Exhibition Review: Jewels by JAR at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

JAR tulip brooch
This tulip brooch from 2008, displayed in the “Jewels by JAR” exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is composed of rubies, diamonds, pink sapphires, garnets, silver, gold and enamel. Photo by Jozsef Tari, courtesy of JAR, Paris.
Since 20 November 2013, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City has hosted the “Jewels by JAR” retrospective, marking the Met’s first-ever show dedicated to a living contemporary jeweller. Bronx-born Joel Arthur Rosenthal, known professionally as JAR, is known to be very particular in his dealings with the outside world.  He does not lend his designs for magazine shoots or make red carpet appearances. Nevertheless, his jewellery is among some of the most sought after at auction, frequently fetching multi-million-dollar bids. The JAR retrospective, curated by Jane Adlin and displaying 395 pieces, is located in the Helen and Milton A. Kimmelman Gallery on the museum’s first floor, in its Modern and Contemporary Art galleries, which also house Matisse, Klee and Picasso paintings.

The assembly of this jewellery collection is a rare event in itself, because of the sheer exclusivity of JAR’s work. Visitors are able to enjoy an ensemble of realistic, life-sized, multicoloured pieces. JAR favours a floral theme (figure 2), and over a hundred examples are on display. Animal motifs are much less represented, numbering just over fifty. The dominant gemstones are diamonds, sapphires, rubies and pearls. Some rare gemstones, such as sphalerite and alexandrite, are also on display. JAR also masterfully reuses micromosaics, antique cameos, 18th-century miniatures and materials such as beetle wings in his designs. Titanium mountings, which allow for the display of unusual metal colours such as blue and violet, have made him an innovator in the industry.

JAR lilac and geranium brooch
Figure 2. Left: From 2001, diamonds, lilac sapphires, garnets, aluminium, silver and gold are assembled to form this lilac brooch. Right: JAR created this geranium brooch (2007) using diamonds, aluminium, silver and gold. Both pieces are from private collections. Photos by Jozsef Tari, courtesy of JAR, Paris.
The exhibition and associated merchandising events have stirred some controversy, with accusations that the Met, a world-class cultural institution, is acting as a commercial space. The JAR retrospective has also been called the glorification of an elite taste for expensive objects.

Regardless, given the rarity of these pieces, this in itself makes this a remarkable event for the jewellery enthusiast. Gemmologists will appreciate the superb quality of the gemstones used by JAR in artful pavé-set creations. The splendour of the rubies, diamonds, sapphires and natural pearls in selected pieces is particularly striking (figure 3). The arresting quality of these objects makes up for the lack of mise-en-scène of the exhibit itself, which provides no signage other than a short biography of JAR. No organising theme is established for the layout. While the connoisseur may be able to discern different themes, the general public is likely to be overwhelmed by the multiplicity of floral and animal pieces, as I witnessed during my visit. A simple booklet, featuring a succinct object list, is a welcome keepsake, although lacking jewellery dimensions and carat weight information. The scarcity of information is not solved by the exhibition catalogue, which only features 70 of the 395 pieces from this retrospective.

JAR bracelet and camellia brooch
Figure 3. Left: This JAR bracelet featuring diamonds, silver and platinum, was created in 2010. Right: The camellia brooch, also from 2010, uses rubies, pink sapphires, diamonds, silver and gold in its design. Both pieces are from private collections. Photos by Jozsef Tari, courtesy of JAR, Paris.
The exhibition’s pathway is circular and runs clockwise in a long oval room. The first collection consists of fifty floral pieces, mostly brooches; the ruby and diamond parrot tulip brooch is particularly alluring. This group is followed by an ensemble of sixty pairs of earrings, designed in more abstract and decorative patterns (figure 4). The second wall presents an assembly of unusual objects such as abstract pieces, boxes, sculptures, watches and clocks. The hyperrealism, originality and precision of some of these works shows JAR’s wide-ranging inspirations.  Certain pieces of this window display bring an unexpected element of surprise and humour to this solemn setting. The lettuce leaf and 18th-century micro-mosaic rabbit brooch (linked by a chain), along with the asparagus brooches, are worthy of notice.

JAR handkerchief earrings and brooch
Figure 4. Left: JAR’s multicoloured handkerchief earrings (2011) are an assemblage of sapphire, garnet, zircon, tourmaline, emerald, ruby, fire opal, spinel, beryl, diamond, platinum, silver and gold. Right: This cameo and rose petal brooch, also from 2011, incorporates ruby, diamond, silver and gold in its design. Both pieces are from private collections. Photos by Jozsef Tari, courtesy of JAR, Paris.
Visitors can also enjoy the objects set in 14 square-column window displays, with one or two pieces on each side. One of the most iconic jewels in this group is a zebra brooch comprised of agate, diamond, sapphire, silver and gold (figure 5); a sheep’s head brooch, made of natural pearls, sapphire, and blackened silver and gold, is also intriguing. The exhibition continues with a rectangular window filled with 40 floral and vegetal pieces. The show concludes gracefully on a panel adorned with twenty butterfly brooches.

JAR poppy and zebra brooch
Figure 5. Left: This poppy brooch from JAR (1982) is comprised of diamonds, tourmalines and gold. Right: The iconic zebra brooch from 1987 is made from agate, diamonds, sapphire, silver and gold. Both pieces are from private collections. Photos by Katharina Faerber, courtesy of JAR, Paris.
While the general public may note the lack of scenography and description and therefore miss his artistry and craftsmanship, “Jewels by JAR” is a must-see for the jewellery enthusiast who wishes to become more familiar with these rare and eclectic masterpieces.

Delphine Leblanc is a valuation specialist at Tiffany & Co. in New York City.