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Why Jeweler Otto Jakob’s Latest Creation is a Sign of the Times

Highly attuned to the world around him, Jakob creates stirring jewelry that holds a mirror up to the current moment
Otto Jakob working on the Hand with Raven Skull. Courtesy of Otto Jakob.
By Levi Higgs  Sep 8, 2021
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To look into the past and truly synthesize it, one must be aware of the influence of hindsight. Often, historians fall prey to biases when dissecting artistic movements, knowing full well which monumental events precipitated aesthetic shifts. Without question, the influence of the current global pandemic cannot be overlooked as we review the artistic endeavors of the very recent past. It is rare that one is cognizant of a defining historical moment as one lives through it, and yet, that is exactly what German master jeweler Otto Jakob has done—created a highly-symbolic and masterfully-crafted jewel poignantly observant of the present.

Artists are now more than ever exploring themes that resonate with the current climate of change. Otto Jakob is no stranger to responding to his imagination and impulses. In his 2018 opus book, Ripe Fruit, written by jewelry historian Vivienne Becker, he describes one night in the early 1980s when many of his inspirations came flooding into his mind, and he filled a page with a hurriedly handwritten list. He calls the list his Manifesto. On that original and pivotal list was the phrase “hand hält etwas,” or hand holding something.

Jakob’s pendants of glorious Renaissance-inspired hands holding objects or animals of interest have become one of his most iconic forms that he constantly explores, year after year. Indeed, one even graces the cover of his book with a golden carp clutched in the bejeweled and enameled hand. For the 2021 edition of TEFAF Online, Jakob brought forth a new version, entitled Hand with Raven Skull, also known as Plague Doctor Mask. The hand is an intricately enameled black hand with liquid gold tattoos inspired by a reprint of a 1925 edition book on tribal tattoos. On the fingers are two rings—one an antique-cut brown diamond ring, and the other, a table-cut green sapphire. Within the clutches of the hand is a white enameled raven skull, embellished with liquid gold again, giving a weathered look to the work. Intrigue is added to the skull’s interior through two rose-cut diamonds, which sit within the eye sockets.

Otto Jakob Meet the Experts | TEFAF | The European Fine Art Foundation
Otto Jakob, Hand with Raven Skull, 2021. Hand: white enamel and gold ornaments, eye sockets: rose-cut diamonds, diamond-set bracelet with painted gold ornaments, and sapphire and diamond rings. Length 6.6 cm (2.6 in.). Courtesy: Otto Jakob.

Aside from the two rings, the hand also wears a yellow diamond bracelet wrapped around the wrist that forms the golden loop from which the entire pendant hangs. The pattern here of blackened gold blobs sitting inside triangular wells rushed into Jakob’s mind’s eye when he was walking with his dog after a rainstorm and witnessed perfectly globular spheres of water sitting inside the crevasse of a leaf. It’s amazing how inspiration strikes and amalgamates into a finished jewel for Jakob.

The iconography of the plague doctor mask is particularly relevant. Amidst a pandemic rife with illness that has afflicted the entire world, there has been a resurgence of imagery involving the long-nosed mask used to keep the plague at bay in the 17th century. I recently spoke with Jakob to find out more about the inspirations and thought process behind the work.

Otto Jakob Meet the Experts | TEFAF | The European Fine Art Foundation

You mention that the Hand with Raven Skull is also known as Plague Doctor Mask. Why did you choose to explore this rather timely theme in your work?

Otto Jakob: The height of a pandemic is an appropriate time to look at the historical dealings with such events. I tattooed the hand with protective symbols: I have a high regard for archaic tattoos such as those from the Marquesas, and their universally valid and powerful language. The skull is a symbol of transience par excellence. In connection with the protective factor of tattoos, its contact with the hand symbolizes connection with death. My own perception of mortality is congruent with the vanitas idea of the past centuries. For the like-minded, this piece is a help in coming to terms with their own transience.

How has the past year impacted you and your work?

Otto Jakob: Almost my entire immediate family, including myself, had COVID-19 rather early in the pandemic, just before the mass panic in Europe and the U.S. began. By then, the repeat infections were known to be extremely rare, and thus our early recoveries gave us a small private bubble that helped us to get through the pandemic mentally unscathed.

As for my work, the last year was among the most productive of my life. I come from art, and I see my atelier from the point of view of an artist rather than a businessman. I kept working as usual, with the atelier running at its full capacity throughout the pandemic despite the halved number of commissions. Barely any client came by in person, so I used all the time on my hands to explore new ideas.

I love the story about walking your dog after a rainstorm. It’s interesting to me that you can combine such a variety of references, all within one piece: the tattoos, the Renaissance hand form, the eroded raven skull, and the purity of water within a leaf. What is your process for sifting through your trove of references?

Otto Jakob: It took 230 hours to make, spread over a period of over three months. I had time to think, put things in perspective, and take a couple of walks with my dog. Despite turning 70 this year, I am not interested in retirement or even reducing my personal workload. Always being at the atelier, working at the workbench along with my goldsmiths, spares me the necessity to determine every detail in advance. I develop new pieces step-by-step, taking the time to think through and perfect each individual component in its own right. The thinking process is intuitive and uncontrolled. I look at the world with open eyes, take in new impulses, and let them mix up with the things already in my head, developing spontaneous associations and connections.

“My own perception of mortality is congruent with the vanitas idea of the past centuries. For the like-minded, this piece is a help in coming to terms with their own transience.” — Otto Jakob.

Is there anything that is inspiring you anew after this past year?

Otto Jakob: This year reminded me of the beginning of my artistic career when I was making my early pieces without any access to the market. I had this inner conviction that the things I was making were necessary. This belief is the most important prerequisite for an artist who creates something that was not there before him. Concentrating on the work instead of on the market is a great freedom that spurs creativity.

What is your vision and hope for the future?

Otto Jakob: Looking back on the decades of my work, I see an evolutionary path. And, of course, a consideration arises, what still needs to be done to complete and improve it. The diversity of my work comes from the fact that I find it boring to graze a meadow to the last leaf, and will soon leave in pursuit of the next idea.

Ultimately, Vivienne Becker sums up the emotional and intellectual journey one takes when investigating a jewel by Otto Jakob: “The deeper you delve into Otto Jakob iconography, the harder, more complicated it becomes to unravel its masterful multiplicity, while the jewel itself becomes ever more fascinating and meaningful.” Hand with Raven Skull is a prescient jewel that fits seamlessly into the oeuvre of a jeweler known for his complexity and multifaceted references, but it also nestles so well into the current climate of caution, ever driving home the importance of reveling in the now.

Portrait of Otto Jakob and video of “Hand with Raven Skull”: courtesy of Otto Jakob.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Levi Higgs is a decorative arts and jewelry historian and the archivist at David Webb.

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