He Says Jewelry Offers ‘Heart-Shaking Inspiration’

He Says Jewelry Offers ‘Heart-Shaking Inspiration’

TOKYO — A Japanese tea ceremony is not the usual preamble to a jewelry lecture. It is, however, during a visit with the collector and dealer Kazumi Arikawa.

In 2015, shortly after opening his private showroom in a modern office building in the Minato-ku district of Tokyo, the former Buddhist monk added inside his private office a traditional teahouse covering about 40 square feet, complete with paper-covered sliding doors and tatami mats.

Guests, who often include distinguished jewelry historians, museum curators and fellow collectors from around the world, are invited to remove their shoes and enter the small, low-ceilinged space to experience a formal ritual that represents harmony and purity and has been practiced for centuries.

Only when Mr. Arikawa has completed the ceremony does he consider his guests ready to view pieces from his personal collection and to enjoy the privilege of handling what, in a museum, would likely be displayed only in alarm-protected, glass-fronted vitrines.

Although most people would not recognize his name, Mr. Arikawa is regarded by many jewelry aficionados to be one of the world’s leading collectors — and one of the few who has stepped into the public eye. His personal holding of more than 800 pieces spans the history of Western jewelry, from the Mesopotamians through distinguished European royal collections to exceptional examples of the Art Nouveau and Art Deco periods and beyond.

“Kazumi is quite simply unique, in my experience, for his fine sensibility and deep appreciation of jewelry as art and as cultural treasure,” said David Bennett, worldwide chairman of Sotheby’s jewelry department. “It’s these qualities that have guided him in his astonishing collection of so many truly outstanding jewels.”

During a recent interview that began with an abbreviated tea ceremony, Mr. Arikawa, dressed neatly in a dark blue suit with a Mandarin collar, demonstrated the correct etiquette for drinking fragrant matcha tea from bowls that dated to the 16th century and then explained the room’s single decoration, a 14th-century painting hanging above his head.

It depicted Buddha and his bodhisattvas, or disciples, descending from heaven to earth at the death of an important person. Unlike the simply attired Buddha, the bodhisattvas were shown wearing elaborate tiaras, necklaces, bracelets and foot jewelry. These adornments, said Mr. Arikawa, 67, represent “the beauty of the ultimate world of paradise to human beings.”

“That is the essence of jewelry. It is not just for adornment and fashion,” he said solemnly, his eyes closed. “It is for our survival.”

Mr. Arikawa himself wears just one piece of jewelry — a magatama, or nephrite jade bead, on a simple cord, that cost $7 at an eighth-century Shinto temple in the ancient Japanese capital of Nara, which he visits almost once a month as part of his meditation practice.

Over the last 30 years, it has become Mr. Arikawa’s mission to share his spiritual philosophy: The transcending, purifying beauty of jewelry gives it a power to grant the world what he describes as “heart-shaking inspiration” and, in turn, make it a better place.

At the tea ceremony’s end, Mr. Arikawa led the way to the showroom’s library, designed to look like a Romanesque monastery, with walls of imported Italian sandstone. It holds only part of his collection of 6,000 books on jewelry and decorative arts from around the world; the rest are kept in a warehouse elsewhere in Japan and in his Paris salon.

As Gregorian chants played in the background, he and a small coterie of staff members presented piece after piece, each in its own custom-made box.

The gold leaves of a fourth-century B.C. Hellenistic diadem quivered gently as he passed it around. Long gold earrings from the same period were decorated with granulation so tiny that the gold beads were visible only through a magnifying glass.

A Renaissance pendant featuring a tiny white-enameled gold cupid with wings and a bow and arrow of rubies, diamonds and emeralds was followed by a necklace of exceptional emeralds that Catherine the Great gave to Sir John Hobart, the second Earl of Buckinghamshire and British ambassador to Russia in the 1760s.

The presentation included some of Mr. Arikawa’s particular specialties, like tiaras (he bought his first, by Fabergé, about 30 years ago, when the style was firmly out of fashion) and engraved gems (he said these were considered the height of artistic achievement — beyond painting or sculpture — during the Renaissance).

How does he know which pieces to buy? And then, which to sell to his clients or to add to his collection? “It’s totally instinct for me,” Mr. Arikawa said.

David Warren, senior international jewelry director at Christie’s, said that Mr. Arikawa’s deep knowledge and understanding of such a broad spectrum of the Western jewelry tradition are what distinguish him as a collector. “It is his instinctive ability to recognize the museum-quality pieces across all of these many periods that makes him truly stand out,” Mr. Warren said.

Mr. Arikawa’s dealership, called Albion Art, has proved to be a means to his desired end. “Business is a method,” he said. “The most important thing is the value we can create for others during our lifetime.” So he has gathered a group of wealthy Japanese supporters, whom he declines to identify. Their contributions, and the profits from sales to Albion clients, have financed the collection.

(Doesn’t that mean that he and his supporters together own the collection? “You could put it that way,” he said.)

Mr. Arikawa regularly lends pieces from the collection for museum exhibitions. In 2018, he was the main sponsor of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s “The Body Transformed” show, and he lent Art Deco pieces to the recent Lacloche exhibition held by L’école Van Cleef and Arpels in Paris.

Although he may work with a single-minded determination today, his path in life was not always so clear. He grew up in the southern Japanese city of Fukuoka; his father died when he was 10 and his mother ran a business selling contemporary jewelry. By the time he was earning his bachelor’s degree in political science and economics at Waseda University in Tokyo, he was managing a company that tutored high school students. He then spent two years as a Buddhist monk but, sensing he was not suited to an ascetic life, joined his mother’s jewelry business for a short time.

In 1982, during a visit to the jewelry gallery at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, he realized what he should do. “I wrote in my diary that day: ‘From today, the future will come to me,’” Mr. Arikawa said.

When he returned to Japan, his sister introduced him to a number of antique jewelry dealers in Tokyo and then he founded Albion Art, opening a small store in Fukuoka. “I wanted to be No. 1 in Japan and within a few years I was,” Mr. Arikawa said, adding that Japan lacked a Western-style tradition of jewelry so there was little competition in the country at the time.

Today, he still operates the boutique in Fukuoka as well as a shop in the newly reopened Hotel Okura, a short drive from the Tokyo showroom. Guests staying in the hotel’s top-end Okura Heritage Wing cannot miss the Albion Art window, which recently displayed an early 19th-century parure of neon-bright pink topaz and diamonds once owned by the German royal house of Württemberg.

At the moment, Mr. Arikawa said, “my ultimate mission is to create the Louvre Museum of jewelry in Japan.” He would like it to be built in Kyoto in the next five to 10 years but plans are still somewhat vague.

In the shorter term, he hopes by 2021 to open a research center in Paris, the world center of high jewelry, which will make some of his rare historical books available for use by jewelry scholars and researchers.

“In this very closed and ultrasecret environment of antique jewelry, Kazumi broke the codes,” said Sandrine Merle, founder of The French Jewelry Post, an online site. “A first in this universe.”

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