The words that come to mind when you see Hiroko Uchida’s exquisite jewellery creations are: Edgy, Stylish and Exciting! Hiroko, Owner and Jewellery Designer at LENA International in Tokyo, has had a long and very illustrious career. Her design roots are in fashion which she has melded very elegantly into her jewellery designs. Introducing beautiful, organic baroque pearls in fine jewellery, when only perfectly round pearls were the accepted standard, Hiroko is a trail blazer and has led the way into making pearls, especially baroque pearls, a staple of everyday fashion in Japan and not just a luxury accessory for very formal occasions. Her jewellery pieces are minimalist as well as somewhat sculptural in design and in many ways break the mould of how pearls are seen and worn.
Hiroko’s jewellery pieces are very versatile and as relevant to casual attire as they are to more formal wear. Her standards for quality and craftsmanship are extremely high and stringent-everything is crafted to meet her expectations for workmanship, style and creative brilliance. On a number of occasions, Hiroko has worked with Mikimoto on designing special series of jewellery pieces using South Sea and Tahitian pearls.Exceptionally thorough about the materials she uses in her jewellery pieces, Hiroko has always procured her pearls from Tasaki International where she has come to be known and respected for her love for baroque pearls.
Recently I had the wonderful opportunity to interview Hiroko Uchida about her work as a jewellery designer. I asked her about her journey in the field of jewellery design, her design philosophy and where she draws inspiration from, for her marvellously unique and stunning jewellery pieces.
How did you get started as a jewellery designer?
I would never be where I am today if it were not for many years and a lot of dedication to fashion. My background is a definite asset for my jewelry designing. So, let me start from when I first started my career.
I started my academic career by designing and making fashion clothing.
My uncle, who was the president of Uchida Shokai KK, a major importer of jewelry and fashion accessories in Japan, had a great influence on me. Since my early days, he guided me as his expected successor.
Uchida Shokai had started to work on costume jewelry for some leading French brands. I accompanied him on his business trips to Europe as an advisor while still at college, and this is how I came to be involved in the fashion business.
I recall my excitement on looking at the latest European fashion trends, everything looked so new to me. This was in the 1960s. Nothing like this had ever been seen in Japan. My belief in what good jewelry should be like has never changed since then. Jewelry is closely linked to fabrics, and this allows our fashion style to be free and vibrant.
What followed was a growth in demand for European style fashion apparel in the Japanese market. I started to innovate with our jewelry boutiques which we had within the finest department stores in Tokyo. Good jewelry should complement an outfit. That was main store concept.
I tried to translate what I saw through a “modernization” in Europe, as the center of fashion. That was displayed throughout our boutiques so that our customers could visualize themselves wearing jewelry with real clothes to match. Tasaki Pearls was one of our jewelry suppliers especially about pearls. They are still our suppliers even today.
So, the concept of good jewelry and good outfits going together helped me develop my style. I wanted to create something new with my jewelry design. Considering I knew dressmaking, better yet my family ran a kimono fabrics dealer, it was natural that fashion design was at the beginning of my career as a fashion designer. As for jewelry, I was a customer of Tasaki Pearls and they developed my original ideas into actual jewelry pieces. By the way, because I maintained a strong presence in department stores, Tasaki Pearls and I would be become business partners sometime later, when they started working with department stores as well.
In the beginning, I made jewelry and fashion designs just because I was curious to see how they would turn out, but then their uniqueness started making them extremely popular. Before long I launched a new shop for clothing and jewelry- clothing made from the silk of kimono fabrics and jewelry, especially featuring pearls.
Pearls are synonymous with elegance. That’s what I want for Jewelry. Although we were going through a democratization of fashion, where clothing was more available and casual than ever including many voices, Japan’s pearl jewelry was unchanged, too conservative for me. As if it was absolute “authority”, people took it for granted that pearls could only be worn at formal occasions. The jewelry industry as well as the consumers recognized only the perfectly spherical pearls as gems of high value. On the other hand, imperfect baroque pearls were not valued at all. The farmers would usually toss them back into the sea.
I still remember I saw a lady, at Via della Spiga, Milan, wearing baroque pearls with a casual outfit. Pearls, whether they were round or not, have been familiar in everyday fashion in Europe and I was naturally attracted to baroque pearls.
So, I bought all the baroque pearls from Tasaki Pearls. I used to be called “Uchida-San of Baroque.” I was a maverick. Thanks to the craftsmanship of Tasaki as well as Mikimoto, my creative designs got a lot of appreciation, as did the jewelry pieces I made for my personal possession. It was such a small industry then; everyone knew everyone else!
A craftsman’s dedication is indispensable to a high-quality product.
Then, I launched LENA Aoyama boutique which solely features jewelry with my original design, and each piece of my jewelry is entirely handmade to perfection. However, I am not only a jewelry designer, I am also a fashion stylist for all my customers. The relationship between us just begins when my design is rewarded with a customer’s satisfaction.
What is your design philosophy and what are your sources of inspiration for jewelry creation?
Some people may think that jewels and jewelry are a good investment.
Though I won’t deny it, let me dare to ask, what do we wear accessories including jewelry for? Accessories must be with clothing always. We can never separate accessories from clothing, which means, in a way, they are not essential.
To make us more attractive, beautiful jewelry design should also be constructive. Eliminating unnecessities, a simplified design helps synchronize accessories with clothes. This is the essential attribute of my jewelry design.
Every single piece of my design brings spatial straight or curved lines and build a dimensional sculpture on the planar fabric. No matter how much pearl jewelry you wear, you can never be overdressed. In a multilayered style, when pieces get their straight and curved lines crossed on the body canvas, a figure has the complexity in patterns to which we have unlimited access with my accessories. Dimensional design comes from it being constructive and sculptural as well as sharp and radical. It is totally the opposite of conservative and traditional design.
There is a phrase “Dressing is a way of life.” Dressing is quite a comprehensive and essentially subjective matter. No matter how radical or conservative the design is, nothing elegant is ever acceptable. Being elegant is primary. To get to elegance, I would like people to experience and notice beautiful things around themselves. I always tell my customers how they dress themselves with my accessories, besides my jewelry designing activities. Most of my customers are not looking at haute couture for direction. I found my true vocation when I started to deal with jewelry. That is why I am in my boutique.
I get an idea from something abstract. My jewelry does not reflect any existing objects like flowers or butterflies. It is influenced by the art movements of the 20th Century like Cubism, Purism and Minimalism.
Japan has an old and rich history of pearls, pearl jewelry as well as a magnificent arts and cultural heritage. How does being Japanese influence your jewellery design?
Regarding being Japanese, I was brought up in a family of kimono fabrics dealers. On the other hand, I studied dressmaking. In 1960’s when I started my fashion business, it was the time when Japanese culture of clothing and attire was in transition. I was lucky to witness a contemporary fashion scene in Europe. My sense of beauty was cultivated by both European fashions and traditional Japanese attire. I got my creative inspiration from putting the simple design concept of Japan and the modernity of Europe together.
Now as we see in today’s fashion, it has been getting a mixture of class and gender codes. My design can be for women as well as for men and in that sense, they are very practical. All accessories should be adaptable and transformable because we are practical.
Also, choosing what to wear and how to wear in different situations has become very subjective. This is the case with pearls too. Pearls and their beauty are Japan’s great contribution to modern jewelry. I expect my work to stimulate and excite the interest of fashion lovers, and cause a stir in the traditional Japan’s markets.
Many of your jewellery pieces feature unique and very beautiful baroque pearls, both freshwater as well as salt water. What draws you to baroque pearls?
Any possible contingency in nature and living creatures affected can make a pearl distinctive. It’s difficult to collect pearls with matching color and shape, in fact it may take many long years. We cannot get two exactly same pearls, and this is true especially for baroque pearls. Pearls are organic gems and their formation cannot be totally uncontrolled. Therefore, my interest to pearls does not cease.
Baroque pearls are unique each in that they are formed in an arbitrary way. A large baroque pearl, in particular, with thick nacre, iridescent hues and an organic shape is very beautiful. Baroque pearls have variable shapes, which makes them so desirable. In fact, they can be a worn all on their own. In addition, another reason why baroque pearls were suitable for my design philosophy, I will say, is that they were affordable.
As I foresaw 30 years ago, fashion trends have moved towards being more casual and comfortable. It’s partly because pearls are always synonymous with elegance that I have been quite dedicated to pearls since I started jewelry design, and thus I have introduced pearl jewelry for casual occasions and also, so that people could enjoy pearls within their means every day. I design accessories which show the refined taste of wearers, when they dress casually in white T-shirts and denim pants. They can go to a café wearing my jewelry pieces yet when they can still wear my pearl jewelry pieces when they are going to a formal soiree as well.
You create one of a kind jewelry pieces using different gemstones and metals, fashioned so evocatively. Can you share with us your process of jewelry creation?
Image is the primary in the process of jewelry production.
The image often appears when I dream. Immediately waking up, I draw it down not to lose it. Based on the sketched image, although which is still ambiguous. I collect gemstones and materials that appeal to my image.
Design is the secondary. I get inspiration from those gems in front of me in more concrete way. The shapes, glows and other characters of natural materials determine my design.
To realize my image and design, having a meeting over and over with craftsmen is essential. According to my design sketch, they make clay models several times until the model matches to my ideal.
I knew many of skilled jewelry craftsmen, however, some of them have already retired and their techniques are getting lost, which is so disappointing.
To say about technique, I match different types and sizes of pearls when I make pearl strands. It also shows my taste and design aesthetic in making individual pearls set off sophisticatedly against one another.
Are there any jewelry designers you admire? Any jewelry designers, present or past, whom you would like to collaborate with for a jewelry collection?
None. Others may cause lack of uniqueness. I am independent, which allows my design to be as such.
What is your most favourite piece of jewellery that you have designed yourself? I love every piece of that I have designed and crafted. I cannot choose one. I always create what I really want.
Once the pandemic is over, is there any place you would like to travel to and if so, where would you like to go and why? I may not go anywhere, but I should like to visit Eastern Europe like Hungary and the Czech Republic. I’ve never been to Eastern Europe.
Favourite Gemstone to work with? Pearls, Diamonds
Three words to describe yourself as a jewelry designer? Simple, Authentic, Elegant
Your favourite personal style? Elevated Daytime Casual or Evening Elegant? Evening Elegant
What do you like doing in your spare time? Drive my Aston Martin DB7
Thank you so much for taking the time to answer these questions! I really appreciate it and I am so honoured to have interviewed you.
A very special and heart felt thank you to Katsuya Kojima, without whom this interview would not have been possible! Thank you Katsuya, you are awesome 🙂
You can find out more about Hiroko Uchida and LENA International on Instagram @lena_international_aoyama
Featured Image: Pearl, Gold and Platinum Architectural Brooch
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