When 17 JAR pieces drew record prices at a Christie’s auction in late 2006, industry insiders gasped at some of the numbers (one ring alone fetched $1.6 million), but the outcome of the sale wasn’t a complete surprise. For starters, the baubles were part of a 102-piece lot of jewelry gifted to Ellen Barkin during her now defunct marriage to Ronald Perelman, so the buzz was considerable. Add that to the rarity of so many JAR items going under the gavel at once, and the success of the auction was virtually etched in stone.
Considered one of the most collectible jewelry lines in existence today, the cultish JAR (the initials of the collection’s Paris-based designer, Joel Arthur Rosenthal) has become the benchmark by which all other modern auction-worthy jewels are judged. Among myriad flashes in the pan, only JAR is currently poised to step into the longevity ring alongside mainstays like Bulgari, Cartier, Harry Winston and Van Cleef & Arpels.
No wonder the race is on to discover “the next JAR.” But in the world of fine jewelry, it can be challenging to identify pieces that will be coveted generations from now. “You want to make sure you’re buying for posterity,” says Ralph Esmerian, owner of Fred Leighton and a famous purveyor of estate jewels. “That’s the gamble in the art market these days.”
Judging by the numbers, jewelry’s stock as major auction material is on the rise. At Christie’s, sales have jumped from $279 million in 2005 to $395 million last year. Sotheby’s has experienced a similar uptick, from $167 million in 2005 to $292 million in 2007.
Lee Siegelson, president and owner of Siegelson, a third-generation New York jeweler that specializes in fine collectibles, is seeking quality and consistency. And he freely admits to measuring all working contemporary jewelers against Rosenthal. “It’s not just the quality of the pavé or metalwork,” he says. “It’s the experience of buying one-of-a-kind pieces of jewelry conceived and created in-house, by one person in one kind of environment. It’s about the process. If you compare that to other designers, that really becomes the difference.”
Still, among some of the world’s top collectors, there’s a short list afloat, as well as a few key commonalities: Each member of this new crop of rising stars produces an extremely limited quantity of pieces per year, sells almost exclusively by appointment, and already has some type of presence on the auction and/or museum scene. Rather than a specific style or material, what these jewelers all share is a propensity for highly sculptural, exquisitely crafted one-of-a-kind pieces.
Ironically, one of the brightest lights—Daniel Brush—isn’t even a jeweler. An artist, sculptor, history buff and machinist, Brush has designed with steel, gold and other metals in his Manhattan studio for 30 years. He mixes his own ores, has an extraordinarily rare 18th-century guillochet machine and builds race cars. A serious fellow, he blows off steam by creating innovative jewelry. Brush toys with Bakelite, carving it into a trio of whimsical black poodles or a ribbon-wearing pig inlaid with diamonds and other gemstones.