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Sunday, Dec. 23, 2001

Jewelry collectors: guardians of a glittering past

Staff writer

At first glance, the visitor would hardly guess that the austere-looking building nestled in the beautiful, green mountains of Nasu Kogen, Tochigi Prefecture, is the Akiba Museum of Antique Jewellery -- Japan's first private museum specializing in European antique jewelry.

But once you step inside, the interior exudes a refined European ambience, and a lavish display of breathtaking antique jewelry awaits. It is like discovering a secret garden full of rare, beautiful flowers.

Terue Akiba, 48, who owns the museum as well as the antique jewelry shop Glaer in Tokyo's fashionable Ginza, was one of the first Japanese to be fascinated by such jewelry and to create a business out of collecting and selling unique pieces.

Although European antique jewelry has become more easily available in Japan in recent years, there is still little awareness of its rich history. This prompted Akiba to set up her museum in 1995 to display her collection of Georgian and Victorian jewelry in a systematic manner, according to design, material or technique. Today, the museum possesses around 500 pieces, of which nearly 300 are on regular display.

Generally, jewelry is termed antique if it is more than 100 years old, and precious pieces still exist in their original forms due to their excellent workmanship. But European antique jewelry has many styles. In England alone, jewelry styles range from Georgian (from the reigns of George I, II, III and IV, 1714-1830) and Victorian (from the reign of Victoria, 1837-1901) to Edwardian (from the reign of Edward VII, 1901-10) and Art Deco (late 1920s and 1930s).

Akiba's collection boasts rare valuables that she has collected over the last 20 years as a gem dealer. These include a late Georgian "regard" padlock pendant from the 1820s, its name being an acronym for the stones used -- ruby, emerald, garnet, amethyst and diamond (and this particular pendant is also inlaid with pearls and turquoise). Also of note are a cameo by the celebrated Luigi Isler, mounted on an enamel pendant (ca. 1870); and a 1903 diamond-encrusted bangle with inset miniature portraits, a gift given by Edward VII and his wife Alexandra to Duchess Theresa of Londonderry upon their visit to Ireland. Perhaps the centerpiece of the collection is a pink-topaz-and-gold jewelry set of earrings, bracelet and a necklace from around 1830 which, surprisingly, has none of its pieces missing.

In ancient times, jewels and precious stones were objects of superstition, and in the medieval period gems were often used to adorn ritual items such as crucifixes or ecclesiastical jewelry. It was only from the Renaissance onward that jewelry came to be used almost exclusively in an aesthetic sense, but it was limited to kings and feudal lords, who wore it as a symbol of wealth and power.

After the 1789 French Revolution, however, the center of jewelry culture moved from France to England, and with the prosperity of the Victorian period, fine jewelry became affordable for the middle classes, too. The Industrial Revolution also brought new developments in jewelry-making techniques. Victorian empire-building included the systematic sourcing of gems and precious metals, while explorers' archaeological finds inspired creative designs for 19th-century jewelry.

Akiba first came across antique jewelry when she was a student traveling in Europe. "I was surprised because I had never seen anything like it before," she said.

Charmed by the beauty of antique jewelry, she returned to Japan eager to learn more, only to be disappointed that there were merely four existing books about antique jewelry in Japan at the time. She then started systematic research and wrote several books on antique jewelry, while she steadily collected the jewelry that is now displayed at the museum.

For Akiba, though, while it is dazzling in a showcase, the jewelry only acquires a life of its own when it is worn. Indeed, what strikes her most about antique jewelry is its chemistry with the wearer. It's all about finding the perfect match, or as she puts it, "a comfortable familiarity between the jewelry and the owner." Although the buyers [think they] choose their jewelry, it is, in fact, the jewelry that chooses them."

Antique-jewelry lovers like Shizu Mitsui (not her real name) would agree. The 37-year-old embassy worker has a small collection of antique jewelry pieces, ranging from a Georgian diamond brooch to a late 19th-century pique (carved tortoise-shell) bracelet. For her, there are three attractions of antique jewelry: the materials, the design and the technique. The supply of materials, she explains, led to techniques characteristic to each era, such as the pre-Victorian use of thinly beaten gold due to the scarcity of the metal.

"I think that every collector feels that their collection is the best, because each item is the only one of its kind in the world," she says. "A certain spirit seems to exist in each piece of jewelry. They weren't broken or thrown away throughout the years. Each piece is very precious to me, when I think that it would have never come to me unless it was treated with immense care by owners before me."

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