JAR: Elusive Trendsetter

When actress Ellen Barkin announced last fall that she was unloading her trinkets from ex-husband Ron Perelman at Christie’s, the media buzz surrounding the sale did not focus on the vintage treasures from Cartier and Van Cleef & Arpels or those once owned by the Duchess of Windsor. The buzz was about 17 pieces by a contemporary designer, a guy from the Bronx who goes by the acronym JAR.

Many articles about JAR appeared after the sale was announced, but the designer himself did not speak. Not a word of his was quoted. This surprised no one in the jewelry industry, where JAR has long been known for his elusiveness.

When Joel Arthur Rosenthal opened his little shop on the Place Vendôme in Paris 30 years ago, he had no jewelry training. He graduated from Harvard in 1965 with a degree in art history and philosophy and moved to Paris the following year. He has never done bench work and has only mediocre drawing skills. “He draws like a child,” admits his longtime friend and champion, François Curiel, chairman of Christie’s Europe and head of Christie’s jewelry department.

Yet from the beginning, JAR attracted high-profile customers with his unusual sculpted, pavé creations, often using the blackened, malleable silver-gold alloy he developed. He never produces more than about 70 pieces a year, and about half are commissions driven more by his own whims than that of his A-list clients. Judging from his acquaintances, the man has a waiting list a mile long and an even longer list of people pining to get on the waiting list. That may be why his jewelry always sells for well above estimates when it appears at auction; that’s the only time JAR jewelry is immediately available to anyone who can pay the price.

The 17 pieces in the Barkin sale were the largest selection of JAR jewelry ever seen at auction. Some predicted such a quantity would flood the market and drive down prices. But dire predictions were dispelled the day Christie’s unveiled the Barkin jewelry in its Rockefeller Square showroom and a line immediately formed around the block. Visitors received keychain flashlights before they entered the small, unlit room where the JAR jewelry glittered in wall-mounted cases. The flashlights evoked a major JAR retrospective held at London’s Somerset House in 2002, where the designer insisted his jewels be viewed in the dark by “torch” light.

When I showed up at Christie’s the day before the sale, flashlights were no longer being distributed unless requested. The jewelry was being taken out of the cases and brought to a bright, adjoining room where prospective buyers—and curious journalists—could finger it and try it on. I sensed the absent JAR would disapprove. While the jewels held up under inspection, they did lose some of their mysterious glamour in the fluorescent glare.

Hundreds showed up for the evening sale, where Curiel acted as auctioneer and lovely young women in black evening gowns modeled the jewels. Almost all the JAR pieces went for well above estimates. A signature “thread ring” with an elongated, oval-cut 22.76 ct. diamond sold for $1,808,000 against an estimate of $800,000–$1,200,000. A delicate pair of diamond bangles, estimated at $350,000–$500,000, went for $1,136,000. “These are the chic of the chic,” Curiel said the previous day as he slipped one with a pale pink center stone on my wrist. “Nothing else—no ring, no earrings, just that.”

It wasn’t only the diamond pieces that brought staggering prices. A pair of earrings made almost entirely of ordinary, toffee-color topaz, with a diamond surround and ruby cluster accents, sold for $710,000—10 times the estimate. “These will bring a lot of money, probably $150,000,” Curiel predicted the day before. “JAR had the topaz beautifully cut in this long, elegant marquise shape inspired by a window of a palace he loved. What are they worth really—$10,000, $15,000 at most?”

How did this untrained American designer become bigger news than Cartier and Van Cleef & Arpels? It has something to do with how difficult his jewelry is to get, of course, but also its craftsmanship—JAR is known to send pieces back to the workshop many times—and its quality of being individualistic yet recognizable at the same time. About half the jewelry JAR produces is special orders. The other half is made up of his own one-of-a-kind designs. “When one wants a piece of jewelry from someone other than one of the major houses, something no one else has or that was designed especially for you, where do you go?” says Curiel. “Whenever I ask this question the answer is JAR, JAR, and JAR.”

JAR jewelry has become a sort of calling card among the rich and famous. Patricia Hambrecht, a jewelry consultant who worked for Harry Winston and Christie’s for many years, recalls a party she once attended in Argentina where a lovely woman was standing across the terrace. “She had long hair covering her earrings, but as she moved her head, something caught the light. I saw them from across the terrace, marched over, and said, ‘May I see what you’re wearing?’ She broke into a big smile and said, ‘They are.’ And I said, ‘I know.’”

Having lent some jewelry to the London retrospective, the woman had received an advance copy of the exhibition catalog. “We spent a couple of hours the next morning flipping through the book,” Hambrecht recalls. “JAR’s jewelry has become, if not a code, a little society all over the world.”

That tome, JAR Paris, remains the ultimate encyclopedia of JAR’s work, and it sells, used, for as much as $4,400 online. The many butterfly brooches captured on its pages demonstrate the amazing breadth of the designer’s imagination. No two are alike—and neither are their antennae. Curiel loves to point out that naturalistic asymmetry. Hambrecht loves how the backs of the butterflies are always as beautiful as the fronts. “It’s like wearing the best silk lingerie,” she says. “It’s made for the pleasure of the wearer.”

The book produced such a rash of cheap knockoffs that JAR is now wary of cataloged exhibits, according to jewelry dealer Ralph Esmerian, owner of Fred Leighton, who tried to get JAR’s permission to include some privately owned pieces in the Masterpieces of the 20th Century: French Jewelry From American Collections exhibit, now at the Legion of Honor, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. “Joel is very possessive of what he does, very discreet and private,” Esmerian says. “He is also brilliant at marketing and merchandising himself—and he has never had to pay for an advertisement.”

JAR has mastered the art of creating demand through exclusivity. His forte is the antithesis of modern marketing. In 30 years of business, he has never advertised or sent out a press release. He doesn’t do interviews with the media. Just try to find a picture of him or a quote online. He has become the most sought-after jewelry designer in the world by hiding away in his garret while his partner in life and business, Pierre Jeannet, runs the shop.

Yes, you can still find the shop in the Place Vendôme, but you won’t find much in the window. “The infamous window-with-nothing-in-it,” jokes gem and jewelry dealer Lee Siegelson. “You don’t see that often with retailers who have a prime location anywhere in the world. And the Place Vendôme is the equivalent of Fifth or Madison Avenue.”

Inside, the shop is small and unassuming, but you won’t get in without an appointment and personal reference from a trusted business associate or established clients like Princess Firyal of Jordan, Barbara Walters, or Elizabeth Taylor. “He is paranoid about security,” Curiel says. “You can imagine the kind of clients he has around the world. Someone always knows someone who knows someone who knows JAR. It’s no different from trying to get an appointment for surgery with a very famous doctor. If you know someone, you get right in. If not, you may have to wait a year.”

Siegelson was admitted 10 years ago as a third-generation dealer just entering the business. “I sat down with JAR and he had me open my hand,” Siegelson recalls. “He put this creation, this work of art, this jewel in my hand. I realized at that moment that everyone has different paths. He let me see how he looked for beauty.

“People talk about the topaz earrings in the Barkin sale and question the price,” he continues, “but the interesting thing about Joel is that he doesn’t evaluate stones from a normal dealer perspective. Other people focus on certificates, lab reports. Joel makes sure it’s natural, but he will tell you the perfect cut, the type of color. He’s thinking conceptually from start to finish. He’s looking for a certain palette, the look of 19th-century jewelry or Russian jewels.”

“You can go to his shop with a big, fat checkbook, ready to spend—and there’s nothing there. I think he takes pride in that,” says Saul Goldberg, a diamond dealer whose family, William Goldberg & Co., has been selling stones to JAR for two decades. “A lot is preordered. His clients know they have to wait.”

Goldberg and his father have been trying to predict JAR’s taste in stones for years. “Give him a pear-shape diamond and he’ll say, ‘Cut off the point at the bottom, then show it to me,’” says Goldberg, which is exactly what JAR did with the infamous topaz earrings. “He looks for something exotic. He likes flat stones, not conventional cuts, soft cuts like a cushion or an oval.”

He has even been known to set conventionally cut diamonds upside down, as he did with Barkin’s wedding ring, part of the Christie’s sale, although not listed as such. The band was made of four rows of diamonds set with culets pointing up.

Despite his exclusive clientele, JAR is not a snob, Curiel insists. “He is very amenable. He doesn’t live in luxurious quarters. He rents his apartment. He’s not a high flier.” Those in the industry who have dealt with JAR for many years say much the same. “He follows his own vision,” says Goldberg. “He doesn’t seem to care about money. He doesn’t mind success, but I don’t think that’s what motivates him. His clients can’t rush him. He’s not dictated by their whims but by his own. He’s a good model, because he shows that if someone wants something bad enough, they’ll wait.”

Many industry leaders agree that JAR has had a major impact on fine jewelry. “The big houses all show his influence,” Esmerian claims, citing the return of big, sculpted florals and the use of softer, rounded gem cuts and blackened metals, all reminiscent of the 19th-century jewelry that initially inspired JAR. “Take Cartier’s Orchidées collection that came to America a couple of years ago and sold out—certainly the influence of JAR was there. Others such as Joia on Park Avenue are using his blackened silver or gold as a setting for stones,” says Esmerian.

“Every 15 to 20 years, you get one lead retail design jeweler that the world follows in terms of style, who is imitated and copied—Tiffany at the turn of the century, Cartier in the deco period, Van Cleef & Arpels in the ’40s and ’50s, Winston in the ’50s and ’60s,” says Esmerian. “For the last 20-odd years, JAR has been the lead creative retailer, even though he runs a tiny retail operation of four or five people plus his partner. In the jewelry world, where the great names of the past have all undergone the corporate treatment, JAR is the lone voice of creativity.”