious, and silly. Serious because it takes so long to make – ten years to complete a single piece is not uncommon. Silly, because he is such a joker. In one of the vitrines at the Met, between iridescent jewelled butterflies and a fob watch buried in a chunk of blond tortoiseshell, was a bagel. Made of wood, indistinguishable from the real thing, it was commissioned as an anniversary present. Scratched into its surface was this legend: “45 and still fresh!” 

Flower power: camellia bracelet in rubies and enamel, silver and gold, 1995

And his jewellery bites. When we meet in London, at one point he reaches down into the battered leather briefcase at his feet, and pulls out a couple of tatty cardboard boxes, with Sellotape around the edges. He takes my wrist, and slips something onto it. It’s a slim torc of what looks like brass, but isn’t, topped by a stiff spray of bell-shaped flowers around a central stone. Vivid green, tender white: they’re lilies of the valley, rendered in minute, interlocked diamonds. The metal grips my wrist, the base of the emerald pressing slightly into the flesh. It feels, faintly, carnivorous. This is not a bangle. A bangle you can forget you’re wearing, whereas this would gnaw at the edge of your attention. I suspect that’s how Rosenthal wants it.

For he has an ego. Now 72 and with thoughts clearly turning to his legacy, he is in discussion with a major museum about starting a jewellery collection – with some of his biggest pieces as its core. He has chutzpah: he is “writing a novel” about his hero, the society portraitist John Singer Sargent; he is “making a movie” (an early job was as a scriptwriter) about Sargent’s most famous model, the red-headed Madame X. He assumes he can do both these things – oh, and make and sell perfume – with the same success that he designs jewellery. When I ask why, he says: “My father was literary, my mother artistic. But they both gave me all the courage in the world to do anything I wanted to do, to just be myself. So I wouldn’t say I’ve ever made a mistake. I just did things the way I wanted to and anything that was contradictory to that – that was the mistake.”

He is demanding, insisting that those around him cleave just as resolutely to what he wants: when an idea for a piece pops into his head, he draws it, then instructs his teams of artisans to model, remodel, make and remake, 20, 30, 50 times, until he feels they’ve got it right. He is vain, worrying about his weight in the run-up to the Met opening. He can be catty with Jeannet, who seems patience personified and who, despite his claim to “hate anything commercial”, is the wheels on which the business runs.

But he is loved. This is not something you expect to say about a man with a reputation for brusqueness, rudeness, intemperance. At the Met private view and the party for 400 guests at the Four Seasons hotel afterwards, I talk to people from every corner of his life: bony Upper East Side women of indeterminate age, whose husbands bring home lumps of JAR jewellery for them as a caveman might bring home a lump of mammoth for dinner; a dreadlocked Swiss free-diver who roams the world finding natural pearls; a young American girl whose father was a classmate of Rosenthal’s; a tipsy couple who knew him at Harvard; a tall, dark-blonde woman with a German accent who sells Old Masters; a sculptor from Paris; a jeweller from Hong Kong. Without exception, they all spoke about his generosity, his warmth, his lion of a heart. And they all wore his pieces. The richest had huge great things, which they brandished like badges, or medals. But many others wore something smaller and more intimate, often made especially for them: a curl of green fern frond on a finger, to remind the wearer of a botanical print she’d shown him; an aluminium rose-petal earring, “in honour of our friendship”; a pair of earrings, gold circling blue circling gold, that exactly matched the wearer’s pale red hair and gentle, blue-grey eyes. All of these pieces were less like medals, more like the traces left by a kiss.

Earlier, Rosenthal had told me he was dreading the party: “It’ll be torture.” (Marion Lambert says he far prefers to spend time with friends one-on-one.) He wouldn’t be giving a speech, either. At a party after the Somerset House exhibition, he got no further than saying “thank you” to the assembled guests before bursting into tears and having to be led from the room. That may be why he’s the last to arrive tonight. He edges up the grand staircase wearing a draped, midnight-blue velvet jacket, white shirt cuffs flopping over his hands, looking like some Belle Epoque artist dragged, unwillingly, from his studio. The band spots him and starts playing “Hello, Dolly”, but even in a room where every­body knows him, no one else notices he’s there. For a shy man, secrecy can have its rewards.

The way he sees: the branch-under-snow bracelet of diamond beads, silver, platinum and gold, from 2010

“I don’t think of what I do as art,” Rosenthal says. “I just make what I make. It’s very soothing and encouraging to hear all kinds of people say, ‘What you make is art’, but it’s not any kind of label I give myself. I call myself a designer.” Ignore the humblebrag: like an artist, Rosenthal has improved across his career, making work that is steadily more refined, more masterful, and more itself. Unlike art, jewellery generally doesn’t make you feel anything. But at the Met exhibition the most common sound was a soft intake of breath, as people gasped, not in shock at the bling, but in pleasure. The highest gasp rate came at the final vitrine, which held a series of flower bracelets. In its centre was what looked like a pale twig from a cherry-blossom tree, scattered with creamy droplets of melting snow – tiny diamond beads pierced with silvery pins, gentle, serene and exquisite. It was like a Japanese painting, and it moved me almost to tears.

“Convincing people, that’s what I like doing,” Rosenthal says. “I like being able to make people see the way I see.” Yes, he thinks he knows best what suits his customers, but he’s also talking about the artist’s love for their own vision, and their ability to transmit it. And then there is the question of worth, a slippery word that becomes slipperier still in the strange, cosseted world Rosenthal inhabits, where he is surrounded by comfort and the richest of the rich, where waitresses rush to help him off-menu and the spaghetti-thin, chiffon-clad editor of Italian Vogue coos over him at lunch, pinching his cheeks and dropping an earring into his lap. Does “worth” mean the same now as it did when he was a child in the Bronx? Does he hold on to the “singular” stones he loves so much because of who might otherwise buy them? When I go back to the shop with him after our final meeting, wanting to check the colour of its walls (for the record: verdigris), a dark-haired woman is in there, sheathed in purple, pirouetting in self-regard as an assistant drapes chandeliers of emeralds from her ears. Rosenthal flinches, and closes the door.

This, I suspect, is what lies at the heart of his fabled in-store monstrousness: his determination to show the world the way he sees it, in all its cherry-blossom beauty, keeps coming up against the cold light of retail. He has an idea that is very, very precious to him, and when the world won’t play along, he gets arsey. Perhaps when the Australopith showed their mate the beautiful pebble, the mate didn’t see it. Perhaps the Australopith got angry, and threw the pebble on the floor.

Artist, monster or marketeer? During our conversations, he rejects all three labels. But the third time we meet, for lunch in London, he plays that same trick of pulling a surprise from his pocket when you’re in the middle of talking, like a rabbit out of a hat – a magician’s distraction. It’s not perfume. In fact, when I question him, he can’t remember what it was he used as bait all those months ago. Instead, what he wants to show me is a small oval ring, pale chalcedony set in the thinnest rim of gold. On it in relief is the silhouette of Isaac Newton, carved for Catherine of Russia, who according to Rosenthal “had the hots for old Isaac”. History, plus science, plus beauty, plus sex: he’s snagged me, again. An artist, maybe. But not a salesman? Ah, don’t be cute.

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