Wearers Wanted

Wearers Wanted

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Michael Holmes and Elizabeth Shypertt
Photo/Aya Brackett

Aya Brackett

Velvet da Vinci
2015 Polk Street
San Francisco, CA 94109
415-441-0109

In 1991 Michael Holmes and Elizabeth Shypertt set out to offer exposure to jewelers who were not typically shown in traditional jewelry galleries in the Bay Area. Velvet da Vinci has grown to be a significant force in the art jewelry world. Holmes recently told American Craft of how maintaining a sense of humor and meeting challenges head-on (including an armed robbery) have made Velvet da Vinci the success that it is today.

American Craft: Why did you and Elizabeth open a gallery?
Michael Holmes: Elizabeth and I met at the de Young Museum's art school, which is now closed. They had jewelry classes, and I had studied jewelry and metalwork at California College of the Arts. I was working for a studio and eventually started working at the de Young and met Elizabeth. A couple of jewelers from school worked out of my basement studio and began selling things. We realized this might be a viable business. We opened in the Hayes Valley neighborhood of San Francisco. [The gallery has sinced moved to the Russian Hill neighborhood.] When we opened in Hayes Valley, it was a really disreputable neighborhood. It has since become very trendy, but when we were there it was all crack whores. It was so grim. We were held up at gunpoint [laughs].

AC: You were?
MH: The story is so funny. This fool came in, got $40 from my wallet and then looked around at the jewelry and said, "What is this shit?" Someone must have told him there was a new jewelry store, but he didn't realize that it wasn't [the kind of] jewelry valuable for having a lot of precious gems.

AC: The name was inspired by a Perry Mason episode. What inspired you?
MH: We wanted something that had a sense of humor and didn't say exactly what it was, but would be intriguing. This came after lots of red wine. There was Joey Velvet and Betty Vinci (or something like that) in a Perry Mason episode and we merged the two names. When you think of the indie craft movement now, there's this feeling that people want to do something different. That's how we felt at the time.

AC: Tell me about some of the artists you represent and the work you show.
MH: Early on we showed international work when no other art jewelry venue was showing it. There was still a lot of American narrative jewelry. There are some wonderful examples of that, but there's a limit to it. That's not what we were into at that point. We probably have 60 artists. About half of them are from all over the world, including Paula Crespo from Portugal, Mari Ishikawa from Germany and Gerlinde Huth from the U.K. Every six to eight weeks we have special exhibitions. In September 2004 we had an exhibition with really interesting new jewelry from Latin America. I think it was the first exhibition of its kind in the U.S. looking at Central and South American jewelers. Paulina del Fierro from Chile, Paulo Segatto from Brazil and Daniela Schwartz from Argentina were among them. For the artists we show, jewelry making is a political act that challenges the wearers. They prove that you can adorn and engage without a diamond. They apply humor and irony freely. The point is to subvert the idea of what jewelry is.

AC: Who are your customers?
We're now well established and attract collectors, who tend to be older, but our average customer is younger because of the work we show and the way we show it. People will wander in not knowing what we are and say, "This is really cool!" The struggle for any gallery is to cultivate a new audience and we're doing that.