Designers / Fashion / Industry

Jose Hess, a Pioneer in the Designer Jewelry Movement, Has Died


When you asked Jose Hess how he was, he would always answer, “Strong like a bull.” It was a calling card and a lifelong mantra.

Maggie Hess, his wife of 33 years and frequent codesigner, says, “This was his definition. He would say, ‘As you venture through your life, lift your head high, stand in your beautiful power, and walk with courage, confidence, and positivity, and be strong like a bull.’ ” 

Jose’s fortitude, integrity, and good humor will be lovingly remembered by his friends, family, and colleagues. But the designer, who helped pioneer the designer jewelry movement in the United States, finally ran out of strength. He died peacefully yesterday in his home in St. Augustine, Fla., at the age of 87. 

Josef Hess was born in 1935 to a German Jewish family that settled in Colombia after fleeing Nazi Germany in 1938. Just three years old, Josef was rechristened Jose by a Colombian customs official, and he kept the name his entire life.

His jewelry journey began at 14, when he got a job with a Viennese goldsmith who’d also fled Germany. A teen Jose swept the shop floor diligently, until he was accepted as an apprentice. At the bench, he learned Old World bench skills and techniques—an education he valued throughout his life.

He immigrated to the U.S. when he was 17, and went to work with gusto—finishing high school, taking gemology courses at GIA, and working a series of jobs in the jewelry industry. He also earned a degree from the Mechanics Institute of the General Society of Mechanics & Tradesmen of the City of New York.

A four-year stint in the U.S. Army (stationed in Germany) interrupted his jewelry journey, but once back in the States, he began making models and handmade pieces for rising American jewelry designer David Webb.

But Jose was not only industrious—he was also deeply ambitious. In 1958, he struck out on his own, ­establishing his first jewelry brand, Flaircraft. A few years in, he began stamping his name onto the backs of his creations—which was simply not done in the industry at the time. This was an era in jewelry where stores sourced and sold no-name collections from manufacturers exclusively. Though fashion had its superstars, branding in jewelry was nonexistent.

Jose Hess ring
Jose Hess circa 1990s ring in 18k gold with 1.25 cts. t.w. sapphires (photo courtesy of Wilson’s Estate Jewelry)
Jose Hess ad
One of Jose Hess’ memorable magazine ads that ran in the 1970s and 1980s (photo courtesy of Maggie Hess)

When I interviewed the designer for a story for JCK’s 150th anniversary issue last year, he recalled, “Americans were not well-known for making jewelry, so retailers often said their jewelry was made in their shop, or that it came from Italy or Paris. That was the spiel then. There were almost no designers selling by their own name.”

Along with a handful of contemporary designers of the day, including David Yurman, Penny Preville, Esther Gallant, and Beth Moskowitz, Jose urged jewelry retailers to view his works as designer originals that should be labeled as such in jewelry cases. Slowly, retailers were forced to see things his way; they couldn’t resist—their most urbane clients began requesting his pieces.

And consumers knew about Jose Hess because the brand advertised heavily in those days, in trades (including JCK predecessor Jeweler’s Circular Keystone) but also in consumer magazines including Town & Country. This move was also groundbreaking in the 1960s and 1970s, because consumer advertising in the industry just wasn’t done.

“It wasn’t easy, and it was a very slow process,” Jose recalled when talking about his early years. “But little by little, it became something very powerful.”

Industry recognition followed: Hess was awarded De Beers’ prestigious global design competition in 1963 (one of the other winners that year was David Webb). It would be the first of many competitions he would win.

Jose Hess ring
Jose Hess ring in 18k gold with 0.87 ct. t.w. diamonds (photo courtesy of Wilson’s Estate Jewelry)

The designer would go on to advocate for other jewelry designers, and in the process became a valued thought leader and sage sounding board. He cofounded vital industry groups and sat on dozens of boards throughout his career, including that of the Manufacturing Jewelers and Silversmiths of America. He was the first American president of CIBJO, president of the Plumb Club, and the 1993 president of the 24 Karat Club of the City of New York.

He cofounded the American Jewelry Design Council and the Contemporary Jewelry Design Group, and mentored emerging young designers and consulted for jewelry companies around the world. He also taught for a time at the Fashion Institute of Technology, where he helped pioneer a curriculum that readied students for presenting their collections commercially.

“Jose was a titan of the industry,” says friend and fine jewelry designer Whitney Boin, who worked with Jose on boards including that of the American Jewelry Design Council. “He was involved in every industry group. Whatever organization I served on, there was inevitably the call: ‘What does Jose think?’ It was his institutional wisdom that was so valued. We…became friends serving on boards. He had a broad easy smile with an elfish twinkle in his eye.”

Fine jewelry designer Michael Bondanza, another friend of Jose’s, wrote in an email to JCK this morning, “Strong like a bull! Jose had the strength of character to share his knowledge and craft. He was a gentle, but determined, leader for the industry. He was a friend. I will miss him forever.”

Jose Hess FIT class of 2017
Jose Hess (in the white turtleneck) with students at the Fashion Institute of Technology (photo courtesy of Maggie Hess) 

Jewelry designer Pamela Froman, who worked with Jose on the American Jewelry Design Council, says he “was such a sweet, special, talented man,” and recalls that before she met him, she had read about his contributions to the industry. “So, when he came up to me at my booth at Couture and asked me about my work, I was starstruck, and couldn’t believe he was interested in knowing about me. Me!…He was always interested in helping and giving advice or just listening and telling great stories. All of us in the jewelry industry lost a talented, wonderful person. He certainly will be missed!”

Gaetano Cavalieri, CIBJO’s current president, said in a prepared statement, “Jose is one of a handful of people that one can truly describe as having changed our industry, and he left it a better place.… I succeeded him as president, but he never left my side. He was my role model, my mentor, and my friend. Jose was compassionate and generous, with a keen sense of humanity and community.”

Jose is survived by Maggie, who plans to lead the Jose Hess brand going forward; four children, Lawrence, Francine, Aaron, and Josef; and four grandchildren.

There will be a private memorial service held for Jose in Florida, and details of any public memorials will be released at a later date. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that memorial donations be made to the American Jewelry Design Council.

(Top photo courtesy of Maggie Hess)

Follow Emili Vesilind on Instagram: @emilivesilind

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By: Emili Vesilind

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