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The names of Jean and Robert Rubel are relatively unknown today but during the 1920s and 30s they ran one of the most important jewellery workshops in Paris.
Responsible for creating many beautiful and iconic jewels of the period, predominantly for Van Cleef & Arpels, the firm was one of the ‘unsung heroes’ of French haute joaillerie in the first half of the 20th Century.
Before emigrating from Hungary to France, the brothers had run a successful jewellery shop in their native Budapest. They settled in Paris and opened a workshop at 22 rue Vivienne, not far from the Place Vendôme, in 1915. They gradually built their business and reputation for fine quality craftsmanship and within ten years they were working for some of the most prestigious Parisian jewellers. One such client was Van Cleef & Arpels who began working with Rubel Frères sometime around 1923 and the two firms would go on to form a close working relationship that would last for twenty years.
As VCA began to prepare themselves for the 1925 Exposition Internationale des arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes, they turned to Rubel Frères to craft some exceptional pieces for them. One of these was the magnificent ruby, diamond and emerald ‘Roses’ bracelet for which they were awarded a Grand Prix. At this time the influence of Egyptian forms and motifs was prevalent in Art Deco jewels and Rubel made several pieces reflecting this fashion for VCA including a wide strap bracelet exhibited at the Exposition, as well as several brooches and a watch commissioned by the Maharaja of Indore.
In 1926 they made an Indian inspired diamond and emerald bead ‘Manchette’ cuff for the glamorous socialite and VCA client Daisy Fellows. This was followed two years later by a second matching one that was able to be joined to the original creating a necklace. These pieces became synonymous with Fellows, reflecting her love of travel and exoticism as well as her legendary elegance and fine style.
Ostertag was another firm that utilised the skill of the Rubel workshop which by the end of the 1920s had moved to larger premises at 16 Avenue de l’Opera. They remained here, quietly creating their masterpieces for sale in the Place Vendome boutiques, until 1939. It was then that they were offered the opportunity to move to America where Van Cleef & Arpels had recently opened offices. The two brothers were asked to set up and supervise a workshop in New York which would make the Van Cleef jewellery to be sold there. They agreed and for the next four years they did exactly that during which time the now iconic ballerina and dancer brooches were conceived. It is alleged that Jean Rubel (now known as John) was watching a flamenco dancer perform in a club and was so taken with the silhouette she made with her flamboyant yet elegant skirts that he sketched her on the table cloth. The following day he showed the torn off sketch to his brother and they enlisted the talented designer Maurice Duvalet to transform it into a detailed jewellery rendering which they could in turn breathe life into in the workshop. This piece evolved into the famous collection of ballerina brooches made by Rubel for VCA and for which the latter are still famous today.
In 1943 they made the decision to part ways with VCA and establish themselves independently, some say due largely to a dispute over the design rights to the ballerina brooches. The brothers opened John Rubel & Co. at 777 5th Avenue and began to create and sell their jewellery under their own name for the first time since leaving Hungary almost 30 years previously. They continued to utilise the talents of Duvalet who they shared for a time with Van Cleef and by 1946 were able to open a second branch in Palm Beach, Florida. They produced dancing figures, Art Deco inspired designs and jewels with boldly contrasting coloured gems such as ruby and turquoise for a discerning clientele that included the actress Ingrid Bergman as well as the American jewellery firms of Black, Starr & Frost and Tiffany & Co.
Back in Paris, their nephew Marcel Rubel had inherited the workshop from his uncles but in spite of his best efforts, the effects of WWII on businesses (in particular those run by Jewish families) meant he had to close it in the early 1940s and he turned his attention instead to diamond dealing. After nearly ten years in America John and Robert closed their business and returned to Paris to be reunited with their extended family. For over 30 years they had delighted clients with the quality and creativity of their jewellery and today those pieces continue to command both admiration and respect from those lucky enough to wear them.