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“‘A piece of jewellery is sophisticated when it leaves a thief indifferent but turns the connoisseur’s head.’’ Otto Jakob
The saying that every cloud has a silver lining could not be truer for the German artist-jeweller Otto Jakob. Born in 1951, he moved from Munich to the town of Karlsruhe in south-west Germany in 1977 to study art under the tutelage of Georg Baselitz, a prominent member of the German art scene. However, after three years of hard work the end of his apprenticeship brought with it the harsh realisation that he would never make it as a successful artist. An abrupt change of direction was required and he found himself turning to his childhood interest in gemstones and jewellery. A twist of fate that would eventually lead him to the kind of international success he feared would elude him as an artist.
He had been fascinated by crystals and minerals from an early age after a neighbour allowed him to study his gem collection and subsequently gave him a text book on mineralogy. The ten year old Otto began to collect his own samples from all over his native Germany and in particular the Black Forest region. Some years later he tried his hand at making jewellery when, on a school trip to Rome aged 17, he and his girlfriend had seen some simple twisted wire rings being sold by street vendors. He promised to make something similar for her and true to his word, once back home he set to work. His girlfriend is now his wife and she recalls of that first ring “He shaped a metal string into a flower and made me a ring, all my friends wanted one.”
Now, aged 29 and with no formal training but with ideas for designs coming thick and fast, Jakob decided to teach himself and learn as he went along. He began by exploring the techniques that would enable him to manifest the ideas that were “rushing so fast there was no time to sketch them, I had to jot them down. Suddenly I could imagine entire collections in my head.”
Instinctively drawn to the work and aesthetics of the Italian goldsmiths he studied the work of craftsmen from Cellini to Castellani. He visited museums to see Etruscan, Celtic and Hellenistic masterpieces and he read the treaties of Pliny and other scholars. Gradually he mastered the ancient skills of weaving gold, granulation, rope twist decoration and cloisonné enamel.
From the outset his pieces were a reflection of his interests, training and passion combining a painterly use of colour with an unusual and eclectic variety of gems and crystals and an eye for detail, sometimes microscopically so. They exhibit a perfect tension between the contradictions of light and dark, ancient and modern, nature and science with echoes of the Gothic, of myth and magic and of a time when superstitions and ancient beliefs were upheld as strongly as religion. Motifs including dragons, frogs, ravens, crosses and hands are regularly seen in his work which is as likely to feature such unusual gem materials as palm seeds and fossilised coral as it is tourmaline or diamonds. When selecting which materials to use, colour, pattern and texture are more important to Jakob than perceived value, he believes that “To mix unexpected elements with precious materials is to celebrate nature”.
His work quickly gained the attention of his former mentor Baselitz who, as well as purchasing some pieces, also introduced Jakob to other artists and dealers who in turn responded favourably. Drawn in by an artistic affinity to the jewellery, art collectors and connoisseurs began to commission him to create wearable works of art especially for them. His exposure gradually broadened as his reputation grew and he appeared in the press both at home and abroad.
Each of Jakob’s pieces is treated as a miniature work of art and every angle and view is carefully considered, finely sculpted and beautifully finished with up to 100 hours invested in each jewel. His workshop is in the same 1900s Art Nouveau building as the family home and houses his collection of exotic cacti from the Kalahari Desert and Madagascar which sit side by side with his mix of high tech and traditional goldsmithing instruments and tools.
In 2008 he was offered the opportunity to show his jewellery at the highly prestigious Tefaf Fine Art and Antique Fair in Maastricht. What was initially supposed to be a one time event proved so successful that the following year Tefaf offered him a permanent stand, meaning he is one of only a very select group of contemporary jewellers to exhibit there. According to the chief of Tefaf’s executive committee Jakob was chosen for his “striking designs and his crossover appeal to collectors of jewellery, antiquities, design and contemporary art” and he describes the jewels themselves as “outstanding”.
Jakob’s latest collection features oxidized white gold, carved corals, specially cut rock crystals and colourful agate slices amongst a wide variety of other interesting materials. As usual, every piece is named and each pair of earrings, pendant or ring is crafted with exceptional care. His jewellery doesn’t shout luxury, it whispers it. It is jewellery, as Jakob says, for those who understand it.