Today’s guest is jewelry maker Alix Bluh and she is the proprietress behind this hidden little gem in San Francisco’s Inner Richmond District. A standalone shop on one of the quietest streets in the city, Modern Relics is her studio and showroom filled with her handmade reliquary pieces and what she calls her “cabinet of curiosities”. It was a happy accident that I discovered her space a few years ago while on a stroll to nearby Golden Gate Park. It is oh so dreamy and fairytale-like. Similarly her home, also in the neighborhood, was recently featured in the design book, Maker Spaces. A long-time resident of the city, Alix has been designing jewelry for thirty years and is now celebrating the ten-year anniversary of her shop.
To begin, what are reliquary pieces?
These are lockets that I have carved in varying shapes and sizes that ‘house’ precious and symbolic elements, like a mother’s locket with her new baby’s first lock of hair wrapped in gold wire, both the baby and mama’s birthstones, a gold initial of the baby’s and maybe even a first tooth. The contents can really be anything meaningful that fits into the locket. These are all set under mineral glass. I am actually working on a couple right now with a deceased spouse of a wonderful lady. I have his favorite denim jean fabric, a diamond tie clip top, the birth stones of both of them all floating under crystal. These pieces bring a very intense feeling of comfort and sentimentality to the owners. It makes me feel so satisfied to provide this for folks.
What inspired your craft?
I was in art school trying to become a great painter, but in all my free time at home I was making jewelry out of fimo clay with bits and pieces of watch parts and tin types that I had been feverishly collecting since my late teens. That work was actually a lot more sophisticated than it sounds, and I started getting it into galleries by the age of 21. One of my biggest influences back then was Thomas Mann-that should give the idea of the aesthetic. At 28 after moving to San Francisco I finally started work in silver and gold, traditional metalsmithing and started creating a body of work based on similar yet far more refined themes, such as religious reliquaries, Georgian memento and mourning jewelry and the beauty found in nature.
Why reliquary pieces?
I am a very spiritual person, I feel that jewelry has the power to be so meaningful, talismanic and thus adding so much more value to one’s life than merely objective beauty. I have been able to design pieces that are not only substantially beautiful but profoundly symbolic for the owner. These are heirlooms in the truest sense. It’s one thing to pass down the family diamonds but it’s another thing to pass along your grandfather’s hair locket with his birthstones and his lucky penny floating in it.
Your shop is tucked away on one of the quietest streets in the city. Why did you choose this spot for Modern Relics?
I fell hard in love with the space and it is so close to the Golden Gate park which is where my dog and I spend much of our time. I also love that I am only a couple blocks from the De Young Museum and Academy of Science. Luckily I also have a wholesale business and enough followers from my jewelry being out in the world that people have made their way to find me. Especially local people from all over the Bay Area. It’s very much a destination shop. But I’m finding that this is a huge factor in its charm.
Who keeps you company in the studio?
I have the most neurotic rescue dog, a Boston Terrier named Jack who barks at the window and polices people as the walk by. It’s not the best disposition to have in a shop dog, yet he is the love of my life. To drown out his nonstop noise making I listen to Pandora and my favorite current line up are: Seabear, Band of Horses, Spoon, Andrew Bird, Horse Feathers, Radical Face, Sea Wolf, Alt-J, Guster and Ray LaMontagne to name a handful.
How did you go from living in Massachusetts to SF?
My brother had moved out a year before me and kept telling me about the city and he knew it was going to be perfect for me. I had lived in Boston in the late 80’s, though architecturally stunning and historically rich I felt very stifled there. There is a very different energy on the East Coast and I knew the minute I came out to SF I could achieve my dreams. It’s hard to really explain that feeling but it was like the “bell jar was lifted”, to quote from Sylvia Plath. So in 1992, with a duffel bag filled with clothes and my sister by my side, we came out here and started a new and magical life.
What are some places in the city you like to frequent for inspiration?
I get a lot of my inspiration from nature, Golden Gate Park, the ocean, Mt. Tam and Point Reyes. Also, I love to visit Flora Grubb, Heath Ceramics and the Boiler Room, Paxton Gate, The Legion of Honor and other museums. I also love visiting the studios of some of the artists whose work I carry, like Kim Austin of Austin Press, Diana Fayt and Paul Morin to name a few.
What about some favorite spots to grab a bite or drink? What do you crave?
My favorite restaurant is Hillside Supper Club, it’s so good, really a great neighborhood restaurant at Precita Park. I also crave lots of flavor so one of my favorites is Dosa. My boyfriend and I love Vietnamese and our favorite is OTD (Out The Door). I never miss the Clement Street farmers market where I get my pasture raised eggs and produce for the week ahead. When the craving for ice-cream strikes I will head to Smitten in Hayes Valley. I will admit to a weakness for the Blue Bottle + TCHO hot chocolate or the euro drinking chocolate from Dandelion. I am a huge chocolate addict and TCHO is my all time favorite. I buy it in bulk at Rainbow and it comes in perfect bite sized tablets.
Who are some local artists, designers and makers you’re currently admiring?
I’m loving the work of Marnie Spencer of Bolinas-her imagery is so up my alley. Also I love Linda Fahey-her ceramics and illustrations are fabulous and she has a great shop in Pacifica. Paul Morin is a painter who did an amazing collection ‘daguerreo type’ portraits in oil paint for my shop. He is kinda exploding right now. And I love Beka Brayer-she does assemblage pieces that are near and dear to my heart.
Do you have any other secret talents we should know about?
I don’t want to toot my own horn here but I think I could have been a great interior designer if I had gone that route. I think I have a knack for it. I have created my own beautiful interiors, made my own bedding, designed lighting fixtures and wall treatments, etc. I guess I am an all-around ‘maker’ as I tend to make lots of things. I have tried my hand at so many creative/studio arts and been pretty successful in those efforts.
Besides the shop, where else can we find your pieces?
I have an online shop and also sell at several great shops and galleries, including Besame Mucho in Key West, Gallery 360 in Minneapolis and Imagine in Santa Barbara. I have been getting lots of direct sales from Instagram, too, which was a lovely surprise.
What’s next for Modern Relics?
I’ll continue having shows for local artists and designers, as well as wonderful chocolate tastings and pop-up events. I don’t have anything planned for the next couple of months but I welcome submissions from artists.
• all photography by leslie santarina.