LOS ANGELES — In the mid-1980s, Jacqueline Rabun was in her early twenties and studying fashion design in Los Angeles when she wandered into a contemporary jewelry gallery on Sunset Boulevard. The visit changed his life.
“It was a beautiful shop called M Gallery,” Ms. Rabun, now 60, recently recalled. “The person who owned it, Michael Dawkins, was a very classy man with exceptional taste. I had never seen jewelry like this, and I had never seen them displayed this way. I was completely blown away.”
Ms. Rabun asked Mr. Dawkins if she could work for him and he gave her a sales job on the spot. “You just know when a moment is a moment,” she said.
Since then, Ms. Rabun has forged a career as a jewelry artist working with silver and 18-carat gold. His 22-year collaboration with Danish silverware firm Georg Jensen cemented his reputation among modernist design connoisseurs. And her work, best known for its bold organic forms and powerful simplicity, was recently spotlighted in “Brilliant & Black: A Jewelry Renaissance,” a groundbreaking sales exhibition curated by 21 black jewelers at Sotheby’s New York this fall. last.
“It took a long time for people to recognize the extent of her talent,” said Melanie Grant, a London-based editor, stylist and author who curated the exhibit. “We absolutely had to have it. She is one of those people whose design is timeless, genderless – it goes beyond trends and fashion.
The growing awareness of Ms. Rabun’s designs coincided with her return to America. After 31 years in London, where she moved in 1989 to pursue a romantic relationship, Ms Rabun returned to Los Angeles in October 2020, intent on fulfilling a dream she had harbored since the late 1970s.
She was 16 at the time and was visiting her older sister, who was living with her new husband in an architectural gem of a house in the Oakland Hills east of San Francisco.
“I’m sure it was a Neutra house,” Ms. Rabun said, referring to modernist architect Richard Neutra. “It was a beautiful, huge mid-century A-frame with a big fireplace and a sunken living room. They had a waterbed in the bedroom and a Porsche Carrera.
“I didn’t think there were African Americans living like this,” she added. “Live your life unlike others, your way, on your terms.”
Ms Rabun yearned for the freedom she associated with this California idyll, even as her career and personal life kept her tied to Britain. Now, although she continues to spend time in London nurturing relationships with long-time clients, she is based on the west coast, where easy access to nature and continuous sunshine have transformed her outlook.
“The anxiety is gone,” she said.
The fact that Ms Rabun’s 28-year-old son Wyatt decamped to Los Angeles with her appears to have made the transition even more meaningful. “There’s this idea of dreaming bigger and changing the world here,” she said. “I love that philosophy and really wanted my son to be around that.”
As Ms. Rabun spoke, the gold rings, gold bracelets and distinctive gold wristwatch that adorned her hands and wrists – a mix of her own designs as well as archive pieces from the mid-century designer century Vivianna Torun Bülow-Hübe, another Jensen collaborator – recalled a comment by Frank Everett, senior vice president of Sotheby’s Jewelry in New York.
“Jacqueline could give a tutorial on how to wear jewelry,” Everett said recently. He had first met Ms. Rabun at the opening reception for “Brilliant & Black”. “She wore a lot of jewelry and she looked flawless. If she hadn’t been a designer, designer and artist, she could have been a stylist.
What sealed Ms. Rabun’s future as an artist-jeweler was another chance encounter. She had been in London for around a decade and had a thriving business selling silver jewelery to high-end stores such as Barneys New York. (This specialty retailer bought its first “Raw Elegance” collection in 1991, what it called its first big break.)
“I went to dinner with a friend and she invited Marc Hom, a Danish photographer who was connected to the then owners of Georg Jensen,” Ms Rabun recalls. “He said, ‘I think they’re looking for new designers, do you want me to introduce you?’ The next day, I get a call from the CEO”
The company gave her a simple design brief: the egg, a shape she had previously used to design a bangle bracelet. “I worked on the collection, at a time when my son was little, about this unbreakable bond between mother and child,” Ms Rabun said. “I was just telling my story, everyone’s story.”
Introduced in 2002, the Offspring line of necklaces, rings and earrings remains one of Georg Jensen’s best-selling collections, said Ragnar Hjartarson, the brand’s creative director.
“We have a lot of organic, sculptural forms at the core of our DNA,” he said on a recent call. “That’s why Jacqueline is a perfect fit. She uses fluid forms and she always imbues her work with symbolism and emotion.
Mr. Hjartarson also mentioned Reflect, Ms. Rabun’s latest collection for Georg Jensen, a line of unisex silver chains launched in February. “It’s something I wear myself,” he said. “It’s like a second skin.”
As Ms. Rabun described her early days designing for the Danish company, she remarked on the ease of the relationship. “It wasn’t about my Instagram followers or trying to fill the BLM quota,” she said, referring to the Black Lives Matter movement and the surge in interest in black creative leaders that has arisen. following the 2020 murder of George Floyd. and the public outcry that followed. “It was a shared design language.”
Regarding the recent attention, Ms. Rabun said she was ambivalent. “I look forward to the moment, if we really want to be diverse, where a jewelry designer is a jewelry designer,” she said. “Why do we have to attach race or gender to it?”
But Ms Rabun made it clear she was grateful to be part of the ‘Brilliant & Black’ exhibition, where she showcased designs based on her Black Love collection, inspired by the concept of two seeds merging into a heart symbol sculptural. Introduced in 2015, the collection, partially set in oxidized sterling silver, was Ms Rabun’s way of channeling the grief she felt whenever she learned another black man had been killed by police.
“The simplicity is masterful,” Ms. Grant said. “She references black culture but with a very light but intimate touch.”
Ms. Rabun’s Black Love pieces for Sotheby’s, executed in 18k yellow gold, featured oversized heart-shaped designs set with rutilated quartz crystals. Quartz also appears in her new jewelry collaboration, a collection called Metanoia, with Carpenters Workshop Gallery, the French gallery with outposts in Paris, London and New York.
As if her plate wasn’t full enough, Ms. Rabun also took on a growing number of private orders. Earlier this year, for example, she made a necklace for a client in Paris using a 20-carat yellow diamond he wanted to reset for his wife’s 40th birthday. The resulting piece, depicting the gem as a pendant on a yellow gold chain, can be worn four ways.
“On the back of the pendant are the names of each child at the four corners, and there are 40 links for their 40th birthday,” Ms Rabun said. “When I do errands, I have to make sure it’s connected to the bearer.”
Soon, Ms. Rabun plans to extend this philosophy beyond jewelry, as her self-proclaimed obsession with objects and furniture has led to a new collaboration in the world of lighting. Although she declined to share specifics (“It’s the start,” she explained), she said the collection would likely debut in 2023. It would be her second foray outside of jewelry — her first, a line of bowls she designed for the Viennese artist and designer Carl Auböck IV was featured at the Wallpaper Handmade 2017 exhibition in Milan.
Ms Rabun said she was inspired by 20th-century modernists (and collaborators of Georg Jensen), such as Danish furniture designers Nanna Ditzel and Verner Panton, whom she described as having lived their lives shamelessly immersed in their art.
“I’ve always been drawn to artists who live it,” Ms. Rabun said. “I guess that’s why I had to come home – I had to live it fully.”