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Here's How an American-Born Talent by the Name of Joel Arthur Rosenthal Became the World's Most Respected Jeweller
June 28, 2011 Sara White Wilson

It is one of those jewellery shops you cannot simply go to and just choose and buy. The 67-year-old founder, though a secretive man, has managed to garner a cult following and as if to prove a point, his perfume sells at 325 USD an ounce (30 ml). This is JAR. The street-level window display at 14 Rue Castiglione, is as seductive, dark and clandestine as its namesake Countess of Castiglione once was herself. A beautiful Italian courtesan and mistress to Emperor Napoleon III, the Countess was shrouded with a cult of dramatic mystery about her, a shade of the past that has settled but still seethes with the atmosphere of this Parisian quarter.

Unless you have more exclusive means of access, this window display situated just steps from Place Vendôme is all JAR communicates to the greater public, visual or otherwise, its opening hours unknown. There is a single bottle of perfume behind the window, suspended in the centre of a backdrop that looks like a doorfront – covered in rich, rose-coloured velvet – acting as yet another layer of distance from the onlooker. It is only here in Paris, and in a certain section of Bergdorf Goodman’s Beauty Department in Manhattan, that JAR perfumes can be purchased. If a non-initiate wants to actually buy jewels from JAR – which is, after all, the supremely fine product for which they are most ardently valued and pursued – well, then, one must simply know someone who knows.

American-born Joel Arthur Rosenthal, the name behind JAR, and his Swiss partner Pierre Jeannet, have pared down all conventions of branding and marketing to focus, for the past 40 years, on doing one thing: creating fabulous, timeless and innovative jewellery. Their approach hails from another era, before image became all encompassing and the way to capture the consumer’s attention. This tactic is deeply Parisian and old school; it privileges the awe-inspired by the personal experience of fine objects. JAR doesn’t advertise and produces less than 100 pieces a year, usually one-offs and designed for a particular wearer.

“It was in the Spring of 1972, when I was working as a junior specialist in Christie’s Geneva jewellery department,” recounts François Curiel, now President of Christie’s Asia, “I was in the reception area one evening after office hours, when I saw two young men knocking at the glass door. I opened and they explained that they had come to purchase tickets for our next jewellery auction, which was taking place a few weeks later. I looked at them in surprise and explained that no tickets were needed to attend an auction, but that they were free and public events. We started chatting and all ended up going out for dinner in a nearby restaurant.” Thus began a friendship that has developed over the past 40 years. “At the time, Joel was studying at Harvard. Pierre was a medical student in Geneva and Joel had not started designing jewellery yet. He has always been fascinated by jewels and gemstones, and had played with colour and transparency at a very
early age by spending hours pouring drops of watercolour into glasses of water. He would then study the effects of the various shades as they diluted in the liquid. The auctions were interesting learning experiences for them but it was not before 1977 that they created JAR and opened their tiny boutique on Place Vendôme.”

The company remained largely secluded from public knowledge until October 2006, when JAR returned to the auction house but under vastly different auspices, in the form of jewels. American actress Ellen Barkin presented her landmark jewellery collection for sale, which comprised 17 JAR creations, the largest and most significant group of JAR jewels ever offered at public auction. The sale achieved over 20 million USD in total and marked auction history. Curiel, who led the sale, recounts: “The few times a JAR creation has appeared for sale, it has created a sensation… I was not sure how the market would react to so many pieces being sold at once. Collectors went wild and the prices rose beyond our highest expectations. Thus, a pair of magnificent Imperial topaz ear-pendants sold for 750,000 USD, five times their pre-sale estimate. They were set with a pair of large precious topazes, which were rare but of modest intrinsic value. Yet, they fetched a
record price solely due to the superb mount designed by Joel. Each JAR jewel in Ellen Barkin’s collection was seen as a museum piece and there was no limit to what collectors were willing to spend to own them.”

These stunning oval-cut Imperial topaz earrings splashed across the press because of their vibrant and eye-catching colour and sky-high sale price, but it is the subtlety of their setting that embodies the JAR appeal. Rosenthal’s craft is technically innovative, particularly with pavé settings, in which stones are mounted so closely to each other to resemble, literally, a paved surface of jewels. “JAR developed a new type of metal, blending silver, gold and nickel, amongst other alloys. The precise magic formula is a heavily guarded secret, a bit like the Coca-Cola recipe, which is known only to their manufacturer. Even I have never been able to learn the exact ‘ingredients’!” exclaims François Curiel who has encountered a large variety of jewels in his former position as chief of jewellery at Christie’s, before working with the Asian auction market. “The use of this new metal gave an ‘old-style’ touch to their jewels, through the blackened colour of the mount.”

Each JAR jewel is a handmade, one-of a kind creation, crafted by a highly limited team of artisans. It seems that whatever JAR proposes and creates, the rich and famous simply flock to it. “Find your place, and let the world gravitate to you. None of this mix-and-mingle business,” former American Vogue editor-in-chief Diana Vreeland once dictated. And such is JAR’s non-marketing marketing plan.

“Joel epitomises the jeweller passionate about creating ‘jewels as art’, rather than as mere luxurious and fashionable ornaments. His pieces are sculptural, intricate and deeply personal, often set with a ‘hidden’ gemstone that no one will see, but which exists only as a secret between the owner and himself. He has never followed any trend, but rather has inspired many jewellers and designers in his very exclusive and demanding approach to jewellery designing and
manufacturing.” Rosenthal studied art history at Harvard and worked briefly as a salesman with Bvlgari in New York. Moving to Paris in 1966, he worked in film, and then opened a needlepoint shop before founding JAR. “He has a wonderful intuition and knows exactly what he likes,” continues Curiel. Famously press shy, he is reclusive and laconic – except, that is, if he believes a jewel does not suit a woman; he maintains the right to refuse to sell it to her. It could be said of Joel Rosenthal that he speaks only when really necessary.

“Like many other collectors and designers throughout the world, I do consider that the creations of JAR are amongst the most refined and attractive that have been produced in the last 40 years,” further explains Curiel. “There are three main reasons for this. First, each and every JAR jewel is unique, designed especially for the wearer or upon a flash of inspiration by Joel Rosenthal. Secondly, his distinctive style, blending classicism and innovation, seems to be the perfect aesthetic balance for our times. Finally, the design is simply brilliant, in terms of colour and shape, while always using the best quality materials such as Golconda diamonds, Burma rubies, Kashmir sapphires and natural pearls. It is bold but never flashy and in turn extremely delicate, often inspired by nature in a way so realistic that common themes, such as a flower or butterfly, seem almost real.”

The names of JAR perfumes are fabulous, such as ‘Jarling’, or ‘Jardenia’, perhaps in homage to Barkin’s 850-diamond ring, in the shape of a gardenia blossom. ‘Diamond Water’, meanwhile, is a colloquially liquid version of the top-quality flawless diamonds used in the jewellery. When asked to describe JAR in three words, Curiel says it simply: “Classic with a twinkle!” And so, with the dimension of a stone that catches light with vibrant colour, JAR joins history as another one of Paris’s cult of seductions.

IMAGES: Christie’s Images Ltd. 2011, Photo Denis Hayoun – Diode S.A