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Jacqueline Rabun and Her Jewelry Goals

Jacqueline Rabun and Her Jewelry Goals

LOS ANGELES — In the mid-1980s, Jacqueline Rabun was in her early 20s and studying fashion design in Los Angeles when she wandered into a contemporary jewelry gallery on Sunset Boulevard. The visit changed her life.

“It was a beautiful shop called M Gallery,” Ms. Rabun, now 60, recalled recently. “The person who owned it, Michael Dawkins, was a very chic man with exceptional taste. I’d never seen jewelry like that, and I’d never seen it displayed in such a 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 in silver and 18-karat gold. Her 22-year collaboration with the Danish silver firm Georg Jensen has cemented her reputation among connoisseurs of modernist design. And her work, best known for its bold organic forms and its powerful simplicity, was recently highlighted in “Brilliant & Black: A Jewelry Renaissance,” a groundbreaking selling exhibition by 21 Black jewelers held at Sotheby’s New York last fall.

“It’s taken people a long time to acknowledge the extent of her talent,” said Melanie Grant, the London-based editor, stylist and author who curated the exhibition. “We absolutely had to have her. She’s one of those people whose design is timeless, genderless — it goes beyond trend and fashion.”

The growing awareness of Ms. Rabun’s creations coincides with her return to America. After 31 years in London, where she relocated in 1989 to pursue a romantic relationship, Ms. Rabun came back to Los Angeles in October 2020, intent on making good on a dream she had nurtured since the late 1970s.

She was 16 at the time and visiting her eldest sister, who lived with her new husband in an architectural gem of a home in the Oakland Hills east of San Francisco.

“I’m sure it was a Neutra house,” Ms. Rabun said, referring to the modernist architect Richard Neutra. “It was a midcentury, beautiful, huge A-frame with a big fireplace and sunken living room. They had a water bed in the bedroom and a Porsche Carrera.

“I didn’t think there were any African American people living like that,” she added. “Living your life unlike others, in your own way, on your terms.”

Ms. Rabun yearned for the freedom she associated with that California idyll, even as her career and personal life kept her tied to Britain. Now, although she continues to spend time in London to maintain relationships with longstanding clients, she is based on the West Coast, where easy access to nature and continual 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 seems to have made the transition even more meaningful. “There is that idea to dream bigger and change the world here,” she said. “I love that philosophy and I really wanted my son to be around that.”

As Ms. Rabun spoke, the gold rings, gold bracelets and distinctive gold bangle watch that adorned her hands and wrists — a mix of her own designs as well as archival pieces by the midcentury designer 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,” Mr. Everett said recently. He had met Ms. Rabun for the first time at the opening reception for “Brilliant & Black.” “She had on a lot of jewelry and she looked flawless. If she hadn’t been a designer and creator and an 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 about a decade and had a flourishing business selling silver jewelry to high-end stores such as Barneys New York. (That specialty retailer bought her debut “Raw Elegance” collection in 1991, what she called her first big break.)

“I went to have dinner with a friend, and she invited Marc Hom, a Danish photographer who was connected to the then-owners of Georg Jensen,” Ms. Rabun recalled. “He said, ‘I think they’re looking for some new designers, would you like me to introduce you?’ The next day, I get a call from the C.E.O.”

The company gave her a simple design brief: the egg, a shape she already had used in designing a bangle. “I worked on the collection, at a time when my son was small, about that 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 and sculptural shapes 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 infuses 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 introduced 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 about trying to fill the B.L.M. quota,” she said, referring to the Black Lives Matter movement and the flurry of interest in Black creative leaders that came in the wake of the 2020 murder of George Floyd and the public outcry that followed. “It was about a shared design language.”

Regarding the recent attention, Ms. Rabun said she was ambivalent. “I’m looking forward to the time, if we really want to be diverse, when a jewelry designer is a jewelry designer,” she said. “Why do we need to attach race or gender to it?”

But Ms. Rabun made it clear that she was grateful to be a part of the “Brilliant & Black” exhibition, where she showcased designs based on her Black Love collection, inspired by the concept of two seeds fused together into a sculptural heart symbol. Introduced in 2015, the collection, partly set in oxidized sterling silver, was Ms. Rabun’s way of channeling the grief she felt every time she learned another Black man had been killed by the police.

“The simplicity of it is masterful,” Ms. Grant said. “She refers to Black culture but with a very light but intimate touch.”

Ms. Rabun’s Black Love pieces for Sotheby’s, which were executed in 18-karat yellow gold, featured oversize heart-shaped designs set with crystals of rutilated quartz. The quartz also appears in her newest 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 weren’t full enough, Ms. Rabun also has been fielding a growing number of private commissions. Earlier this year, for example, she completed a necklace for a client in Paris using a 20-carat yellow diamond that he wanted reset for his wife’s 40th birthday. The resulting piece, featuring 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 in four corners, and there are 40 links for her 40th birthday,” Ms. Rabun said. “When I do commissions, I have to make sure it’s connected to the wearer.”

Soon Ms. Rabun plans to extend that philosophy beyond jewelry, as her self-described obsession with objects and furniture has led to a new collaboration in the world of lighting. While she declined to share details (“It is early days,” she explained), she said the collection was likely to 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 shown at the 2017 Wallpaper Handmade Exhibition in Milan.

Ms. Rabun said she had been inspired by 20th-century modernists (and Georg Jensen collaborators), such as the Danish furniture designers Nanna Ditzel and Verner Panton, whom she described as having lived their lives unapologetically immersed in their art.

“I’ve always been drawn to artists that are living it,” Ms. Rabun said. “I guess that’s why I had to come home — I had to fully live it.”