According to a statement from the World Jewellery Confederation, Hess served as the group’s first American president from 1997 through 2000. Other prestigious positions include serving as a founding member of the American Jewelry Design Council and the Contemporary Jewelry Design Group, as an instructor at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology, as a board member of the Manufacturing Jewelers and Silversmiths of America (MJSA), and as president of both the Plumb Club and the 24 Karat Club of the City of New York.
As a jewelry designer, Hess’ aesthetic was legendary: sculptural, timeless, and diamond intense. Over this lifetime, he won seven De Beers Diamonds International Awards, eight De Beers Diamonds Today Awards, two International Gold Corp. Certificate of Merits and an American Gem Trade Association Spectrum Award. His jewelry was worn by celebrities and featured in myriad magazines.
Hess was born in 1933 into a Jewish family that left Nazi Germany in 1938, settling in Colombia. Upon arrival, an immigration official replaced his birth name “Josef” with “Jose,” a Spanish moniker that stuck.
He started working in jewelry at age 14, learning goldsmithing from a Viennese professional who had also fled Germany. Hand fabrication by way of melting gold into wire and sheet shaped his education, and at 17 he immigrated to the U.S. Eventually, he took gemology courses at GIA, obtained a degree from the Mechanics Institute of the General Society of Mechanics & Tradesmen of the City of New York, and spent four years in the U.S. military. Afterwards, he made models and jewelry for David Webb, setting up his eponymous firm in 1958, determined to make a name for his own brand.
Hess leaves behind his wife of 33 years, Magdalena “Maggie” Hess, four children—Lawrence, Francine, Aaron and Josef—and four grandchildren.
Asked about his signature “Strong like bull” reply whenever asked how he was doing, Maggie Hess said her husband answered that way out of a desire to offer messages of positivity and inspiration.
“He wanted the person asking to stop and think about how they felt in that moment,” she explains. “Jose was such an optimistic and encouraging person and he truly wanted people to be happy, to see the good things in life, and to always be grateful.”
Hess says a Celebration of Life: A Tribute to Jose Hess is imminent in the coming days but for now, interested persons can make donations to the designer’s beloved American Jewelry Design Council.
The brand will continue on. “Jose and I were just finishing a beautiful bridal collection which will be launched soon,” adds Hess. “It is very much our intention to celebrate Jose’s incredible art and beautiful designs, and we will continue to develop pieces inspired by him. We want Jose to be remembered as a kind, humble, and gifted man who loved the simple things in life, and always reminded everyone to believe in themselves.”
In a CIBJO webinar on Thursday, Feb. 11, Gaetano Cavalieri, CIBJO’s current president, lauded his longtime friend and peer. “He is the reason I was elected president,” he explained. “I was consulting him every day, and the day he died was my worst day in terms of sadness. We have lost a great leader, a great designer, and a giant in our industry.”