New York City, Aug. 2, 2019. It was spring of 2017 when Aziz Basalely, founder of Eliko Pearl and president of the CPAA, first spied maki-e and mosaic pearls—lacquer and 24k gold powdered paint and abalone shell tiles, respectively—and they’ve been in his inventory ever since. He was on one of his monthly buying trips to Japan, shopping Tahitians from a supplier who had new items in stock. Basalely immediately recognized the specialness of the pearls.
“It was an ancient Japanese technique applied to a pearl for a modern look—like two cultures coming together,” he recollects.
Maki-e is a paint technique developed 1,000 years ago in Japan. Lacquer is applied to surfaces and then powdered gold or silver paint is mixed in for various flat or raised ornamentations. Mosaics have also been produced for centuries. Pearl mosaics are recent—and were new to Basalely when he first saw them two years ago. They feature tiny abalone tiles that are often accented by designs rendered in the same 24k powered gold paint used to create maki-e pearls. In general, beautiful clean pearl surfaces are exposed while designs are executed over any dimpled areas of the pearl. To date, only South Sea pearls are used to make maki-e and pearl mosaic creations.
For sure, availability of these pearls is limited. When Basalely discovered them, just one artist was trained to make them. Now there are four producers. Not surprisingly, demand for them is robust, including from Asia, Europe, and the U.S., where Basalely suspects he is the lone supplier. It didn’t take long for his customers to find them and fall hard.
In Tucson this year, he brought 50 and sold all but two. On his next trip to Asia, he secured 60 more, quickly selling about half. For JCK Las Vegas, he brought upwards of 80 and sold about 70 percent. Today, he has 100 in stock, a mix of pairs and singles. Retail prices range from $300 to $1,200 triple keystone.
Courtney initially thought the look was achieved by way of a sticker and was floored when she realized that wasn’t the case. “The colors are fantastic, and the mosaics piqued my interest,” she explains. Long a pearl lover—she paired pearls with sterling silver 25 years ago when it was unheard of to do so and bought into the chocolate pearl craze 15 years ago—Courtney is pairing maki-e and mosaic pearls with colored gemstones like opals and aquamarines to emphasize the designs. Some have ornamental topsides that mask drill holes—sort of like a fancy cap—while others have 360-degree expressions that envelop the entire pearl. To date, she’s bought maki-e with koi fish designs and myriad abalone mosaics that, to her, look like “little gemstones.”
As for the style of the finished designs, Courtney lets the gems decide. “I’m never the boss in these situations—gems and pearls are the only things that can boss me around!” she jokes. And while she’s also unsure of how many she’s sold thus far, drop shapes with fancy tops are usually set as pendants on beaded necklaces. “I love something unusual that I’ve never seen before,” she says.
Featherstone, meanwhile, is amazed by the labor-intensive work involved in creating the lustrous pieces of art. Her first reaction upon viewing them? “Holy sh*t—how did this happen?” she recalls. “The little, tiny cut pieces of abalone shell are spectacular. I’ve never seen maki-e used in this modern way, aside from in fine pens.”
She bought 12 pairs and six singles the day she saw them in Eliko’s New York City office. A month later she returned for more, promising a coworker—the person who’s supposed to keep her spending in check—that she would sell them and not just keep them for herself, friends, and family to enjoy.
Her favorite way to set them? In earrings. One pair with grape garnets and neon blue tourmalines married beautifully to a pearl pair with abalone mosaic bottoms. “Those were fierce,” she sighs. Another pair are inside-out hoop earrings with peacock-color pearl mosaics. During construction, as Featherstone affixed one gem to the next, the combination’s beauty startled her into exclaiming, “Holy hell! What is happening here?”
The pearls are particularly appealing to returning clients because they blend beautifully with pieces they already own, including both yellow gold and platinum. Plus, they are elegant, not ostentatious. “They are a conversation, not a wealth assessment,” observes Featherstone.
“It’s a blending of talents—jewelry and maki-e and mosaics—that come together in one product,” she continues. “It’s so much more than just a pretty pearl. There’s something about honoring the materials that others have used their hands to create with, and then I get to take it and paint my picture with it. I can’t believe I get to make jewelry out of these. It’s such a privilege.”
Pendant necklace with a maki-e pearl from Deirdre Featherstone. Email email@example.com for purchase.
To purchase loose maki-e or mosaic pearls, email firstname.lastname@example.org. To purchase finished designs from Erica Courtney or Deirdre Featherstone, email email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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