November 1, 2013 6:17 pm

Lunch with the FT: Joel Arthur Rosenthal

The elusive jeweller enjoys peanut butter sandwiches in Long Island and tells of his obsession with John Singer Sargent
Joel Arthur Rosenthal©Seb Jarnot

When, in the course of conversations with fashion friends and acquaintances in the luxury world, I mentioned that I was having lunch with JAR, aka Joel Arthur Rosenthal, aka “the Fabergé of our time”, the following reaction inevitably occurred.

First, they would raise an eyebrow sceptically. Then they would give me a pitying look and emit a snorty laugh. Then they would say something along the lines of, “Good luck with that.”

Then I would say, “Well, I actually have a date,” and they would look startled. They would say, “Really? He really agreed?” Then they would say, “Don’t tell him I talked to you! Don’t mention my name! Please.”

Then they would add, with horror, “He will never sell to me again!”

Rosenthal doesn’t much like talking about himself. He doesn’t really like other people talking about him either. He is based in an atelier with black windows off Paris’s Place Vendôme and renowned for a number of things. First, his extraordinary gems, which look so much like artworks that later this month he will become the first living jeweller to be granted a retrospective at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art; second, his extraordinary reticence, which is Garbo-like in its intensity; and third, his extraordinary approach to his work, which can be summed up as creating what he wants, when he wants, for who he wants.

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Vanessa Friedman

It is a life other creative professionals, from fellow jewellers to fashion designers to performers, speak about with envy: how has he managed to do this when everyone else is at the mercy of the system? But it is hard to know the kind of sacrifices it really demands. In part this is because Rosenthal hardly ever does interviews – the last round was in 2002, at the time of an exhibition of his work at Somerset House in London that was notorious for his request that it be seen in the dark, with the aid of tiny flashlights, because “jewellery needs to flicker”.

. . .

Rosenthal has agreed to have lunch now because he promised the Met he would do some promotion, and because a mutual friend introduced us a year or so ago. He was in Long Island for a few weeks over the summer, visiting friends and preparing for the show, so we agreed to meet at the Candy Kitchen, a diner in Bridgehampton that is, emailed Rosenthal, before our meeting: “The sort of luncheonette-ice cream parlour of my childhood, with even a tile floor, a place I would live in if such a thing existed in this food-forsaken joke called Paris.”

When I get to the diner, Rosenthal, 70, is already ensconced in a booth in the far back corner of the room, facing away from the door. It turns out he had tried to book this particular booth – the least public in the restaurant – earlier in the day, but they told him they didn’t take reservations, so a friend from the house where he was staying had shown up a few hours earlier to occupy the space, and had an extended – and very early – lunch until Rosenthal arrived to switch places.

Rosenthal, who is wearing a striped blue button-down shirt that matches his eyes, black trousers and a navy cotton jacket, with white hair swept back from his forehead, is in a good mood. Aside from being on holiday, his sciatica, which has plagued him for years, is gone. “I have been sleeping so late!” he says, “Which not everyone approves of. But it’s wonderful.”

In fact, his oft-discussed orneriness remains fully in check throughout our meal. I would suggest that he was trying to impress the press, except for the fact that this is not something in which Rosenthal has ever seemed remotely interested. In the debut issue of French Vanity Fair in July, there was a feature devoted to Rosenthal – in which he declined to participate. “We would thank you to respect our position and to wait until the jewels can speak in our place,” his partner, Pierre Jeannet, wrote to the magazine.

“I don’t care what the world thinks of me,” says Rosenthal when I ask about it. “But do I care, very deeply, what the people I care about think.” What I think (not that I am one of the latter) is that he has big appetites: for privacy, for perfection and, I learn, for peanut butter. Also, a certain painter. More on that later.

Rosenthal, who grew up in New York, has been coming to the Hamptons for the past decade. Every July he shuts his studio for two months. “Everyone told me you couldn’t do that,” he shrugs. “Why not?” Still, he doesn’t leave it all behind. “I brought something to play with,” he says, conspiratorially. Then he pulls a little tissue-wrapped package out of his breast pocket; inside is a round six-carat pink diamond ring set in his signature dark metal alloy, banded by tiny diamonds. “Give me your little finger,” he says, and slips it on.

“I had that stone for 20 years,” he says. “I bought it at auction, and only just decided to set it.” He leaves it on my finger, and pulls another stone out of his pocket: an oblong loose diamond that he likes because it is faceted on a curve – which he says no one would do today – and holds it up so I can see it refract the light off the ketchup bottles and salt and pepper shakers in our booth. Rosenthal may exist in a rarefied world – his clientele includes Lily Safra, Henry Kravis, Gwyneth Paltrow and Madonna, while in 2006 a 22.76-carat diamond ring he made for actress Ellen Barkin sold at Christie’s for $1.8m – but he is not a snob.

Or rather, he is a snob about things such as quality, but not “fame”, he says. “That was never my goal.” What was? I ask, giving the loose diamond back (it makes me nervous). “Doing what I wanted,” he says, adding: “It is wonderful to me being able to convince someone of something.”

This certainty extends to convincing clients that, sometimes, the jewel they think they want to buy is not what they want after all – that maybe it doesn’t really look that good on them. It also extends to food. Without looking at the menu, he asks for a grilled cheese sandwich with a peanut butter sandwich on the side, plus an iced tea. I hem and haw before choosing salad, cottage cheese and lemonade.

“A few people, including my friends, will say to me, ‘God, you’re clever, your strategy has been brilliant,’” he says. “And I say, ‘There’s no strategy.’ They don’t believe me but, really, all I thought was, ‘This is what I really want to do, make jewellery the way I see it, and I really want to do it my way.’”

“I love peanut butter,” he says, when our plates come, before taking an enormous bite and shaking his head as he chews in delight. “Mmm.”

. . .

Rosenthal was raised in the Bronx, in an area called Parkchester, an only child. His father worked in a post office and his mother was a biology teacher in the public high school system; they spent summers at the Castle Hill Beach Club in the east Bronx (not the Hamptons). He says they taught him “two things above all: learn English perfectly, including how to spell, and do what you want”.

Growing up, he spent a lot of time at the Met and the Natural History Museum, looking at the metals and minerals galleries. He wanted to be a painter, and went to the High School of Museum & Art in New York (this later became LaGuardia, the fame school), then spent a semester at City College studying linguistics (he speaks French, Italian and Yiddish), before transferring to study art history and philosophy at Harvard on the advice of a friend he met while on vacation in Paris. “At that time, Harvard accepted one out of every eight applicants, and one out of every 113 transfer applicants,” he says with a smile. He was the one in 113.

“Of course, I was in a big hurry to get back to Paris, because I always thought that’s where painters went, so I did my three years in two years,” he says. “I was stupid.” This is not false modesty, just hindsight.

In 1966 Rosenthal moved to Europe, where he did some screenwriting and met Jeannet, who is Swiss; the two opened a small needlepoint store in Paris, where Rosenthal painted the designs, and for a brief period, having always had a fascination with jewellery, he worked for Gianni Bulgari. In 1978 he and Jeannet opened a jewellery business; Rosenthal had no formal training and no financial backing, other than his and Jeannet’s bank accounts.

“Everyone told me it wouldn’t work: I couldn’t use old cut diamonds, I couldn’t use pink topaz, no one would want them. But I didn’t care what a stone was, just that it was beautiful.” He has never been about enormous gems (though he does use them), but rather colour and shading. His favourite stones come in “red, violet, pink and green”, which, when he started, was a good thing because such coloured gems were not regarded as precious. “People used to call spinels ‘that fake stone’!” he laughs. “Thirty years ago I could get a great spinel for $300/carat; today they are $15,000/carat.”

He showed a similar disregard for the conventional pricing methods of the jewellery world, even the high jewellery world, which often involve a certain elasticity. “Neither Pierre nor I like talking about money, or dealing with it, and we realised the only way to make it not an issue was to have one price for everyone,” Rosenthal says. “We make a drawing, and discuss what we are doing and the time and materials involved, and then we come up with a fair price. To change it after that is dishonest.” If a customer tries to negotiate, Rosenthal negotiates them to the door.

“Other people’s ideas of reality don’t get in my way,” he shrugs. “I’d rather fail my way than succeed the way you told me.” He leans out of the booth to ask the waitress for another peanut butter sandwich.

Aside from Jeannet, Rosenthal works with only four assistants and uses four workrooms in Paris, Geneva and the south of France. He says he makes between 100 and 120 jewels a year, has been profitable since he started, and has remained entirely independent. “In the beginning people would offer us blank cheques to open stores in London, Geneva, and for 10 minutes I thought about it,” says Rosenthal. “Then I thought, ‘No, I don’t want to be beholden to anyone, I don’t want to be owned by anyone.’”

The Met show, which includes approximately 400 pieces loaned by 145 of his living clients, will be a homecoming of sorts. “I know how big a deal this exhibit is,” he says, drinking his iced tea. “But when I think about it, I don’t see myself as part of it; I’m uncomfortable with being so public. Instead I see a little boy, walking up the steps of that enormous building, to see what was inside.”

This kind of success has allowed Rosenthal to follow his nose into other areas. Literally. In the 1980s he opened a perfume store in Paris (his fragrances are also sold at Bergdorf Goodman in New York) and, for the past 15 years, he has been taking notes for a novel about the painter John Singer Sargent. “You know,” he says, “there’s absolutely nothing known about his private life. It’s my obsession. It’s what I want on my gravestone: ‘He wrote a novel about John Singer Sargent and designed jewellery.’” He sees similarities between writing and jewellery: the need for perfection, and the fact every tiny component of a work – a word, a chip – matters.

By contrast, when he is bad at something, he mostly does not do it. “I know, for example, I shouldn’t try to drive a car, because I will get distracted, and hurt someone,” he says. “I thought it might be fun to go back to Harvard at one point and teach a class called ‘Taste’, which would be about everything from Velázquez to pasta with Gorgonzola, but then I realised that would be a mistake, because I would really only want to sit down with one student at a time and ignore everyone else.”

. . .

The waitress asks if we would like anything else. Rosenthal asks for a milkshake, and I get a fruit salad. “This is everything I never, ever, do,” he says, with some glee, of the ice cream.

Why Sargent? I ask. It started, he says, when he was a boy: “I’ve been fascinated by him since I was 10 or 11. I drew a head of ‘Madame X’ [Singer’s 1883-84 portrait], and slipped it under the glass on my desk, so whenever I was doing my homework, I was also looking at the head of Madame X.” So far he has thousands of pages of notes. He writes longhand, with a ballpoint pen, in ruled composition notebooks (the ones with the mottled black and white covers) that he buys when he’s on Long Island. His goal, after the Met show, is to create a space in his life to finish the book, plus he has a screenplay about Madame X in mind.

Who would he cast in a Madame X film? “I thought you’d never ask!” he says with delight. “Kelly Reilly, the English actress, I think is the most beautiful woman in the world. Matthew Goode – he’d have to gain some weight.” And to direct? “Stephen Frears, though I hear he only makes comedies now.” Rosenthal says he thinks movies “are one of the few things in life that have got better over time.”

Now it’s my turn to raise a sceptical eyebrow, though I decide I should probably stop while I am ahead, and ask for the bill, handing back the diamond ring, which has been on my finger the entire meal. As I pay, Rosenthal notes he has one more museum show in the works, in Venice, to be held in two years’ time, and that will be that. “It’s my swan song,” he says. “I just think it’s enough.”

Besides, he can only stand having one more opening party. He doesn’t like them, though he has an idea for the Met event that has cheered him up. “Maybe I’ll ask if Madame X can come,” he says, referring to the painting. This, of course, would require the museum moving the portrait for the night. No one would believe that date, either.

Vanessa Friedman is the FT’s fashion editor

‘Jewels by Jar’ runs from November 20 to March 2014, metmuseum.org

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The Candy Kitchen

2391 Montauk Hwy, Bridgehampton NY 11932

Lemonade $3.00

Iced tea $3.00

Van shake $5.75

Peanut butter

sandwiches x2 $4.00

Grilled cheese sandwich $6.75

Candy Kitchen salad $10.50

Fruit $3.00

Total (incl service) $39.11

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