One of my favorite things is talking shop to fellow designers, but what I truly adore is chatting with the likes of Alexis Barbeau, industry heavyweight, Contemporary Jewelry Design Group (CJDG) member, and avid ocean enthusiast. Not only is Barbeau extremely talented, but she is also very down-to-earth—a winning combination, in my opinion. She gives back through her philanthropic efforts and is ready and willing to do anything to help build community. Don’t just take my word for it, watching Barbeau talk about others who have inspired her work is humility in action. I have a newfound respect for this brilliant artist, and I’m so excited to meet her during Gem Week in Tucson.
How is your work inspired? Why did you choose the ocean as your theme?
Alexis Barbeau: I’ve lived in the tropics most of my life, and I love the water. A long time ago, I went to the Caribbean on vacation with my boyfriend, and we went scuba diving. I was immediately hooked and eventually became a scuba instructor. Even today, I go diving one or two times a week. I love it: the quiet, the weightlessness, the wonder. It’s magical, and I hope to spark a sense of awe of this magnificent landscape with my audience.
How did you get started in fine jewelry?
Barbeau: I am a graduate of the Art Academy in San Francisco and elected to take a metal sculpture class as my fascination with sculpture and three-dimensional forms grew. My final project was to put an object in a bottle and send it out to sea with my contact details. Well, the bottle never did come back to me, but for the project I made a tiny scuba diver and crab forged out of brass and copper. I could see that there was a way to translate this work into fine jewelry.
A sapphire slice bracelet
How did you decide to make Florida your home?
Barbeau: Well, I started out in San Francisco. I took a stone-setting course at the Revere Academy of Jewelry Arts. My studio mate in Sausalito, Vanessa Victor, was a graduate of his school. She was a huge influence on my work. She was my mentor, extremely supportive, and helped me learn so much. The rest is self-taught. I loved our studio, but after the 1989 earthquake, it was time to go. I ended up in Greece for a while to continue my pursuit of making beautiful jewelry and scuba diving. I exhibited quite a bit at the Athenium Gallery in Athens and did well, as the Greek share my love of the ocean. When I came back stateside, Florida seemed like the natural choice as I could enjoy the weather I’d been accustomed to and continue to work on my passions.
What is your favorite piece? Why does it have special meaning to you?
Barbeau: Hands down, it’s my seahorse ring. The center stone is blue tourmaline and instead of prongs I’ve used the seahorses to help me set the stone. The seashorses’ tails twirl around the sea grass much like they do in nature. Sea grass is the ocean’s nursery and a place where new life is born and thrives in early years.
The seahorse ring with blue tourmaline
What is the longest-standing relationship you have had with a retailer? Can you tell us about it?
Barbeau: My longest and most treasured relationship is with Dan Schuyler and Karen Bell of Lily Co. Jewelry. Since day one they have been so supportive of me and other talented artists. They do a great job of getting to know their brands, marketing them well, and building sales strategies. I’m so grateful for all of their help over the years, and I know our relationship will continue to grow for a long time to come.
What is the biggest change you’d like to see in our industry? Why?
Barbeau: I’ve been in the business for a while and have seen many changes take place. One I would like to see disappear is the idea around mass-produced jewelry or work produced just for the sake of sales. Jewelry needs to be seen and represented as fine art. My work has meaning and purpose, and like all fine jewelry, it’s here to stay for thousands of years. I want fine jewelry to be appreciated and passed down through the generations. With mass-produced work you don’t evoke that emotional connection and reason for continuity.
Where is your work manufactured?
Barbeau: Everything is handmade, right here in my studio. It’s either built by me or my amazing assistant. I have an outside vendor who helps me with CAD on some of the smaller elements, but if not carved by hand, I create sketches of the work that I would like to see brought to life. I always want to leave my artistic impact on the work.
A watermelon tourmaline pendant
How do you want your audience to interact with your work?
Barbeau: I absolutely adore the ocean and hope that by sharing my love for it that it creates more respect for this natural giant. I’ve been in Florida for about 20 years now, and sadly the reef in southeast Florida has really changed significantly. The coral has been severely damaged by bleaching and the life cycles of certain animals are in jeopardy because of overfishing. I hope that I can inspire my audience to respect the ocean so we can repair it and watch it flourish so that generations to come can bask in its splendor. I regularly contribute to the Ocean Conservancy and Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF), two amazing charities that help educate the public on the importance of ocean conservation and give practical suggestions on how we can all become part of the solution.
Why are you excited for JCK Tucson?
Barbeau: JCK has definitely switched things up this year, and they are exposing designers to a much broader audience. I didn’t really have the show on my radar, but Marie Louise, the coordinator of the CJDG, mentioned that JCK would be relaunching its Design Center in Tucson in February and that there was a fantastic new director for this part of the show. I reached out to Nina Mancini, Design Center account executive, as I heard she was doing great things. Coincidentally, we had an opportunity to meet in Miami at LUXURY 2015. I found her so incredibly enthusiastic as well as supportive of designers. Her positive energy was infectious. I thought to myself, I can’t miss out on this incredible opportunity. I want to be there. I’m so glad I decided to sign up for the show. Not only does Nina have wonderful ideas, but she follows through on them. The changes for this year’s Design Center are amazing, and I’m so thrilled to be a part of this historic occasion.