Independents

Award-Winning Jewelry Designer Jose Hess Dies at 87

IndependentsFeb 11, 2021

Award-Winning Jewelry Designer Jose Hess Dies at 87

He led many industry organizations during his career and was a champion of American designer jewelry.

20210211_JoseHess.jpg
Jewelry designer Jose Hess died peacefully in his home in St. Augustine, Florida earlier this week. He was 87. (Image courtesy of CIBJO)
St. Augustine, Fla.—Jewelry designer and industry leader Jose Hess died on Feb. 9 at the age of 87.

The award-winning designer’s impact resounded beyond just the scope of his art, impacting many in the jewelry world, particularly through his championing of branded jewelry.

According to a statement from CIBJO and his obituary, Hess was born in 1933.

His Jewish family fled Nazi Germany in 1938, settling in Colombia, where immigration officials changed his given name, “Josef,” to “Jose.”

He began working in the jewelry industry at the age of 14 to support his family after both his parents fell ill. He worked under a Viennese goldsmith, who had also fled Nazi Germany, learning to fabricate jewelry and set gemstones by hand.

At 17 he immigrated to the United States, continuing to work in various jewelry jobs while also finishing high school and taking gemology courses at the Gemological Institute of America.

He earned a degree at The Mechanics Institute of the General Society of Mechanics & Tradesmen of the City of New York, then served four years in the U.S. military before becoming a full-time jeweler for David Webb.

In 1958, he pursued a career under his own name, which was difficult given stores’ reluctance to credit designers’ work as their own brands, as was common with clothing at the time too.

To help establish himself as a brand in his own right, Hess entered design competitions.

By 1963 he had garnered his first award, a De Beers Diamonds International Award for a gold and diamond leaf pin.

During his career he won more than a dozen awards from the diamond miner and marketer, as well as two International Gold Corp. Certificate of Merits and a Spectrum Award from the American Gem Trade Association.

Hess was deeply embedded in the American and international jewelry communities, championing independent, branded fine jewelry and often mentoring other designers and industry players.

He was on the board of the Manufacturing Jewelers & Suppliers of America (MJSA), and a president of the Plumb Club and the 24 Karat Club of the City of New York.

He was a founder of the American Jewelry Design Council, as well as the Contemporary Jewelry Design Group, and taught at FIT.

Hess also was the first American to be elected president of CIBJO, serving two terms from 1997 through 2000.

Current CIBJO president Gaetano Cavalieri commented: “Jose is a one of a handful of people whom one can truly describe as having changed our industry, and he left it a better place.

“In so many respects I owe my position to him, for it was he that, more than 20 years ago, insisted that, if I really wanted to make a mark, I needed to devote myself to public service. I succeeded him as president, but he never left my side. He was my role model, my mentor and my friend.”

Hess is survived by his wife of 33 years, Magdalena “Maggie” Hess, who is also a jewelry designer and continues her husband’s eponymous line.

He is also survived by their four children, Lawrence, Francine, Aaron and Josef, and four grandchildren.

Cavalieri continued: “Jose was compassionate and generous, with a keen sense of humanity and community. In so many ways he embodied the cosmopolitan industry of which we are all part, with a strong feeling of pride of where he came from and remarkable degree of comfort in all the places that life had taken him, from Europe to South America and then to the United States, which he loved dearly.

“He also was a brilliant jeweler, raising the level of our craft to fine art. Our thoughts are of him, and with Maggie and his family.”

In lieu of flowers, memorial donations may be made to the American Jewelry Design Council, P.O. Box 1149, Hermitage, PA, 16148. 

A private memorial service is planned in Florida.
Ashley Davisis the senior editor, fashion at National Jeweler, covering all things related to design, style and trends.

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