i Portrait by Thea Lovstad.

Modern Masters by Melanie Grant: Jacqueline Rabun on Minimalism

Following on from her first book Coveted: Art and Innovation in High Jewelry, Melanie Grant examines the evolution of jewellery as art with a new five-part series created during lockdown with some of jewellery’s modern masters. This is Part II.

It started in a gallery

I was living in Los Angeles and just by chance I happened upon this beautiful place called M Gallery.  This was back in the 80s and as I walked in, I was overwhelmed by the architecture and the minimalism…and the jewellery designed by artists. It wasn’t just the jewellery itself but rather its creation and the curation, how it sat in the space.

I was so inspired and mesmerised that I actually started working for the gallery.  I just went in and asked for a job. The gallerist was called Micheal Dawkins, a wonderful gentleman with exquisite taste.  I learned so much from him about minimalism and being more discerning with design.  Shortly after that, I decided that creating jewellery was what I wanted to do.  I started picking the brains of some of the gallery’s designers and that set me on this journey.   I eventually found some suppliers to help me realise my designs and I began to create…

My work is an illustration of the human experience in physical form. I am obsessed with the beauty and perfection of minimalist jewellery.  There is something very spiritual about the journey of arriving at the purest expression of an idea and how it merges with body, mind and spirit to provide strength and a sense of wellbeing to the wearer. 

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I did it more as a personal project in the beginning.  I wasn’t attempting to start a brand.  I hate that word anyway; it was more just an artistic expression because I had studied fashion design.  When I was young my mother’s best friend would come over once a week, sit down with me and teach me to paint with oils. That need and ability to create was already in my blood, already in my system but I had yet to decide on the medium.

So I began by creating jewellery that I loved, that I felt resonated with the moment I was living in. Having just moved to Los Angeles and being in a place where I didn’t know a lot of people provided a great opportunity to really focus on my vision. I continued designing pieces and I was in a bubble, trying to find my design language within the world of contemporary jewellery.

I presented my first collection Raw Elegance to Barneys New York in 1991 and they were my first stockist followed by 10 Corso Como in Milan and Colette in Paris.  It was a huge success and that’s how it started.

Success has a price

My evolution was very organic, the transformation I experienced was intensified by being in a different environment.  I was more sensitive having moved to Los Angeles and being in that state of mind really helped my creativity. I was careful not to take life for granted and I was in a state of constant learning, a state of discovery that really helped. I felt it happened with great ease but the challenge came later on in my career, when problems arose because it did make them feel more difficult.  I assumed naively that success was how it was always going to be.

It has been an interesting journey, but it hasn’t always been easy. It can look easy from the outside but it can be challenging sometimes and the beauty of jewellery fools people into thinking it’s effortless.  My work is split between my collaboration with Georg Jenson and my own collections.  I design about 60 – 70 pieces a year but they don’t all go into production immediately, it takes time. In fact, I have an archive full of designs that haven’t seen the light of day and that’s one of the good things about being in Los Angeles during lockdown.  I can really focus on giving birth to some of these ideas.

Going deeper into the art

Covid has definitely given me more time to go deeper into my design and also the narrative behind it. To examine what I really want to say, what is and what isn’t important to say at a time like this.   Symbolically my work is a combination of shape and form, but it also speaks directly to the human experience and meaning is key.   The Offspring collection for example refers to the relationship between mother and child but is really my story as a single mother with a son – a story of so many women. It may be your mother’s story and the deep connection you have with her because sometimes that connection doesn’t get enough credit. Covid-19 has ultimately helped me go to a deeper level of perfection.

I designed the Offspring collection for Georg Jensen and it marked a major shift in my thinking. Before that I was designing but also running around trying to deal with all the other areas of my business.   When I was approached by Georg Jensen, it was really a moment to pause and focus purely on design, to go deeper into the emotional story behind every collection.  I had always wanted to collaborate with them but it was a quiet desire so the opportunity felt like a blessing.

That was a big shift for me.  Before this chapter I worked differently.  I went to Paris twice a year and I was more fashion focused.  Contemporary jewellery design is a completely different world and I found that I preferred to create with meaning as opposed to focusing on trends. My second epiphany came with the Cave Collection, also for Georg Jensen, which represented a leap into sculptural jewellery with bold statement pieces. The whole experience and relationship of working with them has helped me to expand my creativity.

Scandinavian style has had a great influence on my design language because living in Southern California we had a lot of mid-century modern homes and furniture.  I am obsessed with the minimalist architecture of Richard Neutras. My sister had this amazing house in Oakland, California in the 80’s.  I think it was a John Lautner house and walking in felt surreal with its wood paneled walls, sunken living room and waterbed.  I just loved it.

That was my idea of minimalist luxury and so Georg Jensen was like an extension of everything in that creative universe.  A photographer friend Marc Hom who knew they were looking for a new designer introduced me to them.  I flew to Copenhagen the next day, we got on and I started straight away.  The Danish have a certain way about them, a psychology where there is no room for divas or big egos and the combination of my character and my design, just worked.   We have now collaborated together for twenty years.

i Mercy double ring in silver.

Young, gifted and black

It was interesting when the Black Lives Matter movement brought to the fore, the presence of black jewellery designers in the industry.   Magazines suddenly took an interest, lists of designers were presented and the spotlight swung our way.  I understand, there are obviously considerations being a black designer and yes, it is harder but my experiences have been overwhelmingly positive.

There are always people who do make it and that is a combination of who they are and what they do, then being the right fit for the culture you interact with.  Being black in that mix at the top level is rare and we have to make it less rare.  I think a lot about the obstacles faced by young designers. If I had any words of wisdom I would stress the need to perfect a design language and to be patient.  It takes time.  Nothing happens overnight.  There is something incredible about allowing time to bring what is right for you, rather than chasing and wanting something that if it landed in your lap tomorrow, you might not be ready for.

I see that a lot in the creative world, opportunity occurring before the ability can cope and things start to fall apart.  That can be worse that nothing happening at all.   People of colour with talent definitely need to have more opportunities within the industry and we also need to go beyond the ‘ten black jewellery designers list’ in order to celebrate each person’s creativity individually and encourage those with promise and potential.

i Raw Elegance Custer. Photographer: Mark Mattock.

Design psychology

As I say, my philosophy centres on the desire to create jewellery that speaks to the human experience. I find it hard to design for the sake of it because for me, jewellery is more than adornment.  It is also a talisman, a form of protection.  An emotional connection must be formed so that it relates to the everyday lives of women and men (I design for them too) when you wear it you should feel empowered, confident, stronger.  It can be a simple organic bangle but you should feel content when you walk out into the world.

For some collections form comes first, for others, the ideas.  For A Beautiful Life for example the shapes were first and as I was creating them I had this realisation about relationships, essentially that we’re all really the same. So for this collection the form is the same but our differences are represented with one half in gold and one half in silver or white gold.  It’s the bringing together of these two metals when there is difference on the outside, but inside, we have more in common.

i A Beautiful Life Pendant. Photographer: Juan Carlos.

I designed that collection fifteen years ago when I was in an interracial relationship. That may be a part of it too, the struggles in that relationship and always trying to find balance in it. A Beautiful Life came out of that story and then Black Love, which I designed in 2015 came to me when there were quite a few police brutality cases here in the US.  Black Love has been very successful, I have so many orders from my website for it.  I think the murder of George Floyd has really brought awareness of the black experience to the surface and the problems within American society.  The collection resonates with people right now because of that.  Collectors are more sensitive and definitely a little bit more discerning about what they choose to purchase.

Stones are secondary

Shape and form always come first for me and while I like stones my focus is on the design and the purity of the metal.  When I do bring stones into my work they really have to compliment the piece, so I never start with the stones, ever. Commercially speaking, taking this approach hasn’t been a problem.  I gage that by my work with George Jenson, because the audience is bigger and it’s interesting to note that Offspring is the best selling collection in the one hundred and seventeen year history of the brand.

From a spiritual point of view, I believe that if your energies are aligned and you’re designing from the right place for the right reason, if you have work that really resonates with the human experience that is emotive and tells a story… then people are drawn to and attracted to it.  The form for Offspring really echoes the shape of the human body, which in my view is part of its success.  I have more creative independence within Georg Jenson because it has done well and so when I put ideas forward there is a certain amount of freedom.

I see through my collections from start to finish and I have my own CAD designers.  The perfectionist in me finds it easier if I concentrate on the final detail in my own studio space with Georg Jensen then applying their amazing production before putting it out into the world.

i A Beautiful Life Ring. Photographer: Juan Carlos.

Inspirations and advice

For jewellery, Viviana Torun inspires me. She was an amazing woman with a truly interesting life.  She was in an interracial marriage back in 60s France which wasn’t easy at all at that time but she went against what society said was right and wrong and she lived the life she wanted to live.  I really admire her for that as well as her sheer desire to create beauty.   She created some of the most extraordinary contemporary jewellery ever.

Women still have to make sacrifices to live the life they want especially as the life of the creative can by quite isolating.  I welcome it but sometimes it takes me a moment to get to that place of just sitting with myself and creating.  I can get distracted but I always come back, something always brings me right back to that place of just going inside myself and creating joy.  When the ideas start to flow, I’m super content in my little bubble.

I’ve never been given any good advice.  I’m not joking.  I’ve learned along the way, sometimes, through making mistakes. I’ve learned to just finally listen to myself and to tune out all the opinions of others.  Maybe that’s what artistry is?  Everyone’s life is so different. I only take advice from people if I ever take any (not necessarily in the design world, but just in life advice) that I can see clearly have created a wonderful life. Otherwise I can’t take it on board. Why would I? Typically people who are getting it wrong always want to offer advice, but they don’t want to listen to their own.  That is the beauty of age and wisdom, thank God.  Tune it out, listen to your inner self and go with that.  I’m an artist and the process of creating a piece of jewellery is exactly the same as creating a sculpture.  It’s the process of going within.  I don’t think the scale of it matters at all.

 


Author: Melanie Grant | Photo Credit: Thea Lovstad, Mark Mattock, and Juan Carlos.

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