Images by Patrick Butler
It’s not often that you see jewelry that makes you look at things in a new way. But that’s exactly what happens when you lay eyes on one of Hirotaka Inoue’s sublime—and subliminal—creations.
Take, for instance, the Tokyo-based jeweler’s gold and diamond thorny branch rings and jagged heart pendants, which speak to the prickly dangers of love, as well as its myriad pleasures. His plump golden caterpillars, on the other hand, encourage you to consider your own metamorphosis (or lack thereof)—and they look so juicy you’ll be tempted to take a bite (do and you may discover a diamond hidden inside). And his skulls are not the somber, tough luxe versions we’ve come to expect from every Tom, Dick and Harry Winston. Instead, they sport endearingly crooked teeth and wear whimsical diamond headbands, as if to suggest that these otherworldly creatures are as mischievous in death as they were in life, inspiring the wearer to take things a little less seriously, too.
Hirotaka launched his eponymous line in 2010 after a stint doing his own custom collection and designing for some of the world’s biggest diamond and fine jewelry wholesalers in Japan. His collection is currently sold at Argent Blanc in Tokyo and Louis Boston in the States. Hiro (as he likes to be called) made his New York debut this past spring, presenting his collection to editors and buyers in an intimate preview at the Setai in Midtown Manhattan. He also produces some of the industry’s most enchanting lookbooks, which tell the story of the collection in a most delightful way—a collection that counts Julia Roberts, Kanye West, Rashida Jones and Kyra Sedgwick among its fans.
Over a leisurely lunch at Saint Ambroeus in the West Village on a sunny day in late April, the delightfully gracious, low-key designer spoke to Dossier Contributing Editor Lauren David Peden about his unlikely early career (Human Resources IT specialist, anyone?), his foray into the glittering jewelry industry jungle, and his love of the real jungle, which is where he finds much of the inspiration for his nature-with-a-twist (a really big twist) creations—all of which one-up Mother You-Know-Who with a lavish application of diamonds, platinum and the signature copper-infused beige gold Hiro invented to complement the other precious metals he favors.
Lauren: So where did you grow up and what’s your professional background?
Hirotaka Inoue: I grew up in Tokyo. All of my family are doctors and I was expected to be a doctor. Up until the age of 18 or 19 I was asked to become a doctor, but I just wanted to break away from family things so I decided to go to the United States, and I went to the University of California in Los Angeles. I don’t know why, but I majored in Political Science. Then I came back to Japan and worked for an IT business in human resources.
Hiro: Yeah. [My career] pretty much had nothing to do with jewelry up until the age of 28. And then I went to Paris after I turned 28 because I just wanted to restart my career and enter into more artistic things. I didn’t think about going into jewelry at that time, but in Paris I remembered all the passion from when I was a child and I used to collect little beads, glittery stones and some of my mom’s jewelry. I decided to study jewelry with one Japanese woman who was a collector of jewelry in Paris; I met her through friends. She collected jewelry and she liked to make jewelry as a hobby, too. She taught me how to make jewelry, though not exactly the way I am making it now.
Lauren: Why jewelry for you? What is it about jewelry that you love?
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Hirotaka: Amulets. Amulets made out of fangs or bones or those tribal things. I was really fascinated by different cultures, like the Pygmies’ jewelry. Not exactly those golden diamonds, but the little accessories, the more personal jewelry. That’s how I got into it. I always liked personal jewelry because of my background.
Lauren: Did you wear jewelry when you were growing up?
Hirotaka: No, not really, but I really like making jewelry for ladies. I haven’t developed so much into the men’s jewelry. I don’t know why, but I like jewelry for ladies. It has more fantasy to it.
Lauren: So how would you describe your aesthetic?
Hiro: This time in my collection you see caterpillars and some people like to call them creepy crawlies. I like to make things like that with luxurious, precious metals. Jewelry with a fun edge to it, that’s what I like.
Lauren: You seem to be really inspired by the natural world.
Hiro: Yeah, I like diving and all the marine creatures. I also hike in jungles, so I like the flora exotica. It’s more like a rain forest type of nature that I get fascinated by.
Lauren: Is there any creature, anything flora or fauna that you associate now with the brand?
Hiro: Carnivorous plants like the Venus Flytrap. Those things with thorns or poisons, creepy things that you can find in the jungle are really fascinating for me. From my childhood, I always liked to study that kind of stuff.
Lauren: What’s the longest it’s ever taken you to make a piece?
Hiro: [For custom pieces] the average is six months. Because some people ask me to make a seahorse necklace, and I do 12 seahorses going around the necklace, and the earrings. It could take a year. I have very interesting clients. They’ll say that they want a necklace with horses, so I’ll draw a picture of a horse to come up with the idea. And the client will tell me, when I said horses I meant seahorses. She didn’t even tell me! She’s an eccentric person, really nice. She’s been one of my best clients. She always orders seahorse things. This is the year of the dragon, so we say that seahorses are like a baby dragon, in Japanese. So she asked me to make a little seahorse dragon ring.
Lauren: So you really collaborate with your clients then?
Lauren: How do they find you? Is it all word of mouth?
Hiro: Basically. I was working for this Paris-based jewelry company for four years In Tokyo. I had some clients there and after I quit they followed me because no one was doing good seahorses for the clients, I was the only one. So they’ll always ask me to do some weird stuff.
Lauren: And what is “jewelry for every day”? What does that mean to you?
Hiro: Most jewelers say that you should take off your jewelry before you go to sleep or when you take a shower, because it breaks. But I like jewelry that you can wear all the time that you don’t take off. That becomes part of you. Something that reflects your character, what you love.
Lauren: Tell me about beige gold. How did you come to invent that?
Hiro: It was a very difficult thing because people cannot see what metal it is, people do not buy because it’s not obvious that it’s gold. It was kind of difficult to sell at first.
Lauren: What made you want to do it?
Hiro: I started working with brown diamonds [and] it goes really beautifully with brown diamonds and people like it. You can wear beige gold and yellow gold together, or white gold and platinum goes nicely with beige gold. People like it.
Lauren: How did you develop this and how long did it take?
Hiro: I worked with a metallurgist; she mixed a percentage of silver, or platinum or gold, and then some copper, too. It gives a little warmer tone. It’s kind of sandy, beige gold.
Lauren: Could you walk me through your creative process? When you’re designing a new collection with new ideas, does it start with the material? Or does it start with an idea, like I want to do a tree or a seahorse?
Hiro: Usually I do not start with the materials, because I just use silver or gold in different hues, or platinum. Usually I just go from the ideas, and not necessarily the ideas from looking at other jewelry or anything like that, usually just living things. This time it’s a caterpillar.
Lauren: Why a caterpillar? Was this developed over time?
Hiro: When it comes to the caterpillar design it’s wasn’t about actually looking at a caterpillar, but more the idea of the creepy thing in the forest that can climb. The image came into my mind. Dark, but rich and creamy, something that has a feeling of energy. And you can get that feeling from a caterpillar. I like the shapes, but I just wanted to make something very unique but beautiful. I want you to get the feeling of a rich and creamy, voluptuous weirdness. (Takes a caterpillar ring out of his bag.)
Lauren: Oh, that’s great. I love that it’s not a literal caterpillar. And I love the band.
Hiro: Yeah, it’s dimpled and the band is tubular. I made another one covered with diamonds. And some even have diamonds inside the ring.
Lauren: Like a little secret.
Hiro: Yeah. This one is just dimpled, but the other ones have a diamond inside. And the ring with the three green dots is called the Salamander. It’s like an organism, with a living thing kind of feel to it. I always have this image of a dark forest, something’s glittering deep in the weird, dark forest. That’s the kind of feeling I have. I like caterpillars, a rich and creamy jungle.
Lauren: So is caterpillar the motif for the new collection?
Hiro: It’s probably always going to be something you can find in my collection.
Lauren: How many people work for you now?
Hiro: I’m actually working with several different artisans, but they work for other companies, too. I basically talk to around seven artisans. Some specialize in more realistic insects, so we’ll have more insects in the future. But this guy is very good at making concepts into reality. So I draw some pictures but he catches the meaning of the words “rich and creamy” and just makes them for me.
Lauren: So what were the words for the chameleon? What were you thinking there?
Hiro: When I traveled to South Africa in 2010, a Bushman, like a tribal person, gave me one little chameleon ear. He said it was like an amulet. A chameleon can find water wherever they go, so it was his amulet for me. At first I thought that their abstraction is perfect because they’ve lived with chameleons for over several thousand years. But me being Japanese, we don’t have chameleons in Japan. So when you try to do that abstract [representation], it’s very difficult to study. If you make a realistic chameleon it’s probably easier, but if you want to break it into more artistic shapes, you need to study the actual chameleon so you can come up with the abstract. The Bushman were really good at childlike, very crude shapes of chameleons. It looks like a chameleon, because they have it in them.
Lauren: Is a chameleon just one thing? I always thought there were many types of chameleons.
Hiro: Yes, with horns, without horns. Actually this year they found the world’s smallest chameleon in Madagascar. I was really happy with that. A chameleon that represents something so tiny that you might miss it. I’m actually donating some of my sales to the insect farms in Nosy Hara.
Lauren: Is there an ideal woman you’re thinking of when you design? Who’s your ideal customer or muse?
Hiro: It might sound corny, but I always think of my mom and what she likes. I don’t really do lower age groups. The main targets are probably going to be 35 to 38, as a core, up to age 55. I don’t have a particular ideal person as an audience. For the caterpillar rings, it’s anyone who loves or can appreciate the concept of luxurious weirdness.
Lauren: Do caterpillars morph the way butterflies do?
Hiro: Yes. It falls under the same collection called “The Metamorphosis.” I made it hollow inside because it shouldn’t be too heavy. It’s three parts, and the ring. So you feel like something rich and creamy inside.
Lauren: I love that you’re putting the words rich and creamy and caterpillar in the same sentence.
Hiro: People say that it tastes like Camembert cheese.
Lauren: Really? Have you ever eaten one?
Hiro: No. But you kind of have the feeling that it might be tasty. So it doesn’t exactly have to be the real thing.
Lauren: And when did you start using green diamonds?
Hiro: I started using the green diamonds in my last collection, but they’re treated diamonds. They’re not dyed, but they’re treated. I think with radiation. They use some similar kind of thing (it’s not radioactive) in order to change the color. But it’s not just heat, it’s more of a chemical reaction.
Lauren: Where are green diamonds made?
Hiro: There are natural green diamonds, but there are treated green diamonds, too. I used treated green diamonds. Their color is not artificial, pigment isn’t added. People can’t tell what green it’s going to turn. If you look at my caterpillar rings, each one is a different tone. It’s like a nice, natural feel to it when you look at it; each one is different. I have some other dot diamond rings. It’s like an organism that you wrap around your finger kind of feeling.
Lauren: And you mentioned a silver collection
Hiro: Yes, this time I used some silver to make the skulls.
Lauren: Oh, so what are the skulls going to be?
Hiro: I was talking to my dad who made [the prototype]—he carved it. It’s going to be a homo luden versus homo sapien. Homo luden is the man, the player. We are homo sapien, the man of reasoning, the man who thinks. But homo luden is a word made up by a German historian. It says that we’re the only animals that actually play, and that’s the source of culture. So the skull collection is going to come with the diamond headband. My dad told me that he wants to name it “Homo Lumen” because I had fun making it and we’re the fun being. I used some silver there.
Lauren: And you said you were going to do silver chameleons, too, or was it…
Hiro: Oh, the insects! The insects are launching in October.
Lauren: Is that a conscious decision because you want to have a more affordable price point line?
Hiro: I’m not sure about the price; it’s probably going to be lower. I just like the material. It’s really different. I might mix it with some gold, and maybe I’ll use gray diamonds, too. Natural gray diamonds.
Lauren: I never even knew there was such a thing.
Hiro: Yeah there are tons bombarded with black inclusions. It’s an interesting material. It’s gray.
Lauren: So what kind of insects?
Hiro: Weevils. Do you know weevils? They have a shell and a long nose. They’re from Papua New Guinea. Their main product is a jeweled weevil. They look like gemstones. They’re green and iridescent. They’re cool. I asked my artisans to make it really, really realistic.
Lauren: And what’s next?
Hiro: I want to focus on the insects. It’s always been a passion—and corals. Even though I dive a lot in Bali, I haven’t made anything with coral shapes. I always end up making the natural shapes, but that’s what I really love.
Lauren: That makes sense. I think that’s why it’s successful, though, because it’s not something you’re imposing on the art—it’s organic. The entire process is organic, starting from the way it inspires you.
Hiro: That’s exactly the story. I have this collection called the “Obelisk,” like earrings, and this is one of them (shows off a small pyramid earring). It looks like a stud. It starts from the concept that wherever you have an obelisk in a city, there’s a road that always comes to the obelisk. It’s not about [making] hard, edgy jewelry. It’s the concept that there’s always a beacon in the middle. It’s strong and chic at the same time, as well. I just wanted to realize that concept in jewelry.