.Shibumi Gallery

The organic art of ethical jewelry in Berkeley

Shibumi Gallery founder April Higashi began designing contemporary jewelry through an experiential background steeped in textiles, fashion and fine art. Working in the fashion industry for Nini Bambini and Esprit de Corps taught her the ropes of running a business and clarified her budding entrepreneurial vision. Taking a jewelry-making class at San Francisco City College at age 25 eventually led Higashi to launching her hand-crafted jewelry line on the market—accumulating 300 accounts before ultimately closing the business. 

Along the way, she honed her management capabilities as an art director with Jerry Garcia Estate, acquired newfound enameling skills under the mentorship of June Schwarcz and strengthened her artistic voice while working with Susan Cummins at the Susan Cummins Gallery in Mill Valley.

In 2005, Higashi opened her own gallery that showcases not only the contemporary wearable art she creates, but today represents the work of local, national and international artists. Originally established in a three-story work-life space near its current location at 1816 Fourth St. in Berkeley, the shop’s design is a physical manifestation of the concept behind the Japanese term after which it is named. 

“Shibumi” is a noun that translates to “a subtle, unobtrusive and deeply moving beauty cherished by artists and connoisseurs.” The space and the majority of the jewelry on display reflect another term, “shibusa,” which refers to an aesthetic with special appreciation for simplicity and naturalness, such as the irregular or organic forms often found in nature.

A limited sweep through the shop includes representational examples of Shibumi artists’ bracelets, pendants, rings, necklaces, earrings, hoops and bangles. The Custom Hematite Beaded Cuff Bracelet is made by Claudia Alleyne and Higashi with oxidized silver, diamond mackles, gray diamonds, 18k yellow gold and hematite; it’s bold, industrial, rich with historical implications suggesting power, royalty, body armor. 

Megan Rugani’s Ophidian Snake Ring with white diamond set in 14k gold is mesmerizing and shines, without appearing merely decorative. Teardrop-shaped Perforated Paddle Earrings in Brushed Silver made by Sandra Enterline gain texture and nuance with tiny dot indentations. 

Susanne Matsche’s Filigree Ring fashioned in 18k palladium white gold and made for men bears a smooth satiny exterior, while the interior reveals a lush, scrolling wave pattern carved into the material. And the Link Gauntlet in Bone with black or natural buffalo leather is marketed to men, but impresses as a gender-neutral piece with raw, visceral appeal anyone might wear.

Higashi considers the principles and practices that guide the gallery and arise from both her professional experience and personal beliefs. “We sell more unique jewelry than most shops, which comes about because I represent artists,” she said.

“I trust their vision to make jewelry that explores their growth, follows their inspiration. It might be crazy, and it takes more work, but we invest in matching the piece with the client. This is because we get to know clients, sometimes over years. When pieces come in, we keep in mind their collection and slowly add to or remake existing pieces. We start by getting them interested in artful expression,” Higashi continued.

Drawn to jewelry makers who use recycled metals, diamonds from certified brokers and pearls cultivated with best practices, Higashi maintains awareness that applying ethical standards requires cultural respect. 

“When you draw a line on ethics, you can’t have American ideas envelop the world,” said Higashi. “The industry isn’t perfect, and as Americans we can’t push our ethical practices on other countries. It’s case-by-case, so I prefer to know the metal suppliers and how they treat their staff, how my diamond cutters build housing for their staff. That’s why I want to go this year to Tahiti to see how the pearls are cultured.”

Momentary trends in jewelry frequently captivate the broad market, and Higashi takes note, but avoids jumping on temporary bandwagons, such as gold chains. “What we try to do is be intuitive,” she said. 

“Because I’m a businesswoman, I pick that trend up, and we make handmade gold chains and layer them with other elements that result in a high-quality, interesting version. Lately it’s pointy and jig-jagging things, which are trends I don’t care for aesthetically or follow. I tell clients to focus on something that has substance and will be lasting. I encourage them to pick the parts of a classic treasure they like, and then we make a custom piece,” Higashi added.

Jewelry that is classic but also contemporary increasingly involves diamonds because the market for diamonds is expanding beyond what was previously mostly traditional white diamonds, according to Higashi. “Diamonds are also found in a lot of heritage jewelry, and we do custom work that involves old family pieces that are being repurposed. We take them apart and re-assemble them into timeless jewelry a customer can always wear. Pearls are popular now too, especially lately.”

With her love of craft, it would be far easier for Higashi to invest her time, skill and expertise exclusively into her own work—not to mention into her closest relationships, which include Ando Powell, her 13-year-old son; an amicable connection with her ex-husband and father of Ando, sculptor Eric Powell; and a boyfriend. 

“My life is all connected,” Higashi said. “Originally, the gallery was in my work/life space, and that was great because I had a young child. When I moved the gallery to Fourth Street, my son was 10, and even then, he was scootering back and forth between home and the gallery. I don’t segment my life too much—other than to block out time to spend with Ando and my boyfriend.”

There is also satisfaction found in the complexities of a layered life that has merged artistry, sole proprietorship, mentoring, mothering, a romantic partnership and supporting a community of artists. “We’ve gone from seven staff to 14, and I support the work of 40 artists,” Higashi said. 

“When I think about why I do it, it’s the jobs created and the community provided that are satisfying. I have a lot of ideas and can work them out in different ways. I’d say the process of bringing it all together is like a cocktail. You bring all these elements together and don’t know what will happen. I love the surprise and taking a little risk to ignite something,” she noted.

With her mind attuned to the present day, Higashi is equally aware of the future and a time she may choose to step away from the gallery. “My focus has been on getting my team to be invested to take over the business when I get older,” she said. “There’s real value for jewelry to be a retail location where you can come in and touch things. Special stores like ours and others, once they go away, they’re gone forever. I’m mentoring the next generation because the world is intense. I’ve picked up creativity and supporting individuality to be a shining light into the world, so it doesn’t ever go dark.”

Lou Fancher
Lou Fancher has been published in the Diablo Magazine, the Oakland Tribune, InDance, San Francisco Classical Voice, SF Weekly, WIRED.com and elsewhere.

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