Saturday, January 4, 2014


Cameo and Rose Petal Brooch (2011), Photograph by Jozsef Tari, courtesy of JAR, Paris

Millions of glimmering stones cover a treasure trove of elegant accessories at the MET Museum's Jewels by JAR exhibit--and they're catching the attention of more than an admiring audience. Maybe it's the unconventional lighting or the overwhelming selection on display…or maybe it's a general disdain for luxury enjoyed by the unduly opulent. Since opening in November 2013, the MET's premier retrospective of a living jeweler continues to collect mixed reviews. 

 Butterfly Brooch (1994); Photograph by Katharina Faerber, courtesy of JAR, Paris

Lauded as the 'greatest jewelry designer of time' by the likes of actress Ellen Barkin and fashion designer Diane Von Furstenberg, Joel A. Rosenthal (a.k.a JAR) is both exceedingly private and exceptionally skilled. His sculpturesque creations are reserved for the privileged few--of his choosing. Referring to JAR's shop on the Place Vendôme, Paris, Forbes writer Anthony De Marco notes, "The customers who are fortunate enough to enter his chambers get singular treatment and leave, eventually, with a unique piece of art created just for them" [source]. 

Poppy Brooch (1982); Photograph by Katharina Faerber, courtesy of JAR, Paris

Navigating the unnervingly dim passageway of the Helen and Milton A. Kimmelman Gallery, guests are presented with over 400 semi-precious brooches, earrings, bracelets and more. The majority of the collection includes various iterations of flora and fauna encased in mixed materials, metals and gems. Herein lies the criticism… 

"Visibly unedited" writes Roberta Smith of the NY Times [NYT 26 DEC 2013 article], "the mise-en-scene is not people-friendly….the gallery is unpleasantly dark, as if to discourage close looking….'JAR' is not up to the MET's standards in either curatorial framework or the material it presents." 

Blogger jewelsdujour echoes this sentiment, noting "The lighting of the exhibition was really disappointing: the entire space was very dark and the lighting in the cases seemed to do very little to illuminate the beauty of the jewels and their exquisite colored stones." 

Others have expressed their distaste of the one day invite-only trunk show associated with the exhibit, staged to peddle gift-shop memorabilia [NYT 23 DEC 2013 article] ...along with their disappointment of 6 cancelled talks. 


Tulip Brooch (2008); Photograph by Jozsef Tari, courtesy of JAR, Paris

That interest drew me in, mostly out of curiosity and partly out of disbelief that the New York Times, Forbes and other notable publications dare speak an unsavory word about the beloved MET Museum. I had to see for myself. Taking advantage of Friday's snowfall, the MET became a detour between an early afternoon off work and my evening obligations. 

 The entrance to the Jewels by JAR exhibit--Note the dark portal!

Located in the Helen and Milton A. Kimmelman Gallery, the exhibit is quartered in a back corner behind European Sculptures and the arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas. Considerably claustrophobic at first, I liken the experience to a spelunking adventure. The enveloping darkness, stuffiness and swelling crowds didn't add to the premise of the show, but the promise of viewing JAR's elusive artwork kept me on course. While I agree with the critique of the uncomfortably low lighting, I get it. The focus is undeniably on the handiwork of the artist and the large selection highlights decades' worth of effort. Not to be overshadowed by clusters of criticism, the delicate craftsmanship of the native New Yorker is evident in the exquisite pieces present at the exhibit--flocks of gem encrusted butterflies, pavé flowers, pearl-covered shells--many of which are borrowed from private collections. Every so often, an anomaly appears--a wooden bagel or a fruit tart. 

Earrings perched on a rusty red background

It all boils down to a matter of preference. JAR prefers his work illuminated with spotlights (evident in his last exhibit as well), while museum visitors are unaccustomed to the dark surroundings. The exhibit commands uniformity, with accessories presented on duplicative red matte backgrounds and stems. Personally, a richer red, darker color or a more modern/creative presentation strategy altogether would have been more impactful. The museum provides numbers adjacent to the artwork, which correspond to titles but lack context. Thematic grouping is not evident and commentary on technique, material or time period would have been welcomed. And while the pieces are pretty (though some are visibly dated), most are impractical and somewhat difficult for the layman to identify with (almost to be expected). In the end, I appreciate Rosenthal's artistic vision and the MET's execution of the exhibit, but I understand how the presentation could downgrade the experience. To be fair, 'preference' doesn't take away the sparkling unparalleled brilliance of JAR's jewelry, but a few minor elements could have fostered a better appreciation of the artist and his work.

The exhibit leads into an area where prints and 10 JAR replicas can be purchased

For more information on JAR, have a peek at a rare interview with the Financial Times [here].

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