April Higashi Jewelry


Shibumi ProjectsApril Higashi
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.

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.  Stephen and Gia’s hand-crafted home.

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.

Stephen and Gia’s hand-crafted home.


ArticlesApril HigashiComment

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)


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.”


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.”


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.”


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.”


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.”


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.


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!


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 ProjectsApril Higashi1 Comment

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

ArticlesApril HigashiComment

Pearls are the only gems that seem to illicit one of two responses from people - an illuminated smile or 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.  

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 ProjectsApril Higashi3 Comments

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.

2018: Shibumi is 13!

InspirationApril HigashiComment
Inspiration from a winter trip to The Victorian Albert Museum in London

Inspiration from a winter trip to The Victorian Albert Museum in London

Please take 20% off any one item this month to thank you for your patronage.  (*wedding rings, custom and some one of a kind pieces are not valid)

May the light in 2018 be victorious over obstacles and bring you many good things.  Wishing you all a creative 2018 full of some good change!

Warmest regards,
the Shibumi team

As 2017 ended, I had a poignant conversation with a mother and daughter who are both clients. We were deep in conversation about the world and a life of making. The daughter was a client, but also an up-an-coming artist who just started selling her work. She made a comment as she walked out the door with her mother that has stuck with me. She told me, “You aren’t a brand, April. You are a person and that’s why we come here!”

As the new year begins, I think about the vision of Shibumi and where I want it to go. While Shibumi stands for subtle beauty, artistic expression, and quality work we are not afraid to express ourselves outside our identity, both in the work we make and the shows we put on. We feel that this expression will become our evolving identity and bring fresh things. 

I was reminded by this conversation to always be yourself, be authentic, and that making and showing new work provides a new path forward. We also value the personal, reflective interactions we have with all of you. 

Thank you for your support. We hope to make some exciting changes in this new year and look forward with sharing them with you. 

Here is a little bit about my team: (clockwise from top left)

April Higashi.    Owner; gallerist, designer, maker, boss lady, Shibumi: 2005.   Ben Faryna.  Lead Goldsmith; maker, mindreader, deep thinker, aesthetic perfecter, 2011.   Kate Eickelberg.  Gallery Assistant; costing + custom go-to, maker, observer, grammar enthusiast, 2012.   Aya Osada.  Bookkeeper; life straightener, maker of patterns, parrot owner, 2015.   Nina Bocobo.  Assistant Goldsmith; deep learner, on-call staff model, snack coordinator, maker, organic object collector, 2017.   Claudia Alleyne.  Gallery Manager; right hand gal, assists in everything, custom design, maker, lover of African anything, 2016.   Karen Lee.   Identity Builder; fact checker, editor, designer, gardener extraordinaire, 2004.    Trevi Pendro.  Gallery Assistant; fellow happa, newest addition in the gallery, social media coordinator, staff photographer, maker, tattoo addict, 2017.

April Higashi. Owner; gallerist, designer, maker, boss lady, Shibumi: 2005.

Ben Faryna. Lead Goldsmith; maker, mindreader, deep thinker, aesthetic perfecter, 2011.

Kate Eickelberg. Gallery Assistant; costing + custom go-to, maker, observer, grammar enthusiast, 2012.

Aya Osada. Bookkeeper; life straightener, maker of patterns, parrot owner, 2015.

Nina Bocobo. Assistant Goldsmith; deep learner, on-call staff model, snack coordinator, maker, organic object collector, 2017.

Claudia Alleyne. Gallery Manager; right hand gal, assists in everything, custom design, maker, lover of African anything, 2016.

Karen Lee.  Identity Builder; fact checker, editor, designer, gardener extraordinaire, 2004. 

Trevi Pendro. Gallery Assistant; fellow happa, newest addition in the gallery, social media coordinator, staff photographer, maker, tattoo addict, 2017.

Shibumi Project: New Life

Shibumi ProjectsApril 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 or Ray and Bree. 

Footnotes from Havana

InspirationApril HigashiComment

I travel for inspiration, perspective and to find a new understanding that will help make my world bigger.  After the devastating US election, a busy holiday season and trying to be a decent parent, I was depleted by the end of December. I have always found a break is the best way to reset my life, discover greater empathy and restore my creativity.  

While a truly great journey will leave you feeling three years younger, and two years wiser, a difficult border crossing will reveal your true character. Difficult travel is a reflection of our true selves, whether you’re curious, in survival mode, a bigot or open minded. --- Studio D / Field Notes

Our trip to Havana expanded my world to include an understanding of a simple Cuban beauty and remind me of the circumstances into which we are born. The pinhole of Cuban culture I witnessed in only a week was a mixture of socialism, history, music, dance, modernist architecture, art, tobacco, island time and of course, Cuban flair.  While I have traveled internationally a fair amount, it had been awhile since I had actual culture shock upon arrival in a country.  Between the internet and international trade, one can often find the comforts of home. This is not yet the case in Cuba.  There are no traces of the US post 1959.  The old classic cars are the only reminders of the U.S.  since Fidel Castro overthrew Batista and set in place the socialist government. Socialism provides people housing, heath care, education and subsidized food, yet many people still live in poverty.  

While the government is starting to restore the historical center of the Habana Vieja to attract tourism, walk just a few streets away from the historic squares and you see how run down it is. The Cuban people don't own their buildings, only the apartments within them. Some families choose to paint the outsides but many don’t. That means you may see the bottom half of a building painted and the top crumbling because they are owned by two families. While walking on the Paseo de Prado, a promenade for pedestrians to stroll, our guide Juan explained that only recently are the people allowed to buy and sell property.  In the past, if someone wanted to move homes, they would congregate on the Prado to share details of their property in order to trade dwellings amongst themselves. Juan also showed us his food card with which Cubans purchase food at special markets and bodegas. Card holders can pick up the basic food needs: 5 eggs, meat, beans, rice, milk, etc.  Rations are reviewed monthly and the rationed allotment is free. If you need more than the allotment, you can purchase it at a subsidized price. 

Walking and driving through Habana Vieja you see snippets of the Cuban life. Their doors are open and their lives often spill out onto the streets. On my walkabouts, I saw people dancing together or practicing solo in small rooms with techno and traditional Afro-Cuban music blaring - often with the TV still on. In a small living room children played with dolls. A man sat in his doorway, selling four little bags of macaroni pasta and a small pile of eggs. Some people sat quietly on their front step, others were talking with friends or neighbors. Teen girls whispered about boys. I spied a tiny tree adorned with tinsel in a front room and a family enjoying a meal in back. There were doorways and tall staircases with dangling electrical wiring that looked alarmingly unsafe. 

There were small logos on doors for new businesses popping up. It wasn’t until the end of Fidel’s rule that Cuba allowed entrepreneurial self-employment. There are now small gyms, dancing schools, home art galleries and record stores, to name a few.

There is no internet (unless you find a wi-fi spot -which you’ll know instantly by the many young folks milling about with their phones - or if if you go to a tourist hotel) instead, people interact and socialize.

Iliana our hotel host said it herself, "Cubans are loud people. Even if they’re right here,” - pointing a foot away - "we speak loudly." They talk at great length, even simple things, like directions. Drivers do not pull out maps or phones when they need directions; they simply yell over to the next car or pull to the side to ask someone standing on the street. The conversations can go on for quite some time. It reminded me of how isolated and independent we have become with information at our fingertips. I thought about how much are we missing when we turn to our computers or phones and overlook the people right next to us.

Something important has definitely been lost in our culture.

It was an expansive trip for me. I learned so much about the Cuban Revolution, about America’s embargo on Cuba and the mix of emotions and tension it has created. I saw a country filled with hope that things are getting better although things are still hard, as its people are faced with the reality that they can not easily leave. 

Being an entrepreneur, I couldn’t help but notice how businesses run in Cuba.

There was a dark grey Art Nouveau building near the Prado that held a perfumery. I had big expectations - the thought of Cuban perfume seemed so exotic. However, upon entering this beautiful building the perfumes were not original scents but many of the bigger European brands seen anywhere else in the world. They were stacked in their boxes and locked up in two cages. Very unapproachable. Two nicely dressed sales people stood at the back behind an empty counter that would have easily been set up for sampling and spontaneous tourist purchases.

I wasn’t sure I was aligned with the aesthetics in Cuba before I left for my trip.  However after a week of walking through the city, which I can only describes as a shade brighter than powder pink, mint green and sky blue, the palette made complete sense; it seemed perfect and beautiful. Women dressed in bright colors, neon even, skirts that fit so tight with such body contouring, and I was impressed that they were so comfortable in their bodies. I saw a lot of men in black and white patterns with brightly colored accents. Red shoes were very popular, as were distressed jeans on both sexes.  The accessories on one woman, a hot pink belt and matching pumps, made me recoil at first. But when I saw her dancing the Rumba with her partner at the Casa de la Musica, and the way she moved her hips to the beat, I suddenly thought her choice of attire looked lovely and tasteful and I wanted to be her. She later returned to her group of friends at a table with a big ice bucket and a large bottle of rum where she poured herself a healthy serving and topped it off with the Cuban equivalent to Coca-cola.

The art of every culture is always a big draw for me. One day I had a big dose of Cuban art.  Going from Miramar to Playa, areas with points of interest far apart from one another, you can hire a cab for $25 an hour and they will wait as you enjoy each stop. We were taken to an alley with many murals, El Callejón de Hamel by Cuban muralist Salvador González. Beside his murals there is outsider art and bathtubs made into benches, rough plasma-cut metal and found object sculptures. I’m told the alley is home to spontaneous dancing (Rumba) on Sundays.

El Callejón de Hamel by Cuban muralist Salvador González

I’d wished we’d put in more effort to visit architectural points of interest. We had hoped to see the architecture of the ISA (the art school). However we couldn’t get in without an appointment.  But the brick domes and organic arches looked very interesting as we peered over the fence. Driving on El Malecón we passed Parque José Martí Stadium, an abandoned stadium built in the 1940’s. Architecturally interesting with it’s faded colored benches and shell-like arches, I have had dreams about it since I have been back and have looked up further images and information to ponder. I understand restoration has been proceeding slowly since our visit.

There are two artists in particular I took note of.  The first is Kcho, an internationally recognized artist who became well known in his 20’s and has shared his success with the community by opening up his studio and compound to all. His complex is in walking distance of ISA. You are supposed to make an appointment in advance, but we got lucky stopping by and joined another tour already underway. Inside the complex is a gallery where he shows guest artists and a working warehouse/studio for himself, which is the most interesting.   He also shares the space with his 18 year old son, who is also in the arts. Outside are more works in progress, outdoor sculptures and public artworks. The piece that pretty much describes what some of the more outright Cuban people think of America is a tall tower of luggage draped with an American flag, titled "I don’t want anything from you.”  There is also a small theater and computer lab. Through a sponsorship with Google it is the one place in Havana with free internet. 

The second artist of note is Casa Estudio Jose Fuster (Jamanita).  This tile artist has made a museum that is definitely worth seeing. Not only has he created an endless tile mosaic world of sculptures and murals that has totally transformed his property, he also extends his work into the neighborhood, neighbors’ houses, alley walls, the bus stop, essentially any available surface.

For me, travel is not about seeing things that align perfectly with who I believe I am. I think I travel because it shows me where I am limited. I have to say the pollution from leaded gas was hard to breath in and the food was a little underwhelming.  But even with this I had some notable adventures.

Imagine the thought of planning a peaceful trip to the countryside of Viñales to escape the pollution and crowds only to find your driver waiting for you with a Lada - a Russian car from the days when Russian support was integral to Cuba’s economy (1959-1991).  Ladas have notoriously poor exhaust systems (which fill the backseats with fumes), no seat belts, and our driver had to pull over several times for roadside repairs and adjustments.

Lunches sometimes felt a bit like torture as we had to wait up to 2 1/2 hours for the food to arrive. What do you talk about with no iPhone to distract you? How do you keep up conversation? You don’t. You let the pauses and many moments of stillness be there. You wait patiently and enjoy the moist air while you relax. And when your food finally arrives and your expectations let you down, you eat every bit and appreciate the way you feel nourished, and have restored some energy for the next adventure. 

I’m happy to share my favorite finds or an itinerary that I think would be helpful for anyone thinking of visiting Cuba. But I suggest instead, simply be present and watch. Cuba is a beautiful culture so different than ours. Once I slowed down, and stopped looking for big AHA moments, I began to appreciate much more.and I feel lucky to have visited. I had never experienced as socialist government. If I were to go back I would have a better camera, take a dance class, do a little more research on the architecture and food, and hopefully know some more Spanish. 

I don’t know how quickly travel in Cuba will change but you’re welcome to email me if you would like my highlights of my week in Havana. I have a detailed list. I should mention, I did not travel alone, I travelled with a male companion and we both found the people either friendly or indifferent and I felt safe in all areas we ventured. 

I am never sure how I will process these images and cultures into my work but I know one thing for certain; travel changes me and refreshes my world.


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.


Shibumi Project

Shibumi ProjectsApril HigashiComment

This project was inspired by my clients.

Over the years of making and selling jewelry I have been fortunate to meet many wonderful people and hear the myriad of stories and events that so often accompany a piece of jewelry; stories of relationships, marriages and anniversaries, births and birthdays, divorces and deaths and pretty much everything in-between these significant moments.  My clients have sometimes shared family secrets and tidbits of their lives that even their spouses, partners, family or friends don’t know.  Jewelry and stories go hand in hand and relationships and events can forever remain entwined with the piece.  I am forever curious and deeply honored to play a small yet significant role in these life events.

Through working as a jeweler and gallerist I have amassed an archive of stories from my clients.  I love the way my clients, many who I now count as friends, mix the work with their own pieces and then to watch as over the years work from the gallery often begins taking over their fingers and bodies each time they come in.

My clients are aesthetically minded, thoughtful, smart and engaging people who have found ways to express their own individuality through their jewelry.  Shibumi Project documents these people who have shared their stories and lives with me while supporting my work and the gallery.

Shibumi Project will be a collaboration with photographer Cynthia Wood who will capture the way which my clients layer pieces together revealing their own unique styles and personalities.  Accompanying the photographs and with their permission will be the story of a piece of jewelry which they shared with me on visits to the studio and gallery.

Several times a year the website will feature a new client and their story.  Past projects will be archived in our blog.

A very special thank you to all of my clients who have supported my work, the gallery and shared their stories with me along the way, continuously inspiring and sparking my imagination and creativity.

An Interview with April Higashi: THE MEN’S SHOW, Shibumi Gallery, San Francisco, California, USA By Benjamin Lionel for The Art Jewelry Forum

PressApril HigashiComment

Shibumi Gallery, in San Francisco, has just opened an exhibition “for men,” looking to address its male patrons’ reticence toward ornaments. This is an exhibition that started with a “what if?” in mind: April Higashi, the owner, tells us how she tried to meet her male clients outside the safe realm of the wedding band, and about the challenge of giving a non-stereotypical jewelry shape to masculinity.

Benjamin Lignel: April, you just put together an exhibition of “jewelry for men,” and the project is exceptionally ambitious in the questions it raises. Before we get to these, can I ask if this is the first time you’ve done a “men’s show” and how long it took to organize?

April Higashi: This is the first men’s jewelry show at Shibumi. I asked the invited jewelers about six months before the show. 

What was the motive behind the project? Did clients express the desire for more jewelry for men? Did you find that men’s jewelry was an underexploited niche?

April Higashi: Honestly? I made a ring for my boyfriend who really appreciated it and wore it almost daily. It looked so great on him. It made me wonder why more men don’t wear just one nicely designed piece of jewelry. Then I began to notice the men I thought would look good in jewelry and the men who were already wearing jewelry. Most of the men’s stuff I saw on was just awful or very cliché.

I find it attractive if a man is wearing just one beautiful piece of jewelry for many reasons. I also have a few male clients who have commissioned pieces of jewelry for themselves. I used this show as an exploration to see what men would wear and how they would interact with the pieces. Could I get them interested enough to try things on? Would it sell? Would women who wear jewelry buy something for their man?

This is a “men’s show” in at least two ways: It appears to cater to men, but also features a large cast of male makers, some of whom are not usually represented by the gallery. How did you put this cast together, and how did these new talents respond to your invitation?

April Higashi: You are very observant. I invited the jewelers I show whose aesthetic I thought would translate well into men’s jewelry. Then there were a few other artists whose work I really like, but whose aesthetic I always felt was too masculine for Shibumi, so I took this show as an opportunity to include them. 

I think if I did it again I would maybe search a little farther out to find other makers who have already been doing men’s jewelry and for whom it is a niche, and who could bring in some clientele.

Did you ask makers to produce specifically for this project? Did you, yourself, make work with “men” as a target clientele in mind?

April Higashi: Some jewelers I knew—like Chris Neff, Jo Hayes Ward, Sam Woehrmann, Josh Wendler, and Curtis Arima—were already making some men’s jewelry. Myself, Maya Kini, Tura Sugden, Eric Silva, and Robert Brady had not really explored this much outside of men’s wedding bands.

I did make about 30+ new pieces. When I started making the work I got scared because of the investment it takes to make new work. In the end I did only one high-end piece (which sold). As for the rest, I decided I’d ride the line of chunky, more androgynous jewelry that I thought some of my women clients could also like. Or made pieces that I could take back into feminine forms later.

Your press release ends with a series of questions. One that looms large is “Do men value making and ornamentation differently than women?” Your unique position as a maker and a dealer must have provided you with a wealth of insight into this. What answer would you have given before you opened the show?

April Higashi: I would have to say before the show opened that very, very few men value jewelry for themselves. Especially straight men. They almost seem allergic to it.

That’s funny. I am currently reading up on the historical evolution of virility in the Western world since antiquity, and from what I understand, the idea that men should not wear jewelry is a rather recent idea, which has in the intervening time always been challenged (by sailors, by punks, by the New Romantics, etc.). Did you expect your male visitors to equate virility with the absence of ornaments?

April Higashi: I did. That is also one reason I did the show. Seriously, is a man less manly because he wears a piece of jewelry? I actually think the opposite, and that he’s more sexy with jewelry on. However, men rarely have the confidence to pick out a piece that suits them.

The show opened a couple of weeks ago. What has been the response to it—in particular from men?

April Higashi: The opening was great! Lots of action getting them to try jewelry on. I had to think of different words to use to sell the work. You can’t really say to a man, “that looks so pretty on you.” And when you are selling to a man it is important to include the woman he is there with. My women clients seemed excited to try to get their men into jewelry.

I have sold some pieces: half to men, the other half to women. Bi men and straight European men have been the purchasers. Meanwhile, my regular men clients seem to be curious about having such a big selection for men. They mostly look or can’t get past their wedding ring. I am still trying to get men to try on the work. Even when I do get it on a man and he likes it, the most common response is, “Hmm, ok, I’ll think about it.” And if they really do, then I have done a small part of my job. We’ll see what happens longer term. I don’t think the results will come in by the end of the show. It seems more like a longer-term commitment to explore.

I have still not found what entirely motivates the men. I do think in general that men are not used to spending as much on themselves. I can see that both the artists in the show and myself anticipated this when pricing the work. So far the men who appreciate the work are already hard-wired to like design and appreciate details of making. Their approach to buying the work is similar to women but they select more thoughtfully than emotionally.

The jewelry featured in the exhibition has qualities that adhere to masculine stereotypes (unfrilly, angular, rough, monomaterial, with the occasional skull). Do you think that these stereotypes are byproducts of a straight culture? What feedback have you received from your clients regarding what men’s jewelry shouldlook like?

April Higashi: I wouldn’t say it’s straight culture. I think it is simply reflective of the cultures men are identifying with, and the sort of jewelry that come with these models: punk, biking, gang, or military cultures, as well as graduation rings. Right?

I’m not sure if my men client’s know what men’s jewelry should look like. I included Robert Brady in the show. He is a sculptor and did wooden jewelry that is a bit tribal and not in the format of the rest of the men’s jewelry. The men don’t even seem to register his pendants as something they could even think of wearing. So when you get too far out of the box, the work just drops off their radar entirely.

You present the distinction between “masculine” and “feminine” jewelry as oversimplified: “Is there more to men’s jewelry than the distinction between masculine and feminine forms?” What do you mean by that?

April Higashi: When I was designing forms I had to hold myself back with the details. I pared down the elements both for aesthetical and cost reasons. The forms would not necessarily be that different, but I did tend to work on a larger scale, with a different orientation. An example of this was a men’s pendant I made that I think a woman would also wear. I turned the piece in the opposite direction than I would have if it were a women’s pendant. I can’t really verbalize why but somehow it just seems more masculine in this direction.

When I was displaying the show, the work from the 10 jewelers fit into these categories: Organic and rugged. Geometric and graphic. The work made was mostly monochromatic and when accented with precious metal it was usually white gold or a very small amount of yellow gold accents. In general there was less variety, less risks in design, less color or stones. Some of us even ended up exploring very similar forms.

Unless one specifies “for men,” jewelry is generally assumed to be for women. That, at any rate, was the thinking in the 20th century. Do you see this as changing? What do you think a “men’s show” will be like in 20 years? Will it even make sense?

April Higashi: That’s a good question. I see younger people being more androgynous; the men seem less concerned about being so masculine; checks on younger folks’ dates are assumed to be split equally. The men seem less threaten by a successful woman. Transgender is coming out into the media. Metrosexual men seem to be comfortable being confused with being gay. So I’d say that yes, things are changing. If jewelry follows suit, there will be less boundaries on everything: men desiring jewelry again, men breaking stereotypical molds. This means more play, more risk-taking. This is good news, as far as I am concerned!

Can you tell us what other projects you are currently working on?

April Higashi: In the gallery we have an upcoming enamel show co-curated by Elizabeth Shypertt. I’m busy answering a lot of interview questions. I’ve been getting a lot of press lately for the gallery shows, my work and lifestyle. In the studio we are going to start casting organic material. I love learning something new and taking my team on a journey to explore it with me. Things are never boring around here.

Thank you!

Work in this exhibition ranges from $250 to $4580.

INDEX IMAGE: Christopher Neff, Lighthouse Ring, 2016, sterling silver, 18-karat gold, quartz, 28 x 21 x 20 mm, photo: Shibumi Gallery

Link to The Art Jewelry Forum Article can be found here.

Ben LIngel  is an art historian (BA) and furniture designer (MA) by training, Benjamin Lignel veered toward jewelry design just after earning his master's degree. Lignel describes himself as a designer, writer, and curator. In 2007, he co-founded la garantie, association pour le bijou, a French association with a mission to study and promote jewelry. He became a member of Think Tank, a European Initiative for the Applied Arts, in 2009, and was a guest teacher at the Akademie der Bildenden Künste (Nuremberg, Germany) in 2013. Lignel was appointed editor of Art Jewelry Forum in January of the same year. In 2015, he edited the first book-length study of jewelry exhibition-making, "Shows and Tales." 

Sitting down with April Higashi, the mind behind Shibumi Gallery

PressApril HigashiComment

Sitting down with April Higashi, the mind behind Shibumi Gallery

by Olivia Shih

April Higashi, 2016, photo: Cynthia Wood

April Higashi, 2016, photo: Cynthia Wood

Olivia: April, you have been working in and with contemporary art jewelry for over 20 years, but I would love to hear how you began your affair with jewelry.

April: I was actually working at Esprit de Corp in the textiles department but ended up working at a computer most of my work day. I needed to work with my hands again, so I found myself at a jewelry class at San Francisco City College. Although I had always loved making in general, metal arts was very challenging­­the thought process was so different from textile and fabric, and this drew me in. The medium was an endless source for learning, so here I am still! 

April Higashi, Furattā, 2015, 22k yellow gold, leaded enamel, black onyx, steel chain, 2 7⁄8”Pendant, 33" steel chain, photo: Shibumi Gallery

April Higashi, Furattā, 2015, 22k yellow gold, leaded enamel, black onyx, steel chain, 2 7⁄8”Pendant, 33" steel chain, photo: Shibumi Gallery

Olivia: Is there an artist or a few artists who influenced you the most, whether it be in jewelry or life?

April: Yes, a few people in particular have greatly inspired me. June Schwarcz, who passed away this year, was a strong influence both in the way she created work and the way she lived her life. She not only created amazing sculptural enamel vessels, but she surrounded herself with beautiful things and creative people. I was her assistant for a few years, and we remained friends until she passed away at 97 years old. Susan Cummins, who isn’t an artist per se but owned The Susan Cummins Gallery, was a mentor. I worked for her when I was 25. She taught me that you not only have to have a strong vision that is unique to yourself, but also that your business needs to make money to stay afloat. I learned so much, watching her form a strong community around her vision.

Olivia: Both June and Susan are innovators in the contemporary jewelry field, but have you ever been inspired by artists in other mediums?

When I was younger, I’d have said Frida Kahlo. I finally got to visit Casa Azul in Mexico City this past year, and I was reminded that she was a true individual. She created her own style and community of creative and intellectual people. She didn’t have an easy life, but it was definitely interesting and inspiring. She loved, lived, and created. She knew what she wanted and went after it, even if she didn’t always get it.

April Higashi, Ambā Ki, 2015, amber drops, 4.64 ctw diamonds, 18k and 22k gold, 2”, photo: Shibumi Gallery

April Higashi, Ambā Ki, 2015, amber drops, 4.64 ctw diamonds, 18k and 22k gold, 2”, photo: Shibumi Gallery

Olivia: I love that. It's clear to any visitor that Shibumi Gallery is a work of labor and love. What was your vision for the gallery when you first opened?

April: As I mentioned, I had worked for Susan Cummins at her gallery. I’d also been one of the early artists at Velvet da Vinci and had done display work for De Novo Gallery. What I took away from these experiences was this: show work beautifully. Show new work that hasn’t been seen by everyone. Show work from colleagues you respect and from upcoming talent you feel have unique vision. Show artful but wearable work. Always pay the artist before you pay yourself. Make the clients feel comfortable and welcome in your space. Connect them with the right piece that looks good on them. Listen to who they are. Share the things in life you love.

April Higashi, Matte Black Onyx and Bronze with Black Diamond Bead Necklace, 2015, black onyx, bronze, black diamonds, 19”, photo: Shibumi Gallery

April Higashi, Matte Black Onyx and Bronze with Black Diamond Bead Necklace, 2015, black onyx, bronze, black diamonds, 19”, photo: Shibumi Gallery

Olivia: Those are inspiring values to live and work by. You’re currently based in Berkeley, California, right? Can you describe what your environment is like and how it influences your life and work?

April: I am an extrovert inside an introvert’s body. I created an aesthetic environment in the gallery where I hope the beauty will draw one in. I want the space to speak for itself, so I don’t have to. The jewelry is usually displayed with twisted branches and driftwood and metalwork by my son’s father, Eric Powell, who is a metal sculptor and made all of the displays and the gallery doors. My gallery is connected to my studio and a larger design open space where my six­ year­ old son loves to draw. There is a modern earthy flavor to the space with organic elements­­accents of walnut, steel and art that I have collected or traded over the years. I’ve been told that the space seems creative and considered. I love that description.

Furattā II, 2015, 22k & 18k gold,black onyx, diamonds, 1 5⁄8”, photo: Shibumi  Gallery

Furattā II, 2015, 22k & 18k gold,black onyx, diamonds, 1 5⁄8”, photo: Shibumi


Olivia: Shibumi really does resonate with Berkeley, with its respect for slow, considered craft and embracing nature. What is a working day at this East Bay gallery like?

April: Every day is different. If I’m lucky I’ll go for a short run or go get my new favorite coffee drink, a Gibraltar. Then I’ll do a few emails, check the calendar for client appointments, then browse and post to Instagram before heading to the gallery. Once there, I check in with my goldsmiths, look over and comment on completed work, and go over the day’s priorities to form a game plan.

Olivia: And that’s just your morning?

April: Yes! Afterwards, I’ll check in with my staff who has usually set up the gallery and is working away. I might see clients, do custom designs or quotes, work on new pieces, check in with galleries or artists, or work on upcoming shows. It’s never dull. Somewhere in there, I am usually doing a little coordination for my six ­year ­old son, and there you go. My day in a nutshell as jeweler, gallerist, and mother.

April Higashi, Topography Rings (Women’s), 2015, Silver, 18k, mackel diamonds, 4mm & 2.5mm, photo: Shibumi Gallery

April Higashi, Topography Rings (Women’s), 2015, Silver, 18k, mackel diamonds, 4mm & 2.5mm, photo: Shibumi Gallery

Olivia: What are the most difficult challenges you have had with being an artist and gallery owner?

April: Honestly, finding the right mix of talent for my staff and building a creative team where the dynamics are in sync has been the biggest challenge. I feel like a conductor for an orchestra. Everyone needs to work together and understand that we are a creative whole. That said, when the dynamic is good, we can create anything, and I feel so fortunate to do what I’m doing. Every day is a challenge, and I feel lucky that I can juggle it all. Some days I do better than others. I just consider myself fortunate that with my work and the gallery I can support myself, my son, my staff, and the artists I show.

April Higashi, Topography Ring ( Men's), 2015, silver, mackel diamonds, 10mm, photo: Shibumi Gallery 

April Higashi, Topography Ring ( Men's), 2015, silver, mackel diamonds, 10mm, photo: Shibumi Gallery 


Olivia: I have no idea how you do it, but you pull it off so beautifully. It’s been such an insightful interview ­­thank you for taking time to chat with me.

April: Thank you that’s a nice reflection.

Shibumi Gallery, 2016, photo: Cynthia Wood

Shibumi Gallery, 2016, photo: Cynthia Wood

June by April

InspirationApril HigashiComment

I was 30 when I met June Schwarcz at her 80th retrospective at the American Craft Museum. When I approached her to ask work as her assistant, we complimented each other on our skirts, both Commes des Garçons, and were soon so lost in conversation that I forgot to mention I'd love to work for her. The line behind me getting long, I gave her my card and told her I admired her work and that I also worked in enamel. June had the same idea I did, and a month later invited me to join her in the studio. Mondays were filled with three hours of work and four hours of lunch, sharing stories about art, the people who made and sold it and ordinary things like family and relationships.

Working for June, I learned how she saw and created in three dimensions. One of the first task she gave me was to lay out a flat pattern and cut it out of thin copper, like cutting fabric for clothing.  June's process was much like sewing.  Inspiration came from anything she felt was beautiful: when her grandson Adam went through a phase of wearing oversized, droopy pants, she did a series of vessels about his pants.  She often said she didn’t like conceptual art because if it wasn’t beautiful, she couldn’t relate to it. 

Though she was 50 years older, she always wanted to pull her own weight.  I had to trick her into letting me help her with things.  When leaving her studio together, June carrying her heavy basket of supplies up the stairs, I'd offer, "June, let me get that." She'd refuse and ask me to get the lights. I knew in the future not to ask before grabbing the basket.

Over the last seventeen years, I visited her regularly, we went to art shows and dinners. I dressed for June, because we were both interested in fashion and we had similar taste.   She always wore something interesting unless she was in the studio.  I like a gal who has a sense of style but also gets down to business. For an opening at Susan Cummins Gallery, she arrived in black Issey Miyake, and someone had handed her a bright pink peony.  I complimented her shoes, so cool and perfect with the outfit! I asked her where she got them. "Oh honey, it's the best little shoe store called Gimme Shoes, I've got to take you there!" I loved that she thought I wouldn't know about it--the hippest shoe store in San Francisco--and I imagined her there picking out her shoes. 

I was lucky enough to trade work with her.  One piece of mine she wanted was an all-red enameled Panel Bracelet that was in a show at the Richmond Art Center. June called me and said, "I know the show is not coming down for a week but I am going to New York and I have the perfect outfit to wear that with. Would you ask them if you could get it early?" I got her the bracelet for her trip.

There was so much more to June than fashion. She was young at heart and I never felt our age difference until I started to see her hand shaking as she picked up her tea.  She was the most inspiring and curious woman I've ever met. She had great taste and gave her opinions freely. Beauty, honesty and curiosity were were our connection.  If you were fortunate enough to have met her even once, your perspective on life as a woman artist was changed forever.

June 10, 1918– August 2, 2015


PressApril HigashiComment

April Higashi has been working as a contemporary art jeweler, gallerist and curator in the San Francisco Bay Area for over 20 years. She has made her name on her skillful and abstract style of enameling. But of late has become increasingly recognized for her combinations of rose cut stones, natural diamonds and precious metals to create rich color fields, unique textures and unexpected relationships. The aesthetic she has developed is organic yet refined creating contemporary pieces with an aura of antiquity.


In the recent exhibition, Michi, Higashi continues to experiment with materials incorporating white gold, high-karat yellow gold and bronze alongside more surprising materials including wings of butterflies and moths. The work focuses on minimal settings and highly crafted custom closures in order to compliment the striking collection of stones such as Peruvian opal, black tourmaline and quartz. The use of leather is applied to several pieces, giving the otherwise resplendent collection a down to earth sensibility.


Worth noting, this show illustrates a shift happening in Higashi’s work seen first in late 2011, in which her well known enamels of vibrant patterns where left behind for a more sparse imagery with soft white backgrounds.  Of these pieces, “Ma” Brooch (painted enamel, oxidized silver, 18k yellow gold, and diamond slices) stands out, exhibiting a single bare branch, rendered fuzzy as if seen through thick fog. About this shift in process Higashi said, “I wanted to arrive at a subtle beauty that gives the viewer a sense of calm. This quiet place is a space that I crave, even if only enjoyed for the smallest moments.” Moving away from the abstract patterns informed by nature, these new enamels were more direct and functioned as small homages to the awe-inspiring effect of nature. 

Presented alongside these new enamels were works such as Shiro Brooch, which effectively replaced the reference of nature for the real thing. Shiro Brooch (fossilized coral, black diamonds, 24 & 18k gold) offered the viewer a relic from the past. Embellished very sparingly with a faux branch fabricated from gold and set with black diamonds, the piece was simultaneously a feat of elaborate repair and a new creation of beauty.

                                         Kuro Pendant, black coral, 1.32ct organic crystal diamonds, 18kyg, 19.5", 2013

                                         Kuro Pendant, black coral, 1.32ct organic crystal diamonds, 18kyg, 19.5", 2013

The work presented in her recent show Michi continues in this vein, moving away from enamels painted with nature as subject in favor of the use of specific elements themselves. Morpho Pendant (sterling silver, 18k yellow gold, quartz, Morpho butterfly wing, palladium chain) consists of an impressive iridescent butterfly wing set in a gold bezel and protected by a crystal clear triangular shaped quartz cabochon. In this piece Higashi offers us the very coveted object of beauty on a platter. The result is  amore direct connection with Higashi's sense of wild and imperfect beauty and less of a dreamy yearning that her past enamels imbued.

                                                     Morpho Pendant, Morpho wing, 22k gold, palladium, 20", 2013

                                                    Morpho Pendant, Morpho wing, 22k gold, palladium, 20", 2013

Other pieces in the show illustrate a degree of removal from the objects Higashi is inspired by, in particular Emerald Sango Pendant (sterling silver, rose cut emerald, diamonds, 22k and 18k yellow gold, leather) where one of the components is a piece of coral that has been cast and made into a silver pendant. Our attention is set on the amazing and delicate patterning of a coral branch, which invited our imagination to drift to the original piece of coral of which the casting was made.

                                     Sango Pendant, rose cut emerald, diamonds, silver cast coral, 18kyg, leather

                                    Sango Pendant, rose cut emerald, diamonds, silver cast coral, 18kyg, leather

In addition to simple, clean presentations of natural materials, Higashi continues with her augmentation of the found objects she uses in her jewelry. These pieces present themselves as a layering of Higashi's own unique sense of beauty. In Kuro Black Coral Pendant (Black coral, organic crystal diamonds, 18kyg) a large piece of coral is set between two gold end caps and strung with a thick gold chain. The coral is sprinkled with raw diamonds, riveted on with high karat gold. Another good example of this aesthetic is So Necklace (black tourmaline, black diamonds, bronze) where a strand of raw black tourmaline beads are interrupted by a hand fabricated bronze bead of similar shape and size, set with small sparkling black diamonds. The bead is an augmented section of the strand and highlights the asymmetrical shapes and deep black dolor found in the tourmaline beads. Of these pieces Higashi explains, "I continue to see things in layers, but instead of painting actual layers of enamels I juxtapose shapes, usually organic, to see a relationship of multiples that becomes more poetic and visually dynamic than one."

                                                         So Necklace, black tourmaline, black diamonds, bronze, 2013

                                                         So Necklace, black tourmaline, black diamonds, bronze, 2013

While much is changing in Higashi's work her own special interest in the beauty of imperfection remains a strong element of her creative process and is a thread that can be seen throughout this current collection. Her ability to recognize and embrace unusual materials and transform them into highly crafted pieces of jewelry allows Higashi to continually present us with work that is fascinatingly beautiful. Of this continual process of creation Higashi says, "I am inspired by my clients, their style and the way they wear my work. I feel that they are drawn to wear the work for the same reason I create it, expression. And by mixing older pieces with new it allows my work to slowly fade into the wearer and leave me."

review by Ahna Adair

Sea and Sky: April Higashi and Aondrea Maynard

PressApril HigashiComment

April Higashi has made her name on her skillful and organic style of enameling. Building layers of color in a painterly fashion she creates small and wearable artworks rooted in a reverence for nature. Conversely, Aondrea Maynard paints large canvases in which she distills moments unseen yet present in the natural world around us. A smart pairing, the show “Sea & Sky” is a look at the evocative ways in which artists become inspired by the natural world and their relationship to it. Each artist, though very different in chosen medium and scale, is working from a deep and intuitive place, attempting to assign materiality to the intangible realm of experience.

                      'Ma' Brooch: painted enamel, diamond slices, 18kyg, oxidized silver

                      'Ma' Brooch: painted enamel, diamond slices, 18kyg, oxidized silver

Higashi is currently navigating the challenges of new motherhood, owning and operating a gallery and continuing an art practice of her own. Despite this hectic work environment, her new collection has a sense of peace and stillness. A subtle shift has occurred in her enamels as vibrant patterns spread over the whole surface have been left behind for a more sparse imagery with soft white backgrounds. “Ma” Brooch (painted enamel, oxidized silver, 18k yellow gold, and diamond slices) exhibits a single bare branch, rendered fuzzy as if seen through thick fog. About this new aesthetic Higashi says, “I wanted to arrive at a subtle beauty that gives the viewer a sense of calm. This quiet place is a space that I crave, even if only enjoyed for the smallest moments.” These new enamels are small homages to the awe-inspiring effect of nature. Perhaps by pointing our gaze at artwork instilled with this awe we may be able to steel a moment away from the busy, over-scheduled day to day.

                          'Shiro' Brooch: fossilized coral, black diamonds, 24 & 18k gold

                          'Shiro' Brooch: fossilized coral, black diamonds, 24 & 18k gold

Higashi’s reverence for nature comes through in not only the imagery painted on her enamels but the materials she uses as well. Shiro Brooch (fossilized coral, black diamonds, 24&18k gold) offers the viewer a relic from the past. Embellished very sparingly with a faux branch reproduced from gold and set with black diamonds gives the piece a feeling of elaborate repair. Like many jewelers, Higashi works with precious metals, stones and pearls. Always careful to use only those that are responsible and sustainable, her eye falls on the peculiar. The pearls, stones and other precious materials seen in this show shed light on her special interest in the beauty of imperfection. Those things that nature makes sub-par or irregular, according to market standards, are the very materials that she covets. The asymmetry of a branch of fossilized coral, a domé pearl originally used as a test to make cultured pearls, and raw diamonds mined decades ago to make industrial tools hold the spotlight in this extensive body of new work.

                  Lover, 2011: Oil on wood panel, 22" x 60"

                  Lover, 2011: Oil on wood panel, 22" x 60"

Aondrea Maynard’s paintings are at once beautiful and haunting. Capturing the liminal, she creates a visual language for the moments that happen in between what we might consider regular and documentable events. In many of her paintings, namely Lover (oil on wood), light and color are a strong focus and occupy the canvas with as much weight as line and shape. What looks like puffs of smoke, upward moving steam, and currents of air are rendered as tangible as a full moon or the silhouette of tree tops. A reoccurring shape appears, reminiscent of the end of a cello or violin or perhaps the ubiquitous Acanthus leaf. In Whaling Song, the shape has such a weight and shadow that it becomes animate, a living and breathing being. For the artist it is a shape that feels good to paint and her body has a natural tendency towards it. In this way a language specific to the artists physicality has become part of the visual language of her painting.

      Whaling Song, 2011: Oil on wood panel, 40" x 36"

      Whaling Song, 2011: Oil on wood panel, 40" x 36"

Challenges of sustaining a successful art practice are present for both artists. In Maynard’s short talk given during the show opening she spoke of the dangers of getting stuck in an aesthetic that sells well. For a painter whose aim is to paint the invisible, she has to try to shelve this looming demand of marketability and get to that deeper place that many artists seek. For Higashi and Maynard continuing a successful studio practice while striving toward their true creative vision is not easy in the midst of life’s daily challenges. In “Sea & Sky” we are offered an unusual comparison of the work of two artists, a jeweler and painter. Similarly inspired, the careers of two women converge at Shibumi Gallery as they exhibit their most recent bodies of work.


For those unable to steel a moment from their day-to-day, visit Shibumi Gallery's Flickr page where you will find April Highashi's jewelry collectionAondrea Maynard's paintings as well as photos from the opening.

Review by Ahna Adair

Gallery Lulo: April Higashi - New Work

PressApril HigashiComment
  April Higashi: Red ocean coral, 18k yellow gold, cultured sea pearls, 2011

  April Higashi: Red ocean coral, 18k yellow gold, cultured sea pearls, 2011

Artists Statement -
The world of craft is a surreal place after the birth of my son last year. Before that momentous occasion, the space of making held more weight in my life. Now, though it is still important to me, it is met with a feeling of lightness. I am sometimes haunted by how to merge motherhood with making and my daily efforts to create new work are approached through a foggy veil. The many days and weeks spent creating these pieces where dedicated to unearthing a complexity from a chaos of new ideas that have occupied my mind and my studio. Hopefully when resolved and finished the works retain a mysterious presence and offer a space for peace and stillness. The enamels and fossilized coral pieces in this group capture this feeling of solace.

The abstract imagery painted in my enamels in the past emerged after snorkeling in Hawaii above the natural coral reefs. Swimming above the majestic beauty, I did not want to directly copy what I saw but instead convey the feelings experienced as I looked at the forms and moved through the water. This group of work is more direct, as coral-like branches are rendered to appear as if captured in a mist. The images are painted in layers using graphite, enamel and china paint. They are partially hidden creating an atmosphere of distance that asks the viewer to leave them to exist in their own quiet suspended space. I have accented these pieces with prong set diamond slice fragments, black diamonds and rose cut moonstones. The beads are French steel cut beads from the 1930's that add an eccentricity rooted in fashionable jewelry of this era. I have used bead setting as a reference to this antique jewelry, yet left surfaces smooth and sculptural.

This is a time for more awareness of our resources and greater efforts in recycling these objects of beauty. Reflecting my appreciation for nature, the pearls, coral, moonstones and diamonds in this group were bought from sustainable sources. The pearls are special fresh water American pearls harvested from the Tennessee River mostly from mussels. This second generation family business has spent over 50 years collecting pearls from our rivers and lakes. The dome pearls were originally used as a test for making cultured pearls. I have bought the remainder of this company's supply of these pearls. The companies that harvest the coral take only dead coral that is no longer feeding other species of sea life. The brilliant cut diamonds were bought from older estate jewelry. As a jewelry maker l bring my interpretation with the hope that there will always be a desire for a new perspective both in fashion and art.

The show is up at Gallery Lulo through 7/30/11. The new work will be shown at Shibumi Gallery opening November 5th, 2011 with an extension of this series. This will be the first solo show at Shibumi of April's work since she opened Shibumi in 2005.