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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.

20190407-CynthiaWoodPhoto-DSC_7520.jpg
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.

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.

Shibumi Project: New Life

Shibumi ProjectApril HigashiComment
Each marriage and engagement has a unique story comprised of many moments and emotions.  For the couple in this story happiness, joy, heartbreak, vulnerability, sorrow, and support are the words that come to mind as I think of theirs.  I have the privilege to see and hear about many private moments when working with couples on their rings. When I first started making wedding and commitment rings, I decided to have a beautiful case made where couples could meet. I created a case with cantilevered weights where they can stand, peruse the rings, and have conversations about what they envision and want to share.   At this case I learn so much more about the couples than simply their aesthetics for jewelry. I learn about those special moments in their relationship, how they met and most importantly I see the dynamic between them as they select what they want to represent their story.    It was in front of this case that I met Bree and Ray, a lovely couple in their thirties who carefully and thoughtfully selected their rings together. Bree was a writer. Ray did many things, one of which was teach yoga. We laughed as Ray would try on a ring and go into downward dog to make sure it was comfortable enough to wear while teaching. They were a beautiful couple and they fit together nicely. A few years later they stopped by the gallery, now married, and he bought her a green sapphire ring. He said to her. "I want every finger of yours to have a ring from April for all our good memories over the years.” I learned they were trying to have a baby.   Like life, this story doesn’t have all happy moments, but it is a story about the strength and support it takes to move through both good and bad times. Sometime later I ran into Bree. We were both trying on clothes in a store. We talked over the dressing room walls and she told me that they were trying to adopt a child. I had shared my journey to have my son, which took six years and included at one point, trying to adopt. I wished her well and let her know I was thinking of her. I knew how agonizing the process was of trying to get pregnant and then trying to adopt. She mentioned that they were well and I went on my way happy to have seen her.  The story skips ahead to a dear friend of Ray’s emailing me to ask if I could size a ring Ray had bought for him. He was very forlorn at the appointment and as we talked I learned that Ray had cancer. He was not going to make it and he had gifted him the ring for being by his side through it all.  Bree contacted me in the next year and said she was going to be in the Bay Area. She told me Ray had passed and she wanted to do something with their wedding rings. Understandably, she couldn’t bring herself to wear hers anymore. I told her to bring them in and I’d be happy to see her. We chatted a bit more by email. I am not a person who avoids asking about hard subjects. I was curious how she was and wanted to know about what had happened in their adoption process. I learned that not only did she have to endure her young husbands’ death, but that only months before his diagnosis their adoption had come through. A little boy. However, sadly on the twelfth day of his being with them the birth mother decided to take him back. In California, a birth mother has thirty days before she officially relinquishes her rights.      As you can imagine it was heartbreaking for them both. And only months after this, they learned of Ray’s terminal illness. I felt for her. I had truly felt the sweetness of their relationship and just how much he loved her.    I came up with the idea to melt all three of their wedding rings together, their wedding bands and her engagement ring. We reoriented the diamond in a new direction and sized it for a new finger. A ‘new life’ ring. It was a beautiful symbol of the love and memories she had in her marriage and yet the need to move forward. During her appointment we cried and hugged.  The whole process touched me - I have never heard a story so poignant.   Jewelry is imbued with symbolism, beauty and strength. While Ray and Bree’s story is heartbreaking, I keep thinking of the moments they got to share and how they were there for each other.  Often marriages end in divorce. This one did not. They were separated while they still wanted to be together and share a life. Not everyone gets to experience true love as they did. This story is a tribute to them both.    When I meet couples about to marry I see all their hopes and dreams for a happy future. They giggle, they fight and kiss in front of me. There is so more than meets the eye to a relationship, so much that doesn’t often get talked about. Thank you for sharing your life and your deeply personal moments. It was and continues to be a great honor to be a witness and make such symbolic pieces for you to reflect on. I love that my work provides the opportunity to peripherally share in your unions. And I love that I can help mark these moving moments with something beautiful.  With risking to sound cliche, may this be a reminder to all of us to be in the moment with those we love.  ---In honor of Ray and Bree.   photos by Cynthia E. Wood

Each marriage and engagement has a unique story comprised of many moments and emotions.

For the couple in this story happiness, joy, heartbreak, vulnerability, sorrow, and support are the words that come to mind as I think of theirs.

I have the privilege to see and hear about many private moments when working with couples on their rings. When I first started making wedding and commitment rings, I decided to have a beautiful case made where couples could meet. I created a case with cantilevered weights where they can stand, peruse the rings, and have conversations about what they envision and want to share. 

At this case I learn so much more about the couples than simply their aesthetics for jewelry. I learn about those special moments in their relationship, how they met and most importantly I see the dynamic between them as they select what they want to represent their story.  

It was in front of this case that I met Bree and Ray, a lovely couple in their thirties who carefully and thoughtfully selected their rings together. Bree was a writer. Ray did many things, one of which was teach yoga. We laughed as Ray would try on a ring and go into downward dog to make sure it was comfortable enough to wear while teaching. They were a beautiful couple and they fit together nicely. A few years later they stopped by the gallery, now married, and he bought her a green sapphire ring. He said to her. "I want every finger of yours to have a ring from April for all our good memories over the years.” I learned they were trying to have a baby. 

Like life, this story doesn’t have all happy moments, but it is a story about the strength and support it takes to move through both good and bad times. Sometime later I ran into Bree. We were both trying on clothes in a store. We talked over the dressing room walls and she told me that they were trying to adopt a child. I had shared my journey to have my son, which took six years and included at one point, trying to adopt. I wished her well and let her know I was thinking of her. I knew how agonizing the process was of trying to get pregnant and then trying to adopt. She mentioned that they were well and I went on my way happy to have seen her.

The story skips ahead to a dear friend of Ray’s emailing me to ask if I could size a ring Ray had bought for him. He was very forlorn at the appointment and as we talked I learned that Ray had cancer. He was not going to make it and he had gifted him the ring for being by his side through it all.

Bree contacted me in the next year and said she was going to be in the Bay Area. She told me Ray had passed and she wanted to do something with their wedding rings. Understandably, she couldn’t bring herself to wear hers anymore. I told her to bring them in and I’d be happy to see her. We chatted a bit more by email. I am not a person who avoids asking about hard subjects. I was curious how she was and wanted to know about what had happened in their adoption process. I learned that not only did she have to endure her young husbands’ death, but that only months before his diagnosis their adoption had come through. A little boy. However, sadly on the twelfth day of his being with them the birth mother decided to take him back. In California, a birth mother has thirty days before she officially relinquishes her rights.    

As you can imagine it was heartbreaking for them both. And only months after this, they learned of Ray’s terminal illness. I felt for her. I had truly felt the sweetness of their relationship and just how much he loved her.  

I came up with the idea to melt all three of their wedding rings together, their wedding bands and her engagement ring. We reoriented the diamond in a new direction and sized it for a new finger. A ‘new life’ ring. It was a beautiful symbol of the love and memories she had in her marriage and yet the need to move forward. During her appointment we cried and hugged.  The whole process touched me - I have never heard a story so poignant. 

Jewelry is imbued with symbolism, beauty and strength. While Ray and Bree’s story is heartbreaking, I keep thinking of the moments they got to share and how they were there for each other.

Often marriages end in divorce. This one did not. They were separated while they still wanted to be together and share a life. Not everyone gets to experience true love as they did. This story is a tribute to them both.  

When I meet couples about to marry I see all their hopes and dreams for a happy future. They giggle, they fight and kiss in front of me. There is so more than meets the eye to a relationship, so much that doesn’t often get talked about. Thank you for sharing your life and your deeply personal moments. It was and continues to be a great honor to be a witness and make such symbolic pieces for you to reflect on. I love that my work provides the opportunity to peripherally share in your unions. And I love that I can help mark these moving moments with something beautiful.

With risking to sound cliche, may this be a reminder to all of us to be in the moment with those we love.

---In honor of Ray and Bree.

photos by Cynthia E. Wood

ART JEWELRY FORUM: APRIL HIGASHI

PressApril HigashiComment

11 / 16 / 2016

Shibumi Gallery, Berkeley, California, USA

By Susan Cummins

I have known April Higashi for many years and—full disclosure—she worked for me when I owned a gallery for a number of years. I think April is the ideal model for the new younger jewelers who find a way to make life work for them so they can support themselves in the world and still live a creative life. I am amazed by her talent and the creative attitude she has toward all aspects of her life. So I was delighted to be able to interview her. See what you think.

Susan Cummins: I know you have pursued many different projects in your career. Can you talk about a few of them and describe your educational background?

April Higashi: Lately I have been thinking a lot of my career path: where I’ve been and, now that I’m mid-career, where I’d like to end up. I’ve learned so much with each project I’ve undertaken along the way.

My educational background is in textiles, fashion, and fine art. I wasn’t satisfied with my education so I sought out experiences in the working world. It was these experiences that led me to jewelry making and eventually starting my own gallery.

I first started working in the fashion industry for both Nini Bambini and Esprit de Corp. One was a small company, the other a large corporation. I learned I wasn’t a corporate climber and preferred working on the big picture ideas rather than specializing.

When I was 25 and taking my first jewelry class at San Francisco City College, with Jack da Silva, I naively started my own jewelry business with a partner. While my business partner was good at getting her foot in the door to show our work, I discovered I was really good at problem solving. Our second order, for Banana Republic, was an order for 6,000+ pieces and required me to take all kinds of risks in order to figure out how to get it filled. I also discovered I had the courage to take on something like this, as well as new challenges.

When we closed the business it had over 300 accounts and had supported us for more than six years.

While I loved working at the bench, I was not the sort of jeweler who could spend every day there. So I always pursued other part-time work until I started Shibumi Gallery.

These work experiences were essential to my education.

From 2001 to 2004, I taught at CCAC and learned I was very good at editing and assessing people’s strengths and weaknesses. I also worked designing and creating displays for an LA showroom. This not only gave me great display practice but I also learned how to put different lines together. For a few years, I managed Lilith Clothing, which taught me I could assess what looked good on people and gain their confidence with honest feedback.

Later, I became art director for the Jerry Garcia Estate, which taught me how to manage a creative team.

I also worked for the enamel artist June Schwarcz, which deepened my artistic voice, and with you, at Susan Cummins Gallery, which I’ll discuss in greater detail below.

What inspired you to start a gallery? How long have you been doing it?

April Higashi: While working at the Susan Cummins Gallery in Mill Valley, I helped put together vignettes of jewelry and art for a show titled Jewelry and Objects. Something just clicked. I realized that, besides being at the bench, I loved putting diverse things together in creative and unexpected ways.

You, one of your artists, Dominic Di Mare, and June Schwarcz were all very complimentary of my aesthetic, and this validation gave me the encouragement and confidence to pursue my own personal vision.

I had continued making jewelry all along while I held these other jobs. When my art director position was ending, my now ex-husband and I found a live/work building that had a commercial space. I had been working on my jewelry for over 10 years and knew that it was time to do what I had come to realize I wanted to do—start a gallery. I had clientele that knew me. I had met many artists along the way.

My first show was a small group show, and within a month of opening, I was able to support myself. It seemed like a miracle. But I see now that all my diverse experiences had been preparing me to do this for years. The gallery is currently going on its twelfth year

You are one among a large number of galleries internationally that have been founded by jewelers. I may be mistaken, but I don’t think that this occurs with any other art forms. Why do you think jewelers in particular have been so entrepreneurial?

April Higashi: That is a really good question. Why jewelers in general are entrepreneurial and why I personally am entrepreneurial may have two different answers.

In general, to get started in the jewelry world, many of us participate in gallery shows. So having one’s own gallery makes sense. Because jewelry is so personal, and often requires custom work or modifications, it can be easier to deal with clients directly. And it’s difficult to make it financially as a jeweler if you only do wholesale. Getting full retail for some work can make the difference between being profitable or not.

What led me, personally, to start a gallery was my love for displaying, and the enormous satisfaction I get when creating beautiful environments and connecting people with interesting pieces. And I’ve always been able to be both creative and pragmatic. I think that, mixed with being willing to take small risks and being honest and professional, has helped me earn the following and trust of my clients.

What advantage do you think being an artist gives you in the course of running a gallery? What are the challenges that come with being on both sides of the fence?

April Higashi: I know firsthand how much an artist is investing both time-wise and financially when they show at my gallery. When an artist is given a space to show, along with a deadline, their talent becomes focused and positive things happen.

I have created two jobs for myself, conceptualizing new work and curating shows, so time and prioritizing are my greatest challenges. I have to manage a team of eight, and finding good staff can be very challenging, especially in this economy. On top of that, I am the mother of a 6 ½-year-old, which comes with a whole set of other challenges.

Now that you are established and solidly a mid-career artist, how do you continue to challenge yourself?

April Higashi: When I think of ways to challenge myself, I always make sure it’s something I can take on while still keeping my life in balance. I try to pick one project that challenges me to learn something new or try something I have never done. This can be learning a technique or designing in a new metal. Currently the studio is learning to cast organic material. For the gallery, I am starting to think up designs for a beautiful new display case.

I think longer-term I’d love to find some sort of partner and conceive of an independent retail space. My live-work space has been great while being a mom and running a business, but I’d like to see how a space could maintain itself without having to be there all the time. I’m really interested in collaborating. I find bringing together creative ideas with interesting people very exciting. So that idea is in the incubator.

Please describe your space and the environment you live in.

April Higashi: My building is in West Berkeley, in an area with mixed-use zoning. There are artists, wineries, cement factories, beer brewers, and loud trains amongst residential housing. It’s a unique mix.

My building is a two-unit condo built with some of the ideas of barn architecture. The building has three floors. The bottom floor has a 500-square-foot space that is divided between the gallery, the studio, and a design workspace I share with my son. This area also doubles as an event and opening space. There are large double glass doors that open onto a huge backyard with bamboo and sculptures. I also have a guest room downstairs that I rent on occasion or use when artists come for a show.

I live upstairs with my son. It’s a large space with an open floor plan. There is a little room, formerly a deck, which we converted into my son’s bedroom. I have a small nest of a room upstairs which is my bedroom.

It’s a unique live/work space. I feel like each floor represents different parts of my life: work, live, sleep.

What does a typical day look like for you? How do you balance making your own work with selling the work of others in the gallery?

April Higashi: I’ve set up a schedule where I work full days Wednesday to Saturday. On Mondays I work a half-day with my bookkeeper and set up my team for the week. Then I pick up my son early to spend time together. Tuesday is my mental health day, which usually involves a run, and things like going to a museum. If it’s work related, it’s something fun like visiting a gallery or having lunch with an artist or client.

On the days I work full time at the gallery, I start by setting up my day with texts or emails to make sure my team knows the week’s priorities and everyone has what they need. I personally may go for a run, or out to coffee, and do some social media stuff. Then I head in and work on custom design, new pieces, special projects, and meeting clients. By 5:00 it’s time to pick up my son, so the day goes by quickly.

During a show and the weeks following it, the artist I’m showing becomes my priority. I contact clients who I think would connect with the artist’s work and make sure the work is given exposure whenever possible. I like to try to give each artist a nice check at the end of the show.

I love the way the gallery changes with each new show. It’s so much more dynamic than only showing my own work. I learn a lot from showing other artists, and I encourage my clients to mix different artist’s work. Clients seem to appreciate that.

How would you describe what you show? How do you select the artists you represent, and what does “representing” look like?

April Higashi: I like work that is well crafted; my artists have a background as makers, not only as designers. It feels like my taste navigates to organic but refined. I have a range of work that is made with alternative materials to fine jewelry. I have a base of artists I show regularly. But I reach out to new artists or when I see an artist’s work evolving in an interesting direction. I have only found one artist that I’ve shown through their soliciting me by email.

Also, I’ve started showing artists who don’t necessarily have work regularly in my gallery. I like the way it creates new interest and makes things fresh. Their work may be in the gallery for two to three months, and then you’ll never see it there, or have to follow the artist directly.

Who are the artists you have been successful showing?

April Higashi: By success, I’m guessing you mean sales. Last year I had a great show with Christina Odegard. She is so talented but doesn’t show with many people, so her work had not been seen much. I do well with Karen Gilbert, who is always evolving. Again, she doesn’t do many shows but uses her shows at my gallery to experiment with new ideas. Julia Turner’s work sells well. She is good at designing under a price point of $200 and uses a lot of discerning color in her work. I’ve also had great fine jewelry shows with Polly Wales and Jo Hayes Ward.

What do you love about representing artists? What do you hate about it?

April Higashi: I love the inflow of new ideas, forms, and the different visions of each artist. And I love to see how different the gallery looks with a new show or by changing artist’s displays.

I hate having to play the role of “mom” and pushing artists to get things here on time. I also feel responsible for sales and making sure I can support the gallery team. That can be daunting.

How do you think the field will develop in the next five years? Any predictions?

I think jewelers will be selling directly to clients more. Clients are getting more comfortable buying online. I wonder if the big craft shows will fade away. They seem to be geared for an older audience. It may take longer than five years, but I don’t see the Millennials going out to these kinds of shows.

Thank you.

Via https://artjewelryforum.org/april-higashi