The springs of Otto Jakob’s imagination are teeming with life and symbols long forgotten. Hands clutching chameleons. Glittering gastropod shells. Deadly morning stars cast in gold. Inspired by Etruscan, Celtic, Hellenic cultures, as well as artistry-rich periods like the Renaissance and Middle Ages, the self-taught jeweller-artist creates pieces that look like they belong in museums, not on people.
Jakob started down the path of a traditional artist after enrolling in an art academy in Karlsruhe, Germany, in 1977. But his main takeaway after a three-year apprenticeship was that he’d rather go back to his childhood hobby of making jewellery — and jewellery that’s nothing like the kind you see behind glass cases in glittery boutiques.
If his aesthetic seems alien and mystical, it’s only because many of us have lost ourselves to the cult of minimalism and goes-with-everything designs. Jakob’s pieces go with a deep appreciation of history and a refined if rebellious sense of style. It’s the reason he decided to learn all his techniques “not in person, but through the museums and the writings that the old masters left behind.”
He isn’t immediately drawn to what we deem as precious when it comes to materials either. He won’t shun the likes of quartz, tagua seeds, brown diamonds, burnished silver and semi-precious stones if they work in service of his dreams. Paired with historic techniques rarely found in the modern world, such as vitreous enamel and nature casting (a variation of lost-wax casting that creates moulds directly from organic objects), Jakob’s stunning jewellery is nothing short of a journey. Here’s a peek into how the cogs work in that bizarre and beautiful brain.
Has your background in the fine arts informed your jewellery designs in any way?
It gave me a perspective and ambition different from that of a tradesman or a designer. It taught me that every great artist keeps reinventing himself and his work, as opposed to redoing one successful design for decades, robbing oneself of the chance to do something better. It gave me endurance to stick to my own thing, instead of being swayed by the dictate of fashions and markets.
When did you realise that jewellery was your own thing?
As a young man I believed painting to be my calling and studied under Georg Baselitz. As it would turn out, he became the only living instructor that I would have in my professional career. My goal was to make an impact, to create something new and original. However, I was never satisfied with my paintings. After some years, I decided to quit and went through an inner revision. I destroyed almost everything I had painted and began searching for new ways of expression.
One night, I had an epiphany: I dreamt of jewellery that were fantastic and wild. When I woke up, there were so many things going through my head that I did not have time to sketch; instead, I wrote them down. The self doubt that had always accompanied my painting was gone, and from that moment on I knew I had found the starting point for my development.
Describe your approach to materials and gemstones.
As a young boy, I enjoyed perusing old mines in search of minerals and crystals. These experiences helped me establish the value scale of the materials I favour today: when a kid finds his first rock crystal, the respect for such a material is preserved forever. This knowledge of crystallography is crucial in my selection of stones and development of my own cuts.
What’s the story behind the first piece you sold?
It was to Georg Baselitz. I ran into him on the street, and he wanted to know what became of me after I left the art academy so I took him to my studio and showed him what I was working on. He did not say much but gave me a bundle of money with a request to make something for his wife. This story is rather representative of my early clientele, which consisted almost exclusively of German artists such as Jörg Immendorff, Markus Lüpertz, Günther Förg, and Sigmar Polke.
You don’t have a retail presence and only exhibit at jewellery fairs — why?
I exhibit at Tefaf Maastricht (The European Fine Art Fair) and, up until the inaugural Tefaf New York Fall in 2017, it was the only one I exhibited at. I like Tefaf because it is the only fair that satisfies my idea of presentation and environment — it is an international meeting point of art connoisseurs.
I make about 100 pieces each year, including major works, small series, and special commissions. Considering all the pieces sold during the year, there would barely be enough left to outfit a single showcase, let alone a whole boutique. I like it that way. I am very hands on with my work and prefer to spend as much time as possible at the workbench myself.
You’ve stayed relatively under the radar in the global high jewellery scene. What are your thoughts on the spotlight and criticism?
Spotlight is of no interest to me. Maybe it is a phenomenon for people who let others do the actual work. Criticism from people I respect gets under my skin. Otherwise, I’m resistant to it.
How do you think you have evolved as a jewellery artist?
Since the very beginning, I have strived to develop my own visual language and to master the craftsmanship to bring this language to life. These two goals are not something that can be achieved with any degree of finality and attaining them has remained an ongoing process.
How do you define success?
If it’s there, it either spurs you on or slows you down. If it’s not there, the only way [to attain it] is to work against the wind and create stronger works.
This story first appeared in the March 2021 issue of A Magazine.