Fabergé Winter-Egg

Fabergé Winter-Egg

A Renaissance in High Jewelry Making

New York Times, December 10, 2010

PARIS — It is taken as gospel that the king of 20th century jewelry makers was Peter Carl Fabergé, the inimitable jeweler to the czars. Question: 100 years from now, who among the makers of today will be in the running to assume a similar title for this century?

“The first name — and I’m bored myself with saying it — is JAR,” said François Curiel, Christie’s chief jewelry specialist, referring to Joel Arthur Rosenthal, the enigmatic U.S.-born artist whose Parisian atelier turns out pieces that regularly earn two to three times their auction estimates.

“He is a jeweler in constant evolution but whose style is instantly recognizable by the members of his virtual international club.”

For most of history, collectibility was beside the point. Jewels doubled as currency because they had an intrinsic value that allowed them to be dismantled and traded.

But in the 33 years since JAR founded his company, a booming estate jewelry market has fueled collector interest in signed works; and especially over the past decade, a renaissance in high jewelry making — among independent designers as well as the traditional French houses — has revived the conversation about the next generation of work that deserves to remain intact.

It may be too soon to bracket the current period within discrete dates and describe its characteristics — as diamonds and clean, geometric lines defined the Art Deco movement of the 1920s and 30s — but most experts agree that a willingness to embrace unconventional, even common, materials is a mark of the 21st century jeweler.

An example is Michele della Valle, a jeweler based in Rome: “Recently, I used carbon fiber in an unusual way to mimic the feather-like details found around the pistils of anemone flowers,” Mr. della Valle said, taking pains to emphasize that he never experimented with materials gratuitously but used them for specific properties. “Those times where I still use titanium or zirconium, I do so strictly when required to give lightness to a piece — and mostly in conjunction with gold,” he said.

Mr. della Valle shares his appreciation for light metals with a trio of well-regarded designers in Hong Kong: Michelle Ong of Carnet, known for her fanciful, lace-inspired diamond cuffs and brooches; Edmund Chin of Etcetera, whose expert stone-setting has earned acclaim; and Wallace Chan, a gem carver with an alchemist’s knack for manipulating titanium.

At F.D., a jewelry salon opened in early November in Manhattan, Fiona Druckenmiller, a formidable collector, showcases, alongside vintage Cartier and Van Cleef & Arpels, the work of two 21st century masters: Viren Bhagat, a Mumbai-born jeweler known for his Mogul-meets-Deco aesthetic, and Hemmerle, a family-owned atelier in Munich famed for its distinctively austere designs.

“Hemmerle is urban, anti-bling — they’ll put an emerald in copper,” Mrs. Druckenmiller said. “But Viren’s pieces I couldn’t imagine wearing during the day. They are incredibly sumptuous, romantic, extravagant. Neither one is formulaic.”

Attention to tiny, exquisite detail is de rigueur among jewelers at this level.

On a recent morning in New York, James de Givenchy, a nephew of the fashion icon, pointed to the graceful wishbone-shaped shank of a solitaire ring that he had designed. “This is where we try to add the difference,” he said: never mind the 7-carat D-Flawless diamond in its vise.

Mr. Givenchy has grappled with the tension between intrinsic and aesthetic value in his four-year-old collaboration with Sotheby’s Diamonds, for whom he creates pieces that pair million-dollar stones with steel, rope and ceramic, not to mention gold.

“There’s so much value in the diamond and I’m just trying to say, ‘This is how I see it,”’ he said. “I’m not the painting, I’m the frame.”

Not all serious jewelers, however, share Mr. Givenchy’s reverent feelings.