Hans Stern – The King of Colored Gems & More
Heralded by The New York Times as “The King of Colored Gems,” the legendary Hans Stern was a legendary presence in the fine jewelry industry. His dynamic use of vibrant and colorful gemstones set in soulful designs are a cornerstone of his creations. Bridging this color-clad legacy into a gold-focused future wasn't something Hans Stern simply approved of—it’s what he directed.
By Dan Scott
By Dan Scott
Born in Essen, Germany on October 1, 1922, World War II forced the Stern family to flee to Brazil. The year was 1937 and, at 17 years of age, Stern would soon realize this geographical move would be more than a safe haven; it would be a touch-point to global greatness.
As a Jewish German immigrant having just experienced literal gray clouds of death and despair, a colorful and joyous Brazil must have been nothing short of Utopia. The country was so inviting to Stern, it instantly capitulated the young artist's mindset from conflict to creativity. Stern fell in love with the abundance of Brazil's colored gemstones, the beauty of the landscape,
and the ability to translate his budding artful acumen in peace. During his late teenage years, Stern found work with a Rio-based exporter of minerals and precious stones. That company was Cristab, and while his position was entry-level within the jewelry sector, it wouldn't remain entry-level for long.
In those days, Stern enjoyed slow inland travels by horseback. He embraced this form of commute as it allowed him to scan the land for gemstones and often interact with miners of the same mindset.
It was there he touched his first tourmaline, later to be his gemstone of choice. Through the assistance of Brazilian miners, he also found amethysts, topazes and other gemstones in the deepest pockets of the southeastern state of Minas Gerais.
Stern would do far more than marvel at these colorful gemstones; he would cut, set and sell them in a way never quite experienced in Brazil. By 1945, Stern filled a void in Brazilian gemstone trading and the marketing with the launch of his company, H. Stern. As his firm slowly took shape, Stern trained groups of young local jewelers and strategically elevated the Brazilian jewelry trade to global standards. His business was indeed growing, but very slowly. It lacked a firm foundation for the type of growth he envisioned.
That instantly changed in 1951 when Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza burst into an H. Stern shop in Rio de Janeiro. He immediately purchased an aquamarine necklace for US$20,000. A reason to celebrate in today's market to be sure, yet remember the year was 1951.
Stern's new client along with other newfound wealthy individuals worldwide allowed him to quickly ramp up to over 100 stores in Brazil. He continued to network with alliances in Europe, the Middle East and the United States. In the years that followed, the brand would gain much acclaim including the Grand Prix de La Ville de Genève, the De Beers Diamond Award and in 2015, and a very large showcase at the Rio de Janeiro Gold Exhibit.
Seven years after opening his first store in 1963 on Fifth Avenue, New York City, it was followed by boutiques in Lisbon and Frankfurt in 1970. In 2002, his boutiques and showrooms incorporated a very modern look and flair. In 2003, H. Stern participated at the Basel Watch and Jewelry show in Switzerland.
The Basel fair proved crucial for networking and gaining European exposure. By 2007, the company had grown to 150 stores in 13 countries. In 2018, H. Stern operated 170 boutiques in 26 countries.
Leveraging his keen ability to collaborate, Stern ventured into new partnerships. He did so, by and large, without colored gems in his latter years. His new clients along with other newfound wealthy individuals worldwide allowed him to quickly ramp up to over 100 stores in Brazil. He continued to network with alliances in Europe, the Middle East and the USA. In the years that followed, the brand gained much acclaim including the Grand Prix de La Ville de Genève, the De Beers Diamond Award and in 2015, and a very large showcase at the Rio de Janeiro Gold Exhibit.
A strong friend of the fashion elite, Stern personally selected the queen of the ready-to-wear wrap dress, Diane von Furstenberg to debut a gold-themed collection in 2006. Reflecting the works and style of the authoritative woman, power rings, earrings and bracelets debuted in large 18K gold links, many with clear crystals. The “Love Knot,” a Tetan symbol of eternal love would serve as its icon. The dual brands reunited in 2011 for a brief showing with "DVF by H. Stern."
In October of 2010, three years after Hans Stern's death, the brand returned to Brazil for what was to be a historic meeting of the minds. There, they connected with renown architect Oscar Niemeyer on a collection of jewelry that reflected the artist’s simplistic forms. Both names are famous in their native country for significant contributions. Stern cultivated the country’s gemstone business and Niemeyer designed buildings that are scattered throughout the country, particularly in the capital city of Brasília.
At the ripe age of 102, Niemeyer sketched the jewelry designs with Roberto Stern, current president and creative director of H. Stern with a small design team. The final pieces featured streamlined 18K gold and diamonds inspired by the outline of flowers. “The jewels are extremely pretty and very light. It's incredible how they have managed to manufacture and replicate my designs exactly,” Niemeyer noted in 2010. The collection was a tremendous hit and remains a strong seller with prices from US$650 to over US$25,000 worldwide. As with DVF, Niemeyer and Stern were rather sans color and big on gold.
Two years of metallurgical research and over 180 metal combinations were tested to reach the desired result of what was the next notable launch from H. Stern: "Nobel Gold." This custom-made alloy that was created specifically to complement the colors of the Brazilian gemstones and allow crystal clear options to be equally as brilliant. Focus was on processing gold's natural deep golden hue to combine it with the refinement of the white gold. As a custom alloy, Nobel Gold offers a tonality that has been an exclusive feature of the H. Stern brand, uniting the warmth of yellow gold with the elegance of white gold.
To celebrate the brand's 70th anniversary, a new star was born in 2016: The Stern Star. Many a celebrity’s stylist rushed for this custom cut including Catherine Zeta-Jones, Angelina Jolie, Sharon Stone and Cate Blanchett. Zeta-Jones even commented, "H. Stern is my favorite jeweler and one I wouldn't be seen without on the red carpet." These star-stunned testimonies and line-up gave the brand a special reason to create a modern star silhouetted jewelry line shortly thereafter.
An important Hans Stern quote is a befitting close to this legend's life. "There is no semi-precious stone, as there is no semi-pregnant woman or semi-honest man."
Stern despised the term "semi-precious" and petitioned international gemological institutes to form a new classification for the term. He debated this strongly and deeply wished to reclassify the term "semi-precious" to be “precious, colored stones.”
While accepted in principal and verbal discussions of his day, the industry continues to use the crutch term "semi-precious" to denote gemstones that are less valuable on the market than their rarer counterparts.
Was Stern's final heartfelt attempt at gaining a "precious" reclassification all in vein? Hardly.
Ask yourself what you personally consider to be precious, no matter what that item is made of. To you, certain items you truly hold dear are indeed the most important items on earth. Those items probably are not what any industry would formally define as "precious." And so, please join me in celebrating what may very well be Hans Stern's most triumphant and gallant of victories.
All photos are courtesy of H. Stern and the Stern family unless otherwise indicated.
Dan Scott is a Brand Architect with Luxe Licensing with current and past clients including Harry Winston, Chanel and Gucci jewelry as well as newly launched brands. He welcomes conversation and is available at firstname.lastname@example.org