eyewear salesman finds career
as artist to be a sight better
Larson, Special to the Examiner
of Morpho butterflies seem to fly up the wall in a flock, their wings
a vibrant iridescent blue that changes color in the light. Frozen
in time behind a clear acrylic frame, the butterflies that make up
artist Steven Albaranes' "Blue Canyon" wall design remain
forever lifelike, suspended in perpetual flight.
"I call it sustained motion. You do tend to see them moving,"
said Albaranes of his popular butterfly creation. "I spread their
wings to give them a realistic flight look. They're very soothing
to look at."
Exotic butterflies of all shapes and sizes come to life under the
artistry of Albaranes, a San Mateo resident who makes and sells butterfly
wall and table decorations through his company, Butterfly Creations.
A former designer eyeglass salesman, Albaranes' fascination with creating
colorful butterfly designs has grown from a part-time hobby to a full-time
In addition to exhibiting his work at craft festivals throughout the
Bay Area, including this weekend's art and wine festival in San Carlos,
Albaranes designs and ships dozens of orders out of his home. His
one-of-a-kind creations are so popular he has trouble keeping up with
The acrylic panels, which come in a variety of designs and sizes,
are filled with non-endangered butterflies that have died a natural
death on special breeding farms. Suspended on clear pegs in mid-air,
the butterflies are not flat, as in museum displays, but three-dimensional
as they are in life.
Some of Albaranes' larger pieces have been displayed in the show windows
of Tiffany and Co. in San Francisco and Neiman Marcus at the Stanford
Shopping Center in Palo Alto. Others adorn the walls of professional
offices throughout the Bay Area, as well as Buck's restaurant in Woodside.
Butterfly Creations also has a display at Coyote Point Museum in San
From Water to Wings
A New York transplant who has lived on Mariner's Island since 1982,
Albaranes was a successful salesman of Italian eyewear for 14 years
and also an amateur collector of tropical fish. But after his 180-gallon
saltwater aquarium crashed in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, he
decided replacing it was too risky in his Mariner's Island location.
A visit to the Academy of Sciences a few months later changed his
life: He found that he was drawn to the museum's butterfly collection.
"They had blue butterflies that just hypnotized me," recalled
Albaranes, who has a particular fascination with iridescent colors.
He decided to try mounting butterflies as a hobby. Encouraged by another
artist to sell his creations, Albaranes set up a booth at a local
craft festival, and his business was launched.
"That first year I signed up for six or seven festivals. It was
an immediate success from the first show. I knew I had something with
great potential," he said.
By 1992, his Butterfly Creations had grown to be so successful that
he was able to give up his sales job and make butterfly designs full
time. "I got to a point where I had to make a decision. I was
making a good living, but I loved creating. It was then that I started
calling myself an artist," said Albaranes, who credits his success
in life to his father, who ran his own clothing store in Rochester,
N.Y., before retirement and is now a successful painter.
"I feel like I've won the lottery. There's nothing more gratifying
than making these pieces and selling them," said Albaranes, whose
marketing know-how has come in handy.
"I see so many artists who do phenomenal work, but they don't
know how to sell it."
These days, he is hard at work seven days a week in his garage-turned-workshop,
endeavoring to fill custom orders that continue to pour in.
Among the best sellers is his signature "Blue Canyon" that
features several dozen blue Morpho butterflies from Brazil, or "Flights
of Fancy" that contains exotic butterflies of all shapes and
Other popular panels include "Emerald Hills" that features
butterflies of all patterns of green, "Rainbow Forest" and
"Golden Skies." Albaranes also does custom orders such as
a tropical fish pattern he designed for one customer.
The panels range in size from 9 inches by 12 inches to 24 inches by
36 inches and cost from $179 to more than $2,000. His newest creation
is a series of tabletop box displays that start at $69. Albaranes
also creates a series of larger panels upward of 9 feet tall that
sell for $5,000-$8,000 and contain about 350 butterflies.
Bred in Rain Forests
Albaranes is quick to point out that the butterflies he uses are not
captured or killed but are specially bred on commercial butterfly
farms in the rain forests of Brazil, Costa Rica, the Amazon and Papua,
Enclosed in large, netted pens, the butterflies flourish in their
natural surroundings, protected from predators until they die a natural
death within a few weeks. Gathered up by workers, they are identified,
labeled and shipped to collectors and distributors all over the world.
Other live butterflies are sold while still pupae (the stage in a
butterfly's life in which the caterpillar larva transforms into the
winged adult) for exhibits like those at Marine World, Africa USA.
Butterflies have been in existence for 100 million years and can be
found worldwide - from the Arctic tundra to deserts to the tropics,
where they are most abundant.
There are an estimated 20,000 types of butterflies. Together with
their cousin, the moth, they make up a large group or order of insects
known as Lepidoptera (from the Greek words for scale and wing), since
the insects are covered from feet to wings with thousands of tiny
Beginning life as an egg, butterflies pass through three distinct
stages including caterpillar or larva, which later evolves into a
pupa or chrysalis from which the fully formed, winged adult finally
emerges. Adult butterflies live anywhere from a few weeks to several
months. Butterflies come in all shapes and sizes; their exotic colors
and patterns provide a natural camouflage against predators.
One of the largest is the bird-wing, a New Guinea native whose wing
tips can span 11 inches. These are a favorite of Albaranes, along
with the iridescent Morpho butterflies in the Morphidae family.
Albaranes, who orders thousands of carefully preserved butterflies
at a time, pays from $1 to up to $3,000 for specimens that he carefully
selects from a large butterfly encyclopedia he refers to as his bible.
Butterfly shipments, which must be approved through the U.S. Fish
and Wildlife Department to ensure they are not endangered, are then
fumigated to kill any lingering mites.
Although he is careful not to give away any trade secrets, Albaranes
has developed techniques for carefully spreading the wings of butterflies,
which arrive closed in envelopes for shipping. At any given time,
there are rows of stretch-winged butterflies pinned to pieces of wood
in his garage workshop.
Grade A Butterflies
"I have learned where to touch the butterflies so I won't damage
them," said Albaranes. "Butterflies that are sold are graded,
like diamonds. Every butterfly I use is A-1 perfect quality. You won't
see any rips or tears."
Although he started out displaying mounted butterflies in traditional
wooden frames, Albaranes later devised the airtight acrylic box frames
that he believes shows the butterflies to their best advantage. "The
panels just blend in. They go with any decor," he said.
"These panels are very durable, but if you drop one, you've lost
it," said Albaranes, who has shipped his creations as far away
as England, Norway, Germany and Saudi Arabia.
"They're airtight and won't fade if kept out of the sunlight.
They'll last a lifetime."
Albaranes is helped in his work by his girlfriend, Florence Plan,
who also is employed full time as an executive secretary at Amdahl
Corp. in Santa Clara. But business is so good, he is thinking about
hiring an assistant.
Customers who come to his home can browse through a portfolio or order
directly from his brochure, which is also available through the Internet.
Albaranes' own home is decorated with a variety of his butterfly panels,
which he can mix and match to form different designs, including a
Dr. Berdeen Coven, a Cupertino psychologist, covered an entire office
wall with more than a dozen of Albaranes' butterfly creations, which
he custom arranged for her.
"The beauty and serenity of butterflies is so soothing,"
said Coven, who has always been a butterfly fancier. "They represent
flight, freedom, growth and development. Steven Albaranes has a beautiful
soul that comes through with his butterfly art."
"I tell my customers to hang their butterfly panels where they
spend a lot of time," said Albaranes, who never grows tired of
the insect of infinite variety. "I am making available in art
form one of Mother Nature's most colorful and beautiful creatures."
© 2005 all reserved by Butterfly Gallery