Alishan Halebian wants you to think. The jewelry he designs and makes is easy on the eyes for sure. But there is a sense of discovery that is embodied in his pieces that makes you reflect, and wonder.
Self-trained as a goldsmith, Alishan brings an engineer’s eye to construction, but an artist’s eye to form. Most pieces combine multiple precious metals, in different colors and textures. Rings are made of four to seven parts, each portion constructed separately, then combined seamlessly, flawlessly. The melding of different metal textures enhances each element of the designs. There is sculpture and texture in every piece of jewelry.
Alishan arrived in this country in 1970 at age 18. He was very interested in art, and started out in ceramics, but switched to jewelry making as a way to make a living in the vibrant downtown Los Angeles jewelry district. He worked for a company for two years as a stone setter while taking art classes in college. After that, he discovered the work of German and Swiss jewelry designers and realized that there was opportunity to express artistic vision through jewelry. He taught himself jewelry fabrication techniques from a book—he still has the book–while taking on special orders.
Alishan typically works with metals such as platinum, gold, and silver, combined with gemstones and nontraditional materials like ancient coins and wood. All of the jewelry –from start to finish–is made in Alishan’s studio in the United States. Each piece is meticulously overseen by Alishan himself, to make sure it adheres to his original aesthetic and design.
There are several distinctive lines within his company. Alishan Bridal features diamonds set into textured and dimensional settings. Most designs have an element of the classic, so that there is something inherently familiar about the design as a symbol of everlasting love. But each ring is definitely distinctive, whether it is a sculptural head that holds the center diamond, or an impossibly exquisite overlay of metal on the band.
His Fashion collection covers varied territory from cuff bracelets, to dramatic chandelier earrings, to what can only be described as mini sculptures. The Edge series is thoroughly modern with dark textured metal juxtaposing gold and rose-cut gemstones. But throughout the collections, there is often a lyrical flourish here, an unexpected detail there, that is distinctive and recognizable as “Alishan”.
Interview with Alishan
I had a chance to speak with Alishan recently, about his inspiration and how art and craft take a lifetime to achieve. I interviewed him for the Contemporary Jewelry Design Group, an organization where he is a member and I am the editor of the website at www.cjdgjewelers.org.
idazzle.com: How does your design process work? Ideas and sketches, then figure out production, or do some pieces evolve as you go?
Alishan: Everything evolves! It starts with an idea that becomes a sketch, then evolves from there. There is not really a specific route or rigid concept: It all starts with an idea.
Do things change from what you first envision?
Oh yes! From sketch to three-dimensional prototype, whether it is all fabrication or from a wax mold, during that time as it changes from 1D to 3D it can all change. I really like the process from idea to finished piece. I am an active participant!
Have you ever been stumped by how to actually produce one of your design ideas?
Wellll….yes. I solved that problem years ago, since I taught myself. If there is difficulty in solving how to execute a particular piece, I’ve already done that in figuring out how to fabricate in the first place. I like getting stumped. It makes you think critically about how to solve it. Then you can stumble into a new or more interesting way of doing it.
You have said you’re inspired by African art, contemporary sculpture, and references to your Armenian heritage make an appearance every so often. Is there anything inspiring you recently that you are exploring with your designs?
Always! Everyday I start all over again. There are certain influences that are permanent. But I can start applying it in different ways. For instance, I keep returning to African art. It is more untouched, and has had less interpretation than Western art. It is often spiritual; it has a purpose, whether that is functional or ceremonial. I can see the same design, the same fabric 10 times, 20 times, 100 times and every time I pick up something new.
Contemporary art is very dear to me. When I first saw the minimal Swiss and German art and designs, it made a huge impression on me.
All of this, plus my heritage, you can see all of this in my work.
How involved are you in the execution of each piece that leaves your studio?
Our workshop is quite big, with a number of employees, all trained by me. Some were not from jewelry; I chose them for that reason, so that I could train them. I’m involved with the design, each prototype and every part of production. But I can’t do it all by myself. So much is involved with each piece that leaves the studio: textures, colors, so I am involved. I am trying to simplify, but it’s not happening!
Designing jewelry must be a highly personal process. Do you ever get attached to your designs?
Occasionally I get very attached, until I make new things, and then the new things get more personal. It’s a journey. I designed a Magic Bottle piece, which won an award in Japan. We decided not to sell it, but during the Tucson jewelry show a customer wrote me a check, and I promised her I would make another one a little different. However Lydia (my wife) did not agree with it and we sold the original piece. She said “You don’t create art work and keep, let others enjoy them also”. That was a very personal piece that I really liked. Most everything has sold over the years. My wife reminds me that it’s better to have someone who really loves the piece own it and then move on to the next interesting thing.
Where are you most productive, design-wise (studio, home, traveling)?
My most productive place is in my head. Physically, my studio or workshop is productive, where things are already in production and I have everything here, including prototypes. It’s easier for me to concoct a new design in the studio. I often take things home to continue, but then I don’t have to time to do much there.
What do you do in your “free” time?
There are so many things, but not enough time to do it! Most of the time I do things together with my wife. I garden, I paint–I wish I had more time for that. Food is a very important part of our lives, getting together with friends and cooking and eating. Occasionally I’ll take my flute out and play, but it’s been a while. Music is VERY important. It’s part of my expression.
What kind of music?
I can’t categorize, I love everything. What I listen to most is jazz and classical, but I love it all. Improvisation works into my designs, there is an analogy to the music I like.
You have won a variety of industry design awards. Is there a particular accomplishment or award that you are particularly proud of?
I like competitions. One of the reasons–of course winning is good–but more importantly it gives me an opportunity to do something outside of my daily process of creating the lines for my collections. I can leave that and travel to a more adventurous and open area. Competitions give me that opportunity. And maybe I’ll discover something new and bring that back to my regular work. I love that discovery and exploration.
What sort of advice would you give someone just starting out as a metal smith or jewelry designer?
I’ve been asked this question many times as a GIA career fair coach. My advice is to just start working without any preconceived notions. If you’re starting from scratch, start working to find your own expression. You can’t sit and wait for the inspiration and direction to come. You have do a lot of work, and practically make things. Work and work and work. You can’t just read a technical book and then, boom, you are an engineer. Art and craft take a lifetime to achieve. It takes a while to know who you are and what your craft is, and be able to say “This is my work”. Be connected to the industry, you need to know what is going on, new developments. Don’t stop growing.
How do you stay sane during show season/Las Vegas?
I don’t! It’s a stressful period, for many reasons. We have to make a reason for clients to come buy from us. When you show in an international show like Las Vegas JCK, you have to be ready in many ways. The collection has to be beautiful, and ready, and communicate to the client. It’s all important. Such a cycle: one show ends and then you have to get ready for the next one, then a trunk show after that. Everything evolves and takes effort. Lydia, my wife, joined our company in 1990’s, and things have gone better since then. I take a lot of advice from her, and her advice is always very valuable, from design to marketing. It’s a very good collaboration.
Great, I can meet you in Las Vegas! You, and your wife and business partner Lydia, have been described by multiple sources in the industry as extraordinarily nice and lovely people. Do you think that the nice guy ultimately wins?
Absolutely. Thank you! We don’t make an effort to be nice, I guess we just are. As stressful as the industry is, as soon as we see our friends and colleagues in the industry, we sit down and share a meal or a bottle of wine, and everything is all worth it. We have made friends from all of the world, such great bonds and friendship. It renews and strengthens us. We see our real friends. They are part of our journey, too.
What can we expect from Alishan in 2013?
For me, if I don’t have anything going on, I would be very depressed. There has to be something going on in my head. I have to have a plan for the future: always a new project. Everyday I feel like I am starting all over. Right now, I am taking my collection more into simplicity. Simplicity is one of the hardest things to achieve.
I want to make it easy to fall in love. There is a Pablo Picasso bull drawing series, he starts from a realistic bull, and then goes to 1-3 lines of very abstract, but it is still recognizable as a bull. This fascinates me. How can you take something very complex and simplify, but still identify? That series is always in my head. Can I take complex things to their core, but the viewer still sees the same thing? That is my current journey.
I think that you can achieve that kind of simplicity, but it takes confidence and understanding. If you intellectualize it too much, you’ll never accomplish anything. But that comes from experience.
Maybe it’s like wine, you can intellectualize your description, but in the end you either like it or you don’t!
Exactly! Life, jewelry, art, wine: it’s all a little bit like that!
Thank you, Alishan! I truly am honored to get a window into your craft and inspiration! You can see Alishan’s jewelry at their website at www.alishanonline.com, or Like their Facebook page here. If you are going to the Las Vegas JCK Jewelry Show, you can find them in the Design Center at booth S10612. Stop by and say hello!