Kazumi Arikawa, president of Albion Art
Vision: Kazumi Arikawa © Christopher Jue

In February, the doors opened on a groundbreaking exhibition at the National Museum of Nature and Science in Tokyo. On display at Gems: Miracles From the Earth were gemstones in their raw state and the finest examples of high jewellery. The show attracted 300,000 visitors over its four-month run.

Part of the show featured 60 pieces of jewellery that spanned 5,000 years, from Mesopotamia in the early Bronze Age to the 1950s, exhibited by Albion Art.

For Kazumi Arikawa, Albion’s owner, this was “the first time for Japanese people to see real jewellery history. They are much more interested in jewellery now”, he says.

Arikawa, whom Forbes called “the man with the most valuable jewellery you never knew existed”, has a collection that is valued at close to $500mn. He hopes to open a jewellery museum that will match the Louvre, Paris, in its scope and scale.

Arikawa believes that in the Japanese — and also globally — he can see the dawning of the spiritual enlightenment that led him into collecting.

His accumulation of mainly western jewellery features 1,000 museum-quality pieces. According to Marie Betteley, a jewellery historian, it includes the cream of 18th and 19th century royal jewels from across Europe. There are pieces commissioned by Napoleon Bonaparte and “some of the Russian crown jewels sold at Christie’s in London in 1927, as well as the largest holdings of historical tiaras”, says Betteley.

Borghese ruby parure, made for Napoleon Bonaparte’s sister
Borghese ruby parure, made for Napoleon Bonaparte’s sister

So enthusiastic was Arikawa in collecting tiaras in the early days of his 40-year obsession that he is said to have single-handedly caused a spike in their value. He has now amassed 170 of them.

His journey to pre-eminence among private collectors began at the age of 26, when he became a Buddhist monk. This period of his life only lasted two years but the philosophy has had an influence on everything since.

Arikawa then went into his mother’s established jewellery retail business. “It was about then that heat treatment was becoming common for sapphires and rubies [to enhance the colour],” he recalls. “I felt I could no longer be responsible with clients.”

In his early thirties, he had a moment of inspiration while in the jewellery gallery at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. “I thought, this might be the start of my future.”

Brooch by Boucheron
Brooch by Boucheron

Today, Arikawa is a dealer as well as a collector. Albion Art, his company, has its main venue, a salon, in Akasaka in Tokyo, open by referral and appointment only, in addition to shops in the Hotel Okura in Tokyo and the Hotel New Otani in Fukuoka. There is also a new salon in Paris, which is the base for the company’s academic research.

Although Arikawa’s collection maps the arc of western civilisation, his collecting began with Buddhist art, in particular sculpture and paintings.

In his office at his salon in Tokyo, which includes a room for meditation and another for the tea ceremony he offers visitors, there is a 12th-century sculpture from Cambodia. He sees no distinctions between the traditions. An explanation for his belief can be seen near by: a framed photograph of him with the Dalai Lama.

“Ten years ago, I met the Dalai Lama and I asked him what the meaning was of the jewellery bodhisattvas wear. He told me this: ‘The Buddha has several forms. One is the dharma, or truth. Another is bodhisattvas, who descend from the land of truth to our world with the aim of saving all sentient beings. They are sublimely adorned with jewellery such as tiaras, necklaces and bracelets. They show their message — we came from the true world to save you all — by wearing the beauty of it. That is the role of jewellery’.”

Arikawa has a particular love for cameos. He recalls that the first important purchase he made was a set of ten cameos from the 18th and 19th centuries. One of the most important in his collection is an agate bust of Napoleon set with gold and diamonds, by Nicola Morelli.

Garnet cameo brooch by Paul Victor Lebas
Garnet cameo brooch by Paul Victor Lebas

Cameos created a bridge to his love of religious Buddhist sculpture. “For me it was no different,” he says. “In ancient times, the priest [invited] the spirituality of god and goddess into the cameo gem engraving, which was the expression that created the essence of God inside. To wear the cameo is to wear the spirituality of God.”

Arikawa says he will buy and collect “until my death”. “I collect, collect, collect. But, sometimes, we must also sell because we must afford staff and a company. Even if I don’t want to sell such an important piece, sometimes I must. But, as much as possible, I want to keep [my jewellery] for the future museum, so still I am purchasing.”

Holy Roman Emperor Frederick lll ring
Holy Roman Emperor Frederick lll ring
Queen Marie-José of Italy ring
Queen Marie-José of Italy ring

Asked how he has funded such a collection, he refers to his “many supporters” who include rich people as well as banks. “Banks are helping us,” he says. “If I tried to build a collection with my purse only, it would consist of one piece. So my purse is the universe, the money of the universe I can use.

“I have a mission. I want to create beauty in jewellery. I want to create a great inspiration in jewellery. I want to create happiness in jewellery. I want to create culture in jewellery. So the God and Goddess in the sky will protect me and help me. That is my belief.”

In 2019, Albion sponsored a jewellery exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. As part of Arikawa’s desire to let as many people as possible see his collection, he is talking to other museums for future shows.

His ultimate aim, to create a museum just for his collection, is in sharp focus. His hope is that it would attract “visitors from around the world who would come to be moved and purified by the exhibits — I would like to leave this legacy for all people of the present world and the future”.

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