From Paris, with Gems: ‘Jewels By JAR’ Dazzles at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

If on your next trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art you spy a bivouac of bejeweled butterflies, do not be alarmed. The gem-encrusted insects are among the one-of-a-kind creations of Joel A. Rosenthal, better known by the only initials that can strike fear in the jewelry-loving hearts of those accustomed to getting everything they desire: JAR. The uncompromising designer is the subject of a glittering exhibition that opens today at the Met. We sent writer Nancy Lazarus to take a sneak peek.

JAR’s Tulip Brooch (2008) and Colored Ball Necklace (1999) are among the more than 400 works in the Met’s “Jewels by JAR” exhibition. (Photographs by Jozsef Tari. Courtesy of JAR, Paris.)

The city of lights is an apt setting for a jeweler who creates brilliant one-of-a-kind gemstones. Joel A. Rosenthal (JAR) set up shop 35 years ago on Place Vendôme and now New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art is celebrating the Bronx-born craftsman with a retrospective that marks two other firsts. It’s JAR’s first American museum exhibit and the Met’s first exhibit devoted to a living jeweler.

“Joel is not here in person now, but he’s here in spirit,” said Jane Adlin, the exhibit’s organizing curator and associate curator of modern and contemporary art, during a press preview held earlier this week. If JAR had shown up, he would have observed an awestruck audience taking in the description-defying display of gems. Adlin collaborated with research assistant, Lori Zabar, and with exhibition design manager, Michael Lapthorn. The exhibit, on view through March 9, 2014, is set in a large, dimly lit gallery where only the cases and the 400-plus intensely colored jewels are illuminated.

“JAR is a talented sculptor who uses jewels as his medium,” said Jennifer Russell, associate director for exhibitions. “It’s an astounding range of work in terms of size, scale, range, and subject matter and it’s an amazing array of objects,” she added. Many of the jewels are inspired by nature: waves, shells, stars, vegetables, fruits, butterflies, birds, and exotic creatures. Others are based on accessories, such as fans or handkerchiefs. In the collection JAR designed for his international clientele are earrings, brooches, rings, bracelets, watches, picture frames, decorative boxes, and a bejeweled glass jar.

“JAR mixes fine, perfect gemstones with stones of lesser quality, but the outcome is an extraordinary piece of jewelry,” Adlin explained. He uses diamonds, pearls, and emeralds along with natural materials such as titanium, aluminum, and steel. “He’s best known for his pavé technique,” she added. Setting the stones with slight gradations in shade creates a painterly effect. Here JAR’s prior needlepoint expertise also comes into play.

“This exhibit has been a long time in the making,” Adlin said, noting that JAR’s work was initially referred to her by the Met’s Costume Institute. JAR shuns the spotlight and avoids promotional schemes, such as lending his creations to be worn at red carpet events. He’s known for being outspoken and direct, and Russell said she appreciated his approach. “Working with JAR and his partner, Pierre Jeannet, was a delight, since he’s passionate and opinionated, especially regarding how the show should be arranged.”

JAR also designed and lent his signature to a mini collection for the museum’s store. The shop’s JAR earrings, made of either resin or titanium and Venetian glass, have fanciful names like “Tickle My Feather,” “Carnaval à Venise,” and “La Dame Aux Gardenias.” As Adlin said of the exhibit, “I’m thrilled to have the ultimate pleasure of letting visitors see JAR’s work,” and museum-goers may also experience the distinct pleasure of wearing his creations.

Writer Nancy Lazarus is a frequent contributor to UnBeige. Learn about her here.