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Saturday, July 30, 2005

Messages of peace seek empathetic human canvas

A peace symbol set modestly with diamonds. A tiny image that is open for interpretation as a tree, an atom-bomb cloud or even an angel. The curved line of a whale suggesting the swell of the sea while winking freedom with a precious eye. All are designs on a theme -- the work of jewelry artist-craftsman Koichiro Sakamoto.

News photo
Koichiro Sakamoto, a stubborn visionary who makes jewelry that makes people think, now has a creative director in his daughter Melissa, who found her own style in New York after he refused to teach her.

It is an honor to be summoned because, as Koichiro is the first to admit, he does not have much time for mainstream media. Indeed he does not suffer any fools gladly, having been known to walk out of meetings, refusing to deal with clients.

Now his daughter Melissa -- a jeweler in her own right -- has stepped into the arena, encouraging her father to be more cooperative. As she and her mother, Betty, explain, picking me up from Gotanda Station to drive to Koichiro's atelier, they want the world to know the depth of his vision, the importance of the messages he seeks to communicate in his work.

Koichiro is wary but prepared to go down memory lane. A baby boomer whose family was in confectionery, he went to the U.S. in 1966 and -- he laughs here -- made the mistake of first going to San Francisco. "It's where my dislike of media was founded . . . upon lies about Vietnam. Also it's where I met Betty, through music. Yes, I used to play -- guitar, blues . . ."

He had begun his career as an actor. "When I put on makeup in Japan to play Caucasians, it was never a problem. But in the States I realized I was Asian." The experience made him question his origins. What was Japan? Who were its people? What was its culture? Realizing the answers lay secreted in the Shosoin treasure house in Nara, he began to read about ancestral links with Mongolia, and cultures along the Silk Road.

In 1972 -- "I was still young, still poor, still in America" -- Japan opened gold and silver markets. Japanese buyers began flocking to the U.S., and Koichiro began interpreting for a Jewish trader. "It made me sick to see people buying so much junk. I thought, making money is fine, but make it honestly." This was when he decided to become a jewelry artist.

He kicked off by studying diamonds, traveling to Belgium, Israel and South Africa. Then became interested in Anatolia, where the first known smelting of precious metals took place near Mount Ararat around 6000 B.C. Learning the craft of jewelry making by observation, it took him three years to make his first piece by trial and error, a gold ring with a "floating" diamond -- the first of its kind in Japan.

Although quickly recognized as a talented artist, he says that back then Americans didn't expect a message in his work, and couldn't care less what a Japanese was trying to say. "I was interested in exploring techniques and textures to create mysteries." Seeing his own country clearly from afar, he decided to move back and try to act as a bridge to "try weave us all together."

He brought his family to Japan in 1982, to his mother's house in Gotanda. Over the last few years, many changes have been made. "The atelier used to be in the basement but we moved up here three years ago." And recently son Michael moved out. "Despite my forming a company after he was born, he chooses to be a musician, creating hip-hop in the evening and working in construction by day. He's very determined, very stubborn . . ."

"Just like his father," chimes in Betty, and we all laugh.

Koichiro shows two main collections a year, with minicollections in between. He showed his last main collection recently at The American Club, where ironically he attracts many loyal customers. There is always a theme. In June, peace: "If the world had only one set of values . . . what would happen to the world?"

"Anatolia" was a theme in 1993. "New York" in late 2001, after the Sept. 11 attacks. In 2002, "Silent Spring" focused on Rachel Carson's message about the polluting effect of chemicals on nature. "I designed a range of diamond-encrusted birds, animals and insects to remind people that one day we might wake up and such creatures not exist anymore."

This year, of course, commemorates the end of World War II -- "what we Japanese call the End of War, and you call Victory Day. I don't cast blame. I simply believe that war is both crazy and criminal." So this is where his focus lies, on the importance and value of peace. "Sadly, many Japanese people don't want to know. They need shaking up."

He's doing that, all right. He refused to make jewelry for the owner of a pharmaceutical company with a factory in Taiwan because its environmental laws were looser. And made his views so crystal clear to a client involved in genetically modified soybean production that she has now put a range of organic soy products on the market. "They're little changes, but important. I believe that an artist creates a client, but also that the client creates the artist."

For Koichiro, making jewelry is akin to creating drama. "I write a script for every collection, with a main character in a setting and go from there. People say I should bind these stories into a book. To me, it's more important that you know and understand the nature of the materials you are wearing, that all resources are from the Earth. We need to be more conscious, responsible."

Right now, though, he is empty. Having sent off the last piece to the last customer, he is devoid of energy and inspiration. "I need to read, travel . . ."

He insists on crafting every single design himself. (In the past trainees -- "deshi" -- have run away.) He even refused to teach his daughter, who had to go to New York to find her own style. Now she is back, working independently alongside her father and also acting as creative director of Melissa International Inc. "She wants to exhibit my creations in the States. That's why my next minicollection will be in New York in mid-September.

You cannot buy Koichiro's pieces in any store. "Just as I'm not interested in being famous, which would also mean loss of privacy, I'm not commercial. Like Japanese 'katana' (sword) craftsmen, I pray to the gods before I start any new piece. My canvas is the woman I create for. My jewelry is culturally universal."

Melissa International Inc., Japan: telephone (03) 3441-7536, fax (03) 3441-7527, Web site home.att.ne.jp/alpha/koichiro
Melissa International Inc., N.Y.: phone (212) 725-8636

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