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Shibumi Project: CURATE - CUSTOM. CLIENTS. COMMUNITY.

Shibumi ProjectApril Higashi
Stephen and Gia at their Oakland home.

Stephen and Gia at their Oakland home.

Stephen and Gia at their Oakland home.

I ‘curate’ most anything for pure pleasure; photographs, images, objects I find in nature, my jewelry, my home, my gallery, my clothing and the jewelry on others. I guess this is why I have chosen this as my profession. However, my extended dream would be to be able to curate my clients as well. What if I only worked with the people I admire, the people who inspire me and the ones whose thoughts and ideas most resonate with me?

If I could then Stephen and Gia would be at the top of that list.

I am not sure when I fist met Stephen and Gia, but it was over ten years ago. And forgive me, Gia, that my first memory is of Stephen. Not that Gia isn’t absolutely lovely and beautiful, but Stephen instantly captured my attention because he was a man. And not in a romantic way, which I’m sure is where your mind may instantly go. But Stephen clearly loved jewelry and was always wearing a well-selected assortment of handmade pieces. He captured my attention because his appreciation for jewelry was so refreshingly unique for a man.

Stephen is a scientist with longer hair and a British accent. When he comes to the gallery, he not only spends time thoughtfully handling and considering pieces but also brings interesting thoughts about life for us to dialogue about. He has always been curious about my process and we often speak about much more than simply jewelry. At first it seemed he was almost testing me to see if I was worthy of making him a piece. He'd frequently inquire about more masculine versions of pieces I had designed for women because so much of what I make is for women. Over the years he has commissioned many pieces that suit him perfectly. When I see him there is usually a new configuration of multiple pieces he has thoughtfully put together. It is so satisfying to see a straight man wearing jewelry in a tasteful way that extends beyond the clichéd male jewelry one typically sees. There are very few men who buy jewelry for themselves besides their wedding rings. It is refreshing to see a man buy jewelry for himself.

Gia, Stephen’s wife, is striking and svelte with short, salt-and-pepper hair. She too is a scientist but also an artist at heart. She makes much of her own clothing; impressively even the patterns. When she arrives at the gallery with an idea for a new custom piece, she brings a detailed sketch to illustrate her ideas. And as we work together she always has the most friendly, considerate feedback to my designs and suggestions.

Gia also curates the pieces on her body. But each piece is often worn daily and selected to go with other regularly worn pieces she already owns. Her necklaces and earrings may change, but the collection on her hand and wrist are so distinctly ‘Gia’ that I can’t imagine her without each and every ring and a few rotating bracelets she never seems to be without.

It seems that out of appreciation and curiosity for what we do, they think deeply about the gallery and my business; from how its managed to how each piece is designed and fabricated. It is rare for a client to be interested in or want to understand the underpinnings of a small business, especially those clients who have worked under the larger structures of the more traditional working world. Sometimes I swear I can almost hear the wheels in Stephen’s brain turning as he is considering and calculating my net cost, the amount of my inventory and the investment I make on each staff member. I am laughing as I think about this because it is true. Running a jewelry gallery and a working studio is a lot of balls to keep in the air at once and they both know it. I appreciate how they are so watchful of the structure and intention of my business. They have figured out that while Shibumi needs to be to be profitable to support myself and my staff of eight, there is a greater vision of creativity, community and mentorship that I am trying to achieve with all this as well.

Because custom projects have been such a significant part of my relationship with both Stephen and Gia I have asked them to share a story or antidote or funny memory about working with Shibumi. While our relationship has evolved around the gallery and jewelry, not over meals, drinks or shared outings as a friendship might typically evolve, Stephen and Gia feel like much more than just clients. They feel like friends.

Stephen’s April Higashi Enamel Panel Bracelet, Raw Diamond Cuff, Black Tourmaline Ring, pieces alongside his Shibumi Gallery jewelry collection of various artists: Claudia Alleyne, Eric Silva, Kai Wolter, Julia Efimova, Brandon Holschuh, June Schwartcz.

Stephen’s April Higashi Enamel Panel Bracelet, Raw Diamond Cuff, Black Tourmaline Ring, pieces alongside his Shibumi Gallery jewelry collection of various artists: Claudia Alleyne, Eric Silva, Kai Wolter, Julia Efimova, Brandon Holschuh, June Schwartcz.

Stephen: Process

April has said the ideas we bring to her expand and challenge the team. Skills are built, new possibilities arise, the artist evolves, and we all find our authentic selves, either side of the equation.

If you think Process but don’t have hands-on familiarity with jewelers’ and goldsmiths’ skills, it is both easy to think yourself out of an idea and hard to explain it. Not true at Shibumi Gallery!

The Shibumi Process: describing the idea that is in my mind’s eye, while April and her team probe, show examples, and ultimately refine the idea and execute it -- damn the technical challenges (Ben, the ‘deep thinker’ Shibumi goldsmith, will solve those).

We commissioned individual but complementary rings for our 25th wedding anniversary, and for my version I started in my head with a raw diamond erupting from a slab of metal. The ring was to be worn stacked with our existing yellow gold wedding ring. Once we were beyond the Gen X entertainment factor of a 25th wedding anniversary, Claudia, jewelry artist and Shibumi gallery manager, searched me out a spectacular raw diamond at the Tucson Gem show, previewed at the edge of technology through a combination of videos and texts from whichever Shibumi phone had a signal up there in the high desert, and power at that instant. Selecting a precious stone that way was — to be generous — a challenge, but Claudia and April have taste, know mine, and were determined to find that perfect desert diamond.

The hue of the selected raw diamond informed the choice of palladium white gold alloy, the rule of thirds positioned it, and the wedding ring defined overall dimensions. The rest was up to Ben, who expertly set the stone and created an exquisite hammered finish to complement the texture of the raw diamond.

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Forestland Moss photo: 25th Anniversary Rings with natural diamond crystals in 18k palladium white gold alongside original wedding rings in 14k yellow gold.

Forestland Moss photo: 25th Anniversary Rings with natural diamond crystals in 18k palladium white gold alongside original wedding rings in 14k yellow gold.

Then there were the palladium white gold thick gauge ear hoops that April envisioned and designed as elegant replacements for the generic stainless steel ones I wore for 25 years. They had to be inserted on-site by Ben as they are a continuous teardrop hoop meant to permanently adorn the earlobes. April’s previous experience with client insertion of thick continuous hoops was blood, stress, and tears and she was worried my experience would be the same. Upon arrival I was presented with oils, antibiotic wipes and worried faces. But I think Process, and had spent the previous week gradually stretching out my holes by inserting progressively thicker hoops. The PWG hoops went in first try and Ben gently pinched them into place. Smiles all around.

Gia with bamboo, Custom  Adage Cuff, Quartz Earrings, Various Rings by April Higashi. Alongside Shibumi Gallery Artists: Maya Kini, Todd Reed, Claudia Alleyne, Kate Eickelberg, Christopher Neff and Sarah Graham.

Gia with bamboo, Custom Adage Cuff, Quartz Earrings, Various Rings by April Higashi. Alongside Shibumi Gallery Artists: Maya Kini, Todd Reed, Claudia Alleyne, Kate Eickelberg, Christopher Neff and Sarah Graham.

Gia: It Takes A (Talented) Village

Ideas are cheap; it’s all about the execution. Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. This Shibumi custom project put these adages to the test.

The seed was a sketch and an impression of a chunky, multi-strand beaded bracelet that would hug the wrist like a cuff, with a custom clasp as the centerpiece. Type and size of bead? Feasibility of clasp? The only certainty was that the clasp would be a hunk of rough-textured oxidized silver.

Several collaborative sessions later, the seed grew into a design, a melding of Claudia’s unique bead design aesthetic and the spirit of April’s iconic enameled panel bracelet with its refined hinge clasp. Strands and strands of round matte hematite beads, crossing over each other organically, held together by a large textured silver hinge sprinkled with cast-in-place diamond mackles, the hinge pin capped with yellow gold for a pop of color. Finally ready for execution.

Or not. Claudia flirted with insomnia, brainstorming a way to elegantly hide the knotted ends of the many strands to ensure the final piece was not “crafty”. Her eureka moment: a manifold that encases the knots and then slots into the clasp body, secured with invisible rivets.

Ben then carved the clasp wax, thoughtfully curving the back to conform to the shape of my wrist — “for comfort”. But the diamond mackles were hit and miss in the final cast, several of them lost to the depths of the silver as Ben had speculated. April came to the rescue, suggesting to flush set some small grey diamonds randomly to replace the buried bling. The resulting surface is the essence of wabi-sabi — an aesthetic principle that underpins much of April’s work — textured and organic, and quietly, barely perceptibly, sparkling.

At last, the clasp was ready. The manifolds slid into place, effecting a seamless transition between bead and metal, as if the strands are molten offshoots of the mother clasp. The illusion belies none of the precision engineering and process used to achieve it. Definitely not crafty.

Out of myriad technical challenges and a meeting of many minds emerged a unique and stunning piece of art.

Above: Gia’s hand with April Higashi jewelry alongside various Shibumi Gallery artist’s work. Gia’s partial collection of Shibumi jewelry: April Higashi, Maya Kini, Sarah Graham, Kate Eickelberg, Darcy Miro, Eric Silva, Claudia Alleyne.

Above: Gia’s hand with April Higashi jewelry alongside various Shibumi Gallery artist’s work. Gia’s partial collection of Shibumi jewelry: April Higashi, Maya Kini, Sarah Graham, Kate Eickelberg, Darcy Miro, Eric Silva, Claudia Alleyne.

WEARABILITY AND THE POWER OF THE SMALL ART

Press, ArticlesApril Higashi

An Outsider’s View By Sarah Thornton

Originally published December 24, 2018 on Art Jewelry Forum

(April Higashi, owner of Shibumi Gallery, is featured in this article)

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I recently encountered a fascinating subculture, populated mostly by women who make, buy, and sell small objects in a vast range of materials that they sometimes install on their bodies. Called contemporary jewelry or art jewelry (and sometimes artist jewelry), this field has a distinct set of etiquettes and values that makes its wares more thought-provoking, but no less theatrical, than costume jewelry. While many practitioners call themselves “artists,” they shirk the label “sculptor” and, despite its technical accuracy, “wearable sculpture” is rejected for its pretension and insufficient pride in the field’s ornamental origins. To an outsider, this refusal of more “serious” nomenclature is curious. It’s particularly noteworthy when paired with persuasive assertions about the field’s status as art. “Going back into pre-history, the first piece of sculpture was likely jewelry,” says Rebekah Frank, a practitioner who works principally in steel, and the former director of Art Jewelry Forum. “Jewelry has a long history of exuding power and offering protection.”

As someone who studied art history as an undergraduate, earned a PhD in the sociology of culture, and has been writing about the art world for 20 years, I think art jewelry has a leg up on regular old art in at least six important ways.

1. You can touch it! In an increasingly digital world where experiences that once offered a tactile dimension (like reading, shopping, and dating) are being performed online through small screens, art engages the whole body with real texture and scale. Here, art jewelry delivers more, such as the sensation of cold metal, rough stone, and smooth plastic. Indeed, it is a profound pleasure to close overused eyes and literally feel an idea.

2. The body—rather than an inert white wall or dull gray plinth—is the work’s primary platform. “The wearer is your pedestal out in the world and your spokesperson. Often they are better at it than you,” says Emiko Oye, an art jeweler who makes elaborate statements with Lego bricks. She constructs her work on four mannequins named Julian, Lola, Lolita, and Martha, the last of which is named for her grandmother, who used it to make her own clothes. Others execute their work on themselves. “I wear it while I am making it—testing how it lies, adjusting how it hangs. A major part of my process is trying it on,” says Nikki Couppee, an artist best known for her nostalgically feminine Pop assemblages of pink Plexiglas and shells. “Once it’s finished, though, I never wear my own work. It feels uncomfortably self-promoting. But I love to trade and wear other people’s work and see them wear mine.”

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3. Art jewelry offers greater opportunities for social interaction. A few years ago, the National Endowment for the Arts did a study of why people attend art institutions. The number one reason offered was to socialize with friends or family. Significant art jewelry is invariably a conversation piece, so it invites engagement with others, and inserts the wearer into the classic interpretative dyad between artist and viewer. From this point of view, the essential habitat of art jewelry is not the exhibition, but the cocktail party. I admire the honesty and transparency of this situation. In the opaque art world, the premiere event is an alcohol-lubricated social gathering between 6 p.m. and 8 p.m., whose alibi is an exhibition opening.

4. If contemporary art is about spreading startling ideas and opening people’s minds, then why not capitalize on our basic human desire to adorn ourselves and carry talismans? “It’s not about wearing big jewelry. It’s about challenging expectations and telling stories,” declares Mike Holmes, a dealer who ran Velvet da Vinci for 26 years and now curates exhibitions and pop-up stores. “Think of a grandmother’s wedding ring, passed down. Or a political button. Or a war medal, for that matter. These objects give concepts a powerful social life.”

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5. The relatively small size and lower overheads of art jewelry enable greater experimentation. “My interest in jewelry doesn’t come from a love of adorning myself,” says Julia Turner, an artist whose oeuvre includes necklaces made out of oiled walnut and brightly stained maple. “I like jewelry because the scale works for me. I enjoy setting up problems and looking at them from a million points of view. With jewelry, the iterations can be very fast.”

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6. Jewelry artists’ concern for materials is admirably focused and investigative. Its proximity to fine jewelry means that its exploration of the dignity of nonprecious materials often leads to a quiet critique of bling, wealth, and class. “You can’t avoid the history of perceived value, so it is fun to play with preciousness as a theme,” explains Raïssa Bump, a jeweler who often creates knits and quilt patterns in silver. “I like my pieces to shift the wearer in some way, giving them a statement that can be integrated into their self-expression.”

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Strengths often lead to weaknesses. Indeed, much contemporary jewelry is so obsessed with materials that the theme crowds out other artistic concerns and leads to works trapped in a conversation with craft. Moreover, in regions like the San Francisco Bay Area, the hippie legacy looms large and, along with it, a predilection for natural materials and a resistance to new technologies that also ushers work back into the craft ghetto.

Ironically, the one term from which my interviewees appear most anxious for distance is craft, which they associate with a lack of aspiration and old-lady amateurism. Perhaps craft’s theoretical antagonism to the contemporary is to blame? “The old craft world is dying and being reborn within the design world,” explains Susan Cummins, one of America’s foremost collectors of art jewelry. “Due to its functionality and materiality, jewelry belongs under the rubric of design.”

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During my studio visits, in which I was generally scintillated, I nonetheless experienced a few disappointments. Given that the body is the main stage of the work, I was initially shocked by the number of practitioners who told me that they “don’t think” about gender and perceive their work as innocently gender-neutral. It then became clear that the women practitioners I was interviewing were making work for women—a fact that was so obvious that it had sunk beneath their cognizance. For example, after saying that she didn’t think about gender, one respondent mused: “The male torso is a nice platform. It would be nice not to think about boobs.”

Clearly, an important challenge for the status of the field is to gain an audience among men. April Higashi, a jeweler who is also the owner of Berkeley’s Shibumi Gallery, one of two art jewelry stores in the Bay Area (the other is De Novo in Palo Alto), says that, outside of wedding rings, only 3% of the pieces she sells are worn by men. “It is hard to get men to even try it on and, if they do, they can’t wait to take it off,” she explains. When she recently did a show of chunkier jewelry for men, the works sold mostly to women.

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To expand the audience for and stature of contemporary jewelry, I think advocates should consider renaming the field. It’s unlikely that the term “jewelry” will cease (anytime soon) to be associated with thoughtless adornment, commercialism, superficiality, and femininity. I’m a lifelong feminist and believe in the battle to elevate the feminine but, for me, “jewelry” is irretrievable, particularly as its cultural associations are dominated by fine jewelry.

I think it’s worth considering the truly gender-neutral and resolutely contemporary term “wearables.” Now that people of all sexes are wearing computers on their wrists and headphones around their neck, adoption of the term could help put the small objects, formerly known as art jewelry, into conversations with a more ambitious set of themes. Although the term “wearable” is being used by the tech sphere, it’s not owned by it. It isn’t too late!

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Wearability is a weird and wonderful concept. Many of my interviewees made sense of it by evoking a woman wearing four-inch heels. Of course, the physicality of the work will always be central, but what if the issue of wearability took a more intellectual turn? What if the first question were: Does she have the energy to put on this piece and talk about it all night? Or, does this object align with his political values and project a better future? As a category, “wearable art” is not pretentious, prissy, trivial, or trinket-like. Most importantly, it’s not oxymoronic. With commanding matter-of-factness and self-respect, it says what it is.


Sarah Thornton is an ethnographer, writer, and public speaker. Formerly the chief writer on contemporary art for The Economist and, before that, a brand planner in an advertising agencyThornton has a BA in art history and a PhD in the sociology of culture. She’s the author of three books: Seven Days in the Art World33 Artists in 3 Acts and Club Cultures: Music, Media and Subcultural Capital. She has lived most of her adult life in London, England, but now resides in San Francisco, CA. For more information, see: www.sarah-thornton.com. Photo: Margo Moritz

Shibumi Project: Real Women Buy Their Own Jewelry

Shibumi ProjectApril Higashi

Guest-written by Jill Blue Lin
Photography by Cynthia E. Wood

Jill Blue Lin is a UX Designer and Researcher, and an aspiring potter. Oval ceramic fruit bowl by Jill Blue Lin. Emerald, Tourmaline Necklaces and Bone Bangles by April Higashi.

Jill Blue Lin is a UX Designer and Researcher, and an aspiring potter. Oval ceramic fruit bowl by Jill Blue Lin. Emerald, Tourmaline Necklaces and Bone Bangles by April Higashi.

Introduction by April Higashi

A group of parents gathered around tiny tables; some were precariously balanced on doll-sized chairs at our 2 1/2 year old children’s preschool orientation. It was a poignant time to be handing off our babies to go to school; they were still so little. I looked around at all the other nervous parents. Then, being me, I noticed a stylish woman with a ring on her hand that looked perfect on her. The context of the ring and who she was just worked. Later, we struck up a conversation and only then I realized her ring was one of my pearl rings she had gotten at my gallery. Jewelry, art, or something beautiful in the right context can make you stop and take you by surprise or even want to make you know someone. This was one of those moments. Jill and I became friends along with our exes and built a community around our kids. It is certainly not every day that one of my pieces connects me with a treasured friendship, new life stories and how my jewelry became a part of those stories.

Biwa Pearl Ring by April Higashi. Jill’s first piece from Shibumi Gallery.

Biwa Pearl Ring by April Higashi. Jill’s first piece from Shibumi Gallery.

Real Women Buy Their Own Jewelry

The short version is this: when our baby was 8 months old, my husband and I decided to separate, and he moved out. (The longer version belongs in a different story which I might write on another day, but this story is about jewelry.) And what followed then was the hardest period of my life.

I’d just returned to work from maternity leave, and my team and my manager were difficult. Work life was a daily battle. At home, I hadn’t yet figured out how to be a mom, let alone a single mom. And to top it all off, I hadn’t slept four solid hours since my son was born.

Yet, most disconcerting of all was the condition of my house. I could eke out the mortgage payments by myself - I’d practically been doing this for years - but major repairs were out of the question. Everything in the house needed fixing, but all of it had to wait.

We have a mid century modern home in the Berkeley Hills. Built on a very steep hillside, it was the most rundown house on a beautiful street. With partial views of the Golden Gate Bridge and open, light-filled rooms, the house had potential; but the siding was so worn I could pull it off with my bare hands in certain spots. The cheap aluminum windows rattled whenever the wind blew. Under the 1970s fake wood paneling, the walls weren’t insulated, so turning up the heat was tantamount to trying to heat the entire Berkeley Hills. I couldn’t afford a large utility bill, so we were often cold.

Whenever it rained, I dragged out my mixing bowls to catch the water from the leaks. Some days, I came home to find they had overflowed and water had pooled everywhere: the floor by the front door was soaked, water dripped from the ruined plaster ceiling and ran down the wooden stairs. As I mopped up the water and squeezed it into the sink, any remaining equity in the house seemed to disappear with that water down the drain. One evening I came home and found a California newt swimming in one of the bowls. I marveled at how he could possibly have gotten there; then I scooped him up, freed him in the backyard and watched him disappear into the dark.

And day after day, I squared my shoulders and did my best. I triaged, and only did what absolutely had to be done. I worked with a relentless focus, taking breaks to visit the pumping room three times a day. I slept whenever I could, saw my friends, cooked, and exercised.

When I look back on that time, I am astonished we made it through. But my ex proved to be a loving father who continued to help take care of our baby every day, who took out the garbage, and would straighten-up the house whenever he came by. And so many others helped. Friends visited, invited me over and fed me. A coworker recruited me to join her team, and suddenly my work life was no longer a battle. A neighbor lent me her gardener to work on my overgrown yard, and then the house looked a little less crappy from the outside.

Memories of that period are a muddy, sleep-deprived blur, but I do remember that I made time and space to enjoy the baby. In our cold house, we would read and play in bed --underneath warm blankets!-- and I thought he was the most beautiful creature I had ever seen. Somehow, we were happy.

Bit by bit our new life became easier. I got a promotion, a raise, and a meaningful tax refund. The rainy season was over and the weather was warm. The baby started sleeping through the night, and once he did, it was as if a haze had been lifted from the world. One morning I woke up after a full night’s sleep and noticed that my heart no longer lived in my throat: things no longer felt so desperate.

With my newfound ease, on a warm spring day I walked into Shibumi Gallery. I had seen April’s work years ago. With its modern lines and organic shapes, her jewelry is so beautiful that whenever I’m in its presence, every fiber of my body screams “WANT!” I had always meant to ask my husband to buy me one of her pieces someday when we had extra money, but that day never came. I decided to buy myself a ring. What I really craved was a huge diamond slice. But I had a house to fix and a baby to support, so what I got instead was a large pearl ring with an oxidized silver band. It was beautiful and it was enough.

April wasn’t in her gallery that day; we met sometime later at our kids’ preschool. As she tells it, she looked across the room, saw me and thought “That ring looks great on her!” before she recognized it as one of her own. We became fast friends— over the years we’ve watched one another’s kids, cooked for each other, and spent holidays and vacations together.  For almost six years, we’ve been building a community around our children.

My family is doing really well right now. My son is thriving and I have a different job. My ex and I co-parent so well that people have asked if we planned it this way all along. The house is mostly done -- when I manage to straighten up, it looks like Sunset Magazine in here. And when it rains, I no longer have to get out the mixing bowls. A warm, weather-proof house, a solid roof over my child’s head -- these still seem like miraculous luxuries. Every once in awhile, I buy myself a piece of jewelry because I can. And because we all need a little beauty now and again.

Consider the Pearl

Articles, EventsApril Higashi
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Pearls are the only gems that seem to illicit one of two responses from people - an illuminated smile or a disapproving shake of the head.  I have always found it interesting that these gems create such opposing reactions. I hope to provide some thoughtful information which may help turn some of you into pearl appreciators.

Pearls are humankind’s oldest gemstone. Throughout the ages they have inspired myths, legends, superstitions, and even health remedies.

Calling pearls 'gemstones' almost seems wrong, however, they are considered part of a group of gems in the Organics category. This group also includes coral, jet, and amber, but pearls seem to take the crown. There is something about their luster that is seductive, mysterious, deep and alluring. In 1917 Pierre Cartier paid for what is now known as the Cartier Fifth Avenue Mansion in New York City with two strands of ‘natural pearls’ that were valued at a million dollars. It’s rumored that Cleopatra dissolved or crushed a pearl in vinegar and drank it. Pearls have been referenced throughout ancient mythology, folklore, and even biblical scriptures. Amazingly, the oldest-known gem that was worn as jewelry is a piece of pearl that dates back to sometime around 520 B.C. 

In the early 1900’s-1950’s the desired pearls were the perfect, round, white pearls worn as choker-length necklaces or stud earrings. They are often too classic and traditional for most of our clients.  The ideology and image of women of this time also has an influence on how we perceive pearls.

Food writer MFK Fisher’s book Consider the Oyster is a loving tribute to these mollusks in which she includes a ‘recipe’ for making Japanese pearls.  Ingredients required among other things include: 1 healthy spat, 1 mature oyster, an unnamable wound-astringent and a diving girl.  Prep time: 10 years with seven years close supervision and “about a one in twenty chance of owning a marketable pearl”.

With MFK Fisher’s witty recipe illuminating the considerable time, labor and risks involved in making a pearl, it’s no wonder they are revered worldwide.  These beautiful curiosities have always held a mysterious allure for both jewelers and wearers owing to the surface’s subtle glow from the nacre - the crystalline substance that creates its unique iridescent visual effect. 

What seems to draw us to pearls is the beautiful, silky luster of a properly grown pearl. However, with the cost of pearls ranging from expensive to very inexpensive one can easily be confused as to what contributes to their value. What exactly is the difference between a ‘natural’ pearl and a ‘cultured’ pearl? How are pearls made? What are the different kinds of pearls? 

Here is a brief explanation of some of the more common pearls and their attributes, as well as our take on why pearls are so beautiful, and various ways to make them look artful and less traditional.

Photos: Akoya Blue Pearls, Oyster Shells, Tahitian Pearls, South Sea Pearl courtesy of Cultured Pearl Association.

Natural vs Cultured pearls: A brief history and general information

Natural pearls, or those found entirely without human intervention in an oyster or a mussel, are very rare. Your chance of finding a natural pearl in the wild is between about 1 in 12,000 and 1 in 20,000 depending on the location. Even if you were to find one, only a small percentage would be the size, shape, and color desirable for jewelry. Natural pearls are formed when an irritant such as a fragment of shell, a scale, or a parasite becomes lodged inside an oyster or mussel. This foreign matter then gets coated by the mollusk with layer upon layer of nacre, or mother of pearl, which is made of calcium carbonate. 

Prior to the early 1900’s pearls were extremely expensive and only available to royalty and the very wealthy. Then in the early 1900’s Mikimoto Kokichi discovered a technique for stimulating the oyster into producing a pearl. He is basically credited as the father of modern pearl culturing. (Government biologist Tokichi Nishikawa and a carpenter, Tatsuhei Mise, had been granted a patent for a grafting needle for culturing years before.) Although Kokichi applied for a patent to use a different method of grafting he eventually made arrangements to use the Nishikawa and Mise method and the cultured pearl industry expanded quite rapidly. 

By 1935 there were 350 pearl farms in Japan producing 10 million cultured pearls annually. 

Today pearl farming can be found in both freshwater and saltwater in many countries of the world including China, Japan, India, The US, French Polynesia, and Mexico. 

Saltwater pearl farming includes grafting a bed of oysters with a nucleus, typically a bead of mother of pearl shell and a piece of mantle (or the organic part of an oyster). The oysters are then allowed to grow the pearl for 2-6 years. Saltwater or ocean farming produces climate conditions that only oysters can live in. These oysters can produce some of the rarest and largest pearls on the market. 

In freshwater pearl farming, mussels are grafted with only the organic mantle tissue and not a nucleus or mother of pearl bead.  Freshwater mussels are also allowed to grow the pearls for 2-6 years, however freshwater mussels can produce up to 30 pearls per culturing cycle whereas the saltwater oyster always only produces one. Traditionally saltwater pearls are generally more valuable for this reason.  

Pearl farms are required to adhere to strict government fishing guidelines. This ensures the long-term sustainability of the animal and the gem.  Pearl farmers are motivated to keep the waters clean because only oysters and mussels that live in healthy waters will produce pearls. But as with any large industry you should work with galleries and reputable shops that you trust and have researched their suppliers’ practices. 

 

Photos: Anatomy of an Oyster: Pearls a Natural History, Oyster Shells, Tahitian Pearls, courtesy of Cultured Pearl Association.

The Seven Basic Pearl Shapes:

Although the shapes have many variations, these are the basic shapes and their characteristics:

Round: Round pearls are perfectly spherical and the shape most people think of when they think of a pearl. Because of their relative rarity and ‘classic’ nature they are highly desirable. 

Near-round: These pearls are slightly flattened or elongated rather than being a perfect sphere. 

Oval: These pearls are shaped like an oval, narrower at the ends than they are in the center. 

Button: Button pearls are flattened to some degree making them resemble a button or a disk rather than a sphere. These pearls are often used in earrings where the flattened side can be attached to the setting. 

Drop: Drop pearls are pear or teardrop-shaped. The drop can either be ‘long’ or ‘short’ depending on its proportions. 

Semi-baroque: These pearls are slightly irregular in their shape and are not symmetrical.

Baroque: This is a pearl that is both non-symmetrical and range from irregular to extremely irregular in shape. The baroque pearl can be purely abstract in its shape or it can resemble a cross, stick or some other form. 

Circle: A subset of Baroque pearls but as the name suggests they have visible ‘circles’ or ‘rings’ around the diameter of the pearl.  

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Types of Pearls: some of our favorites

Keshi pearls are small non-nucleated pearls typically formed as by-products of pearl cultivation. A Japanese word also meaning "poppy", it is used in Japanese for all pearls that were grown without a nucleus. Originally keshi pearls referred to those pearls formed when a bead nucleus was rejected.

Mabe pearls are a type of large, usually hemispherical cultured pearl grown on the inside shell of an oyster rather than within the body. Because of it’s shape it is often mounted in jewelry.

Dome of mother-of-pearl is the hard, pearly, iridescent substance forming the inner layer of a mollusk shell.

Baroque pearls are pearls with an irregular non-spherical shape. Shapes can range from minor aberrations to distinctly ovoid, curved, pinch, or lumpy shapes.

Seed pearls are generally defined as a small, natural pearls usually measuring less than 2mm in diameter, although their early definition stated that they must weigh less than quarter of a grain. Seed pearls are formed when a foreign object enters the oyster or when the shell is damaged or compromised.

Baroque Tahitian, Keshi, Loave, Dome pearl jewelry by April Higashi, Kate Eickelberg. More info here.

Luster and Color

A pearl’s beauty lies in its luster; the brilliance, shine and glow of a pearl. The quality of the nacre (and in turn the luster) is affected by a variety of factors such as the cultivation techniques used, the health of the oyster, time of year harvest takes place, temperature variations, pollution, and the type of oyster used to cultivate the pearl. On the high end of luster, the pearls will have intense, sharp, almost mirror-like light reflections and there will be a high contrast between their bright and dark areas. 

Low-luster pearls will be milky and seem more like a piece of chalk rather than a lustrous pearl. There is very little contrast between light and dark areas. 

Pearl color can have three components: body, overtone and orient. The body color is the pearl’s dominant overall color. The overtone is one or more translucent colors that lie over a pearl’s body color. And the orient is a shimmer of iridescent rainbow colors on or just below a pearl’s surface. All pearls display body color, but only some show overtone, orient, or both.

 

Photos: Mixed Pearls , Tahitian Pearls, Akoya Baroque Pearls, Golden South Sea Pearls: courtesy of Cultured Pearl Association.

Pearl jewelry: Our take on how to make the pearl look artful 

Strands of pearls are usually sold to jewelers as 16” - 18” lengths. We find that adding to the length, either by putting two strands together or adding a chain at the back, makes them look less conservative. We also don’t usually ‘graduate’ the pearls, or have all the big ones in the front center gradually decreasing in size towards the back. We mix up the sizes and string them in a more rhythmic and organic nature. We’ve found that a contemporary clasp design or mixing in custom beads set with diamonds visually breaks up in the strand and compliment the pearls. We also love pearls in organic shapes such as the Keshi and Baroque. It takes a good eye to match them and can take hours to do, but after that a simple embellishment can be best. 

Keshi, Baroque Tahitian, Freshwater Pearl Necklaces by April Higashi and Kate Eickelberg. More info here or click on individual pieces.

Matching organic shapes of Keshi and Baroque pearls that have similar luster makes the pearls more interesting to us than the perfect round pearl. Even when we use perfectly matched pearls we usually do something organic and unexpected to accent the beauty of the pearls. 

Blue Baroque Tahitian, Silver Keshi,  Feather Pearl, Large White Baroque, Keshi, Grey Baroque Tahitians, Natural Pearls, Grey Mabe Pearl Earrings by April Higashi and Kate Eickelberg. More info here.

Layering your pearls can add a different dimension to the traditional. And a simple pearl pendant is a beautiful way to own a pearl and put it in the mix. 

Above: Various Artists Layered with other jewelry. Some of the work can be found here.

If you still feel like pearl jewelry is too traditional, try one last category. Art Jewelry offers alternative designs where the pearl is often used as an accent instead of being the main focus. It is about the design, concept, and meaning.

Above: Art Jewelry with pearls: Megan McGaffigan, Niki Uelha, Kiwon Wang, Nina Bocobo, Kate Eickelberg. More info here.

Caring for your Pearls

Pearls are resilient and are meant to be worn, however, since pearls are organic gemstones they need slightly different care than non-organic gemstones like diamonds or emeralds. The golden rule we tell our clients is “last on and first off”.

Pearls should not be worn when cosmetics, hairspray, fragrances, or sunscreen are applied. These products, even if they are natural or mineral based, can affect the luster of pearls. 

Pearls should not be worn when excessive perspiration will occur, such as during work-outs.

Pearls should be stored in a cotton cloth bag and kept away from heat sources such as heating vents or fireplaces. Pearls should not be stored in plastic due to the chemicals plastic emits and the fact that pearls need air circulation so they don’t dry out.

Shibumi Project: Ageless

Shibumi ProjectApril HigashiComment

If one could describe a person as ageless, it would be Fredrica .  Her dear friends call her Fred but I have adopted my own nickname for her, “Fd”, pronounced F.D.   As I near my next decade in life, I am thinking more and more about aging.   And I’ve realized that I hope I too might be thought of as ‘ageless’ – a quality that imbues Fred with endless vitality and grace.


Fred is one of the loveliest clients I’ve ever had and one who I now have the privilege of calling a friend.  She is the only client who greets all my staff by name, brings chocolates or small gifts for them and pushes her way to the back studio to meet the goldsmiths who make her custom pieces.  Even my son Ando asks, "Mom when are we having drinks with Fred again?"  He feels included with his Shirley Temple sitting next to our Manhattans and tells her his stories as she intently listens.  She relates to everyone in a dear and playful way.  People find it impossible not to gravitate to her, wanting to know more about this magnetic woman who you can’t help but feel graces your presence.

Her stylish clothes and layers of ever changing jewelry bob and jounce about as she talks. She gets excited when we are designing a custom piece with her and even does a little jig if we nail an idea she likes.  She has an amazing eye and knows how to wear her elegant, yet down-to-earth style any time, anywhere.  She doesn’t need extra diamond ‘sprinkles’ to justify paying for a beautifully subtle and meticulously crafted piece.  She understands.


I still remember the day, maybe 10 years ago, when she first walked into Shibumi Gallery.

Years before, at a gallery in San Francisco, Fred had purchased one of the first gold rings I’d ever made.  In the box with the ring was included a card with my name.  She wore and loved the ring for years before deciding to try and seek out the artist whose name had been written on that card.

With the help of the internet, Fredrica came to Shibumi Gallery to find me.

This past Christmas Fredrica dropped by a holiday gift for my son and me. With it, she included the original card with my name on it from her first ring purchase so many years before.   That card had brought us together or I should actually say it was the ring.   And since that first meeting, we have piled many more rings on her fingers.  I once even asked her, ‘How many rings does a girl need??” She told me that wasn’t a very good sales technique.  But I now know the answer to the question - an infinity of rings! 

Jewelry makes Fred happy and you know what, she wears it all.   She is passionate about beauty and craftsmanship.  Every time I see her she has layered her pieces in the most unique ways with old and new stacked together.  She’ll even take jewelry apart, exchange chains or remove bits that don’t work for her.  This woman knows herself.  She also does not get caught up in the preciousness of jewelry.  Even when she alters one of my own pieces I never feel disrespected. In fact, quite the opposite – I feel inspired by her spirit and vision. I can honestly say she is one of my muses.  When I make things I often think, would Fd wear this?   If the answer is yes then I’m pretty certain it’s a good piece. 

I wasn’t sure I should disclose Fred’s age and asked her what she thought.  As I turned up to her beautiful home last fall for this Shibumi Project photo shoot, she asked me if she could wear this shirt; she pulled it out and it was completely transparent on one side.  This is Fredrica- she’s 63!  

I love Fd, her spirit, her style and her generous and kind nature. I feel so lucky she walked through the doors at Shibumi Gallery looking for me.  If you were to stumble into the gallery on a day she is there and we are designing and playing with jewelry, you’d think I have the best job in the world. And some days with Fd I would have to agree.  It’s truly lovely and inspiring to have women out there like Fred, because then you know it is possible to be ageless.


Saturday, April 7th, 2018, Fredrica will be doing a “Layering Your Jewelry" workshop at Shibumi Gallery from 4-7pm.  Come by for wine and nibbles and to meet her and play with us.  Feel free to bring some of your own pieces that you love.  

If you can’t come by I hope this post might inspire not only new ways to wear and layer your pieces, but also inspire us to be ourselves and afford ourselves the things that truly make us happy and help keep us ageless.

photos by Cynthia E. Wood