General Interest

Hearts and Crafts

This article appeared in the “Shopping Around” column of the February 2003 East Bay Monthly.

Give sweetheart gifts handmade by local artisans. Or, better yet, create your own.

By Eve Kushner

When I was a kid, my bedroom doubled as a present-making factory. All year, I glued, cut, and pieced together in happy anticipation of special occasions. At some point I grew up (sort of). Having more money and less free time, I bought gifts, forgetting that there used to be another way.

Then last January, when I found myself in a papermaking workshop taught by Oakland artist Linda Lemon, I sat paralyzed by papermaker’s block, wondering if I was no longer the type to make things.

Since I’d bothered to come, though, I figured I’d at least give it a try. Standing over a warm bath filled with pulped fiber, I submerged a screened tray, lifted some mush, and soon created three gorgeous sheets. I raced home to show everyone what I’d done, an overgrown kid aglow after a productive finger-painting session.

Since then, I’ve gained an appreciation for handmade objects. In contrast to items produced en masse, which deaden our senses with their corporate slickness, handmade objects wake us back up and make us take notice. Lemon told me, “As part of people’s reaction to living in such a high-tech world, it’s nice to have something made by hand. People respond to that. There’s spirit inherent in things made by hand.”

Handmade items pulse with authenticity and vitality. According to Soetsu Yanagi, who led a 1920s crafts-preservation movement in Japan, handcrafts maintain a direct link with the heart, so they always have a human quality.

Hmm . . . hearts, handmade items, February. Anything coming to mind? Rather than buying another box of chocolates this Valentine’s Day (sending your partner scurrying to the gym), why not go the handmade route, truly giving from the heart?

Several local artisans can teach you to blow glass, concoct perfume, mold soaps and candles, and create objects from handmade paper. You can also give classes as presents, so your partner can make you a gift! And if you just want to keep it simple, the following shops offer handmade gifts that’ll make perfect valentines.

Glass Galore . . . During an hour-long glassblowing demonstration at R. Strong Glass on Fourth Street just north of Gilman, ex-football player (and ex-hippie) Randy Strong sweated from every pore while carrying an enormous rod with a multicolored glass bulb on the end. In an intricate process where timing and technique are crucial, he moved the glass through various stations: now a vat of crystal, now a 2,000-degree furnace, now a pail of hot water. Finally, he blew through a pipe to hollow out the bulbous mass, producing a vase. “I’ve always [likened] making glass to playing football and doing ballet in a sauna,” says Strong.

He starts each piece with a loose idea but believes that “for the glass to have a voice of its own, you always allow it to say what it needs to say. You have a concept, but the tighter the structure of the concept, the less the glass can have its own say in the expression of the piece.”

Strong says that most people know very little about glass. “It’s one-third of the material that’s in our lives: our car, our house, and everything else.” Nevertheless, “It’s a mystery material.” To enlighten yourself, you can take weekend-long glassblowing classes in Strong’s studio. With only five classmates, you’ll receive plenty of individual attention.

Or you can buy the work of this 33-year veteran, who ships it as far away as England, Japan, and Australia. Strong has created 85 percent of the gallery’s offerings. The other 15 percent includes John Loton’s gorgeous perfume bottles and Susan Feves’s glass jewelry (such as earrings and heart pendants).

Valentine’s shoppers will find 20 types of heart-shaped paperweights from $5 to $70. Brightly colored, textured glass lies encased in these hand-molded crystal hearts, resembling a rainbow trapped in a crystal. Thick goblets in various hues ($20 to $100) also sell well in February.

Handmade glass costs more than machine-made, and Strong’s goblets may have small height differences. But as he points out, machines can’t mix colors, produce unusual shapes, or create the silky surfaces that glassblowers can achieve. Besides, the charm of handmade objects lies in their individuality.

A Whiff of Happiness . . . Perfumes and colognes make surefire Valentine’s Day gifts, but if you want an original twist on these classics, consider handmade scents from Mandy Aftel. She runs Aftelier Perfumes from her Berkeley home. A psychotherapist and writer, Aftel became fascinated with natural perfume a decade ago while doing research for a still unwritten novel.

Now she spends her “happiest hours” working with liquids distilled from flowers, roots, resin, and bark of plants. In contrast to long-lasting synthetic perfumes, natural perfumes have “incredibly beautiful and layered” but fleeting smells, she says.

Throughout history civilizations have used natural perfumes. According to Aftel, “The original perfumes were incense. They were lit offerings in temples. And long ago, the shaman, the priest, and the perfumer were all the same person. People used scented materials for their spiritual life all over the world.”

Natural perfumes, then, connect us to both ancient peoples and the natural world, therefore bearing “certain spiritual, psychological, romantic elements that are not in the synthetics.” Aftel feels that a whiff of natural perfume “changes your mood and your consciousness immediately.” She carries perfumes with her everywhere, explaining, “It’s an escape and a pleasure. I put them on when I’m in traffic because they’re calming, or whenever I want to smell something beautiful.”

Valentine’s shoppers will be delighted to know that many of Aftel’s scents are aphrodisiacs, including jasmine, vanilla, and even black pepper. She also sells unisex scents like linden blossom and blond tobacco, as well as a new $140 chocolate-scented perfume made with Scharffen Berger cacao beans.

Malcolm Wells
Credit: Malcolm Wells

With a limited budget, you might buy liquid or solid perfumes ($30 to $100). The solids are made of beeswax and jojoba oil. Otherwise, you could treat your loved one to a $600 customized perfume. Your gift recipient would spend about 90 minutes sniffing numerous oils and identifying the most delicious smells. Then Aftel would mix 12 or more of those essences, presenting a liquid perfume in a refillable French crystal bottle and a solid scent in a silver compact.

You can also make your own perfume. Aftel says, “It’s not a huge investment in time or materials to do it yourself.” Her beginning and advanced classes teach the art of making liquid and solid scents.

Feast for the Senses . . . Romance and sensual pleasures go hand in hand. And Juniper Tree on San Pablo Avenue near Dwight Way has the market on sensual pleasures. Owner Susan Lemmon offers handmade soaps with yummy smells like piña colada and passion fruit, along with bath salts, creams, body lotions, body scrubs, clay masks, goat’s milk facial cleansers, and massage lotions.

Lemmon makes all these products on-site, working without recipes and paying close attention to the scent, appearance, and texture of each concoction. With no middlemen and hardly any packaging, she can keep prices low. Small soaps cost $2.

According to Lemmon, customers like the natural quality of handmade lotions and soaps. “People want to get back to basics,” she says. “A lot of soaps on the market are just chemical compositions, they’re not even soap.”

Not everything in the store, however, is handmade locally; one side of Juniper Tree features candles and soaps from around the world. But the other side is a mecca for those who value homegrown, handmade products. And if you want to make soaps, lotions, or candles yourself, you’re in luck. Lemmon sells the necessary materials, including dyes, molds, herbs, essential oils, soap bases (some made of olive oil or goat’s milk), citric acid for making “bath fizzies,” and slabs or sheets of wax (including soy wax for vegans who don’t want to use beeswax).

Juniper Tree also offers classes on the art of making soaps, candles, and lotions, which, Lemmon says, is much easier than people expect.

Smoking Hot Gifts . . . Think it’s romantic to snuggle around a fire? Try cuddling around the fire of a two-hose hookah, smoking vanilla-flavored tobacco. The multihosed hookahs (resembling blue octopuses) at Whelan’s Smoke Shop aren’t handmade, but they represent the newest smoking trend, according to owner Zeead Handoush (an affable American-born Palestinian known as Z).

You can test-drive the hookah experience at his other store, Stogies,, where a stylish smoking lounge done up in bamboo completely removes you from the Pacific East Mall location (the Richmond complex that houses 99 Ranch Market) and transports you to a Tommy Bahama–like version of Polynesia.

Both stores offer specialty smoking items, including leather cigar cases, water pipes, ashtrays, and a vast selection of lighters, as well as items like flasks, steins, and shot glasses that have more to do with decadence than smoking. These items aren’t handmade. But plenty of Handoush’s inventory is indeed handmade, such as handsome cigar humidors (cedar boxes that keep cigars fresh), carved wooden pipes, and swirly-colored glass pipes from 20 local glassblowers.

The ultimate handmade Valentine’s gift at these stores has to be the hand-rolled cigars ($5 or $6 apiece), which constitute 90 percent of Handoush’s cigar selection. Made in the Dominican Republic (with Cuban seeds), Nicaragua, Honduras, or Jamaica, these slow smokes are far superior to the cheap, fast-burning, machine-made kind. “Hand-rolled cigars are whole leaves rolled together. And machine-made cigars are pieces of tobacco with an artificial leaf around it,” explains Handoush.

In his experience, women usually don’t allow guys to smoke cigars in their presence, so buying men slow-burning cigars for Valentine’s Day will catch them off guard.

Paper Palace . . . For years, I’ve been happily blowing money at Kozo Arts on Union Street in San Francisco. Kozo Arts falls into the more-expensive-but-worth-it category, and I’m incapable of leaving the store without a photo album or journal. Check out their Web site, and you’ll be hooked.

Manager Notara Lum and her four employees are all equipped with art degrees, so they know what they’re doing when they hand-assemble their products. And the Kozo crew works with gorgeous materials: silks for book spines, creamy Italian paper for pages, and satin ribbons to tie the books shut. The eye-catching handmade covers utilize materials from all over the world, including Mexican bark paper, Portuguese shaved cork, and Asian paper with “inclusions” like bamboo leaves. Most covers are Japanese, featuring “scene prints,” perhaps of a Kyoto village or a thousand cranes.

Lum’s Valentine’s Day shoppers tend to be creative and resourceful. “They don’t want to just buy a gift and have it packed up,” she says. “They want to actually make something with it.” Customers buy accordion books ($15 – $30) and fill them with photos or drawings, making a really elaborate valentine that displays nicely. Other customers purchase handmade picture frames ($38 – $68) or photo albums ($52 – $180), perhaps putting in photos themselves. Lum says that when it comes to Valentine’s Day, “Some personalization inside is important.” Journals make decent Valentine’s gifts, as do sets of stationery and handmade paper lanterns. For those who want to take personalization a bit further, making a book or picture frame themselves, Kozo Arts offers classes.

Eve Kushner is a Berkeley freelancer who writes about people with passions, visions, and missions. Her profiles frequently appear in the San Francisco Chronicle.