Arikawa was in the city during a cold November afternoon for the opening of the jewelry exhibition, “The Body Transformed,” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which ended its run in February. His company, Albion Art, with locations in Tokyo and Fukuoka in southern Japan, was the main sponsor of the exhibition. In addition to the sponsorship, Arikawa donated three historic jewelry pieces to the museum.
In the rarefied world of high jewelry collectors and academics Arikawa is well known but to the larger jewelry and art loving public in the western world he is undiscovered. His accomplishment is amassing a collection of about 800 historic jewels over a period of more than 30 years. Surprisingly, even though he is a lifelong resident of Japan, the vast majority of his collection consists of jewels from the western world, from antiquity to the Renaissance and beyond.
Arikawa’s sponsorship of the Met exhibition was a sort of a coming out event for him and Albion Art as he is now looking at ways to share his collection with larger audiences. One plan is to open a museum in Kyoto for his collection in seven years. If it happens there will be nothing quite like it, according to those who have seen his collection.
“I believe the Albion Art collection must be one of the greatest private collections of historic jewelry in the world,” said Vivienne Becker , a leading jewelry historian and author who has seen far more private jewelry collections than most people.
A man in search of a passion
In some ways Arikawa was a man in search of a passion. At first he wanted to be a politician but his mother disapproved (his father died when he was 10 years old). He then spent two years studying to become a Buddhist monk. After that he wanted to devote himself to academic pursuits.
“When I returned to the real world, I was interested in education and philosophy, I wanted to become a university professor, but I had little confidence in myself and my personality,” he said.
His mother founded a traditional jewelry retail store when he was young and during his time of indecision, his sister took over the business and he helped her. Gradually he became interested in jewelry but in a much different way.
“I took my responsibility to the family business very seriously, wholeheartedly and in my first year I managed to triple our sales figures,” he said. “I felt I had to be the best, it is in my nature. However, at that time the jewelry was not artistic it was more commercial, and this was also a time when treated stones were entering the market. I knew I had a responsibility also to our clients, I had to have integrity. I took a year away from the business to study management.”
During this time he spent three weeks in Paris where he visited the Place Vendôme and saw modern high jewelry designs. Then he went to London where he visited the Victoria and Albert Museum. He says the jewelry gallery in the museum changed his life.
“I felt that something extraordinary would happen from that time onwards. I don’t remember exactly what I saw; I just remember the impact of it, the sense of inspiration.”
When Arikawa returned to Tokyo, he told his sister of what he saw and how his view of jewelry had changed. She recommended he visit two antique jewelry stores in Tokyo.
“I visited one and realized how jewelry has such great life, such sophisticated beauty. I remember marveling at the finesse of Edwardian jewelry,” he said. “I was so inspired. I experienced what I call a ‘heart-shaking’ moment – that shaking heart, the visceral response, both physical and emotional, to a jewel of great beauty and inner meaning continues today.”
He became friends with the owner and he consigned Arikawa with four jewels with a value of about $10,000.
“I will never forget this kindness, it changed my life. I remember one of the four jewels; it was a beautiful rose-diamond brooch. I sold them all immediately to private buyers, people I knew through the family business,” he said. “For the next 15 years we were selling only to private clients. I opened a small antique jewelry shop in Fukuoka and it all started from there, more than 30 years ago. Within a few years I became the leading antique jewelry dealer in Japan. I wanted to be the best dealer in the world.”
He credits his training in Buddhism, which he is still devoted, for his appreciation of western jewelry.
“I realized through my Buddhist training that jewelry is not only decorative, that it has an essential spiritual dimension. My comprehension of the true nature of jewelry and beauty comes half from Buddhism and half from the impact of handling such beautiful works of art,” he said. “This gave me a mission to create a real jewelry culture, to show the real meaning of jewelry. I never doubted after that. I was no longer confused. I had direction. And it came from the light, brilliance and infinite depth – the shining – of gems and jewels.”
Buying beauty and saving the planet
This determination and passion is evident at the lunch event as he speaks. Collecting jewelry is not only his life’s work but in his own way he believes he is making the world a better place.
“I choose for one reason: beauty. I select masterpieces. Today I am able to buy the most beautiful, most important and historic jewels, including Russian Imperial jewels,” he said. “If I sometimes pay high prices for the jewels, still I feel they are undervalued.”
He added, “The most pressing problem facing us today is the environment. Through pollution and over-consumption we are losing the beauty of our planet, the beauty of air, water, forests. If we lose these vital elements, if we lose this essential beauty, we will perish. So that today beauty is essential; it is not superficial or a luxury. Beauty is essential to our survival. I believe if I can demonstrate and share the true essential beauty of jewelry, created as it is from the most important natural treasures of the earth, I can help change our values, help to generate a much-needed shift in attitude.”
Since he collects with the goals of beauty and purpose he was able to buy pieces at what is now considered a bargain. For example, he had a particular interest in tiaras long before they became highly sought after among collectors.
“When I started 35 years ago tiaras were inexpensive despite the fact that they were mostly set with many diamonds. No one was interested in them; they were totally out of fashion. I thought the tiaras I saw in auctions or at dealers looked sad; I could hear them crying ‘Please take me to Japan,’” he said. “Very early on, I bought a Fabergé tiara; it cost me 50% of the worth of my entire stock, but I felt it was a once in a lifetime opportunity. I understood and appreciated the beauty and meaning of tiaras and I collected about 150 superb examples.”
Cameos are also a favorite for Arikawa, which he says he understands through his familiarity with Buddhist sculpture.
“Even 35 years ago I was fascinated by the art of gem engraving, by the depictions of gods, goddesses and heroes in ancient cameos,” he said. “To the ancients, cameos were like sacred sculptures, they had a spiritual dimension, a power. In the Renaissance period, gem-engraving was considered the height of artistic achievement, far more important, far more valuable than paintings. Painting was a new art, compared to gem engraving which is rooted in earliest antiquity.”
It was painting that took over the art world but Arikawa believes now is time for jewelry as art to shine again.
“The jewel is beginning to be appreciated as a true work of art,” he said. “It is regaining its original, essential role. I hope I am changing art history. Jewelry is the beauty of the universe, the beauty of truth.”