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Sunday, January 31, 2016

Wallace Chan’s New Book Takes Readers Inside His Jewels

"Wallace Chan Dream Light Water" is now available in the US. It contains 86 of his sculptural jewels in extreme close-ups and in their actual size

It’s my belief that 100 years from now Wallace Chan won’t be known as a jeweler or jewelry artist, but simply as an artist. He will be considered among the best of his time, if not longer. That his groundbreaking gem carving and faceting techniques and his jewelry making skills will be taught at art schools and gemology schools around the world.

The China native and now Hong Kong-based jewelry artist who grew up in extreme poverty is already successful beyond his wildest imagination among the most elite in the world in money and taste. His notoriety will likely grow with the January 28 release of the book “Wallace Chan Dream Light Water,” designed to open up the process of his techniques to the public.

Wallace Chan with Sarah Coffin, a curator at Cooper Hewitt Museum (left) and Cherry Rao

On the day of the book’s release Chan gave a lecture at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York. The book contains photographs of 86 of his sculptural jewels in extreme close-ups and in their actual size. Even at $280 each, the museum’s allotment of the 380-page tome sold out before Chan took the stage.

Chan discussed his quest for knowledge even though he was too poor to receive a formal education.

“I started from reading books I could not understand to wanting books I could not afford and today I have made a book of my own,” Chan told an audience of jewelry and art professionals and enthusiasts at Cooper Hewitt. “I have met a lot of challenges along the way.”

From concept to publishing, the book took seven years to make, Chan told the audience, or as he told me previously, “nothing comes easy” for him.

Vividity brooch centered with a rare elbaite tourmaline

Chan also brought one of his more famous creations with him as an exhibit for the event: “Vividity,” a colorful brooch centered with a rare elbaite tourmaline.

Chan told me in October when he first came to New York to promote the book that he chose to photograph the jewels in extreme detail in order to reveal the techniques he uses so others can learn from them—such as his use of gems as prongs instead of metal, how he manipulates precious metals, and his approach to faceting jade.

“Books are just like jewelry,” Chan told the audience through his editor and translator, Cherry Rao. “They are embodiments of human cultures and emotions. With this book I hope to show you a world that you cannot see—a micro world of jewelry where you can find the hidden truth, goodness and beauty in the gemstone and the craftsmanship.

A close-up view of the Now and Always necklace featuring the "Wallace Cut"

The book cover is a photograph of his most famous gem carving technique: The Wallace Cut, where he creates a reverse image in the back of a gem using cameo and intaglio carving techniques that result in a multiple-dimensional trompe l’oeil effect when seen from the front of the gem.

“On the front you can see five faces but actually I only carved one face at the back of the stone and the four more faces you see are actually the result of reflections that was created by precise calculations and faceting,” Chan said.

A close-up view of the Fluttery Ragtime Brooch

“It was reverse thinking combined with reverse carving motions. What you see on the right I actually carved on the left and what you see that is deep inside the stone was actually carved shallowly and by design.”

A full view of the Fluttery Ragtime Brooch

It took Chan two and a half years to master this approach to jewelry carving, which he first revealed in 1987, and another six months to build the tools, which include dentist instruments adapted for gem carving. He then had to carve while the gem was submerged in water because the carving tools generated too much heat that could damage or crack the gem. Not to mention burn his hands.

An extreme close up view of Parure Plum Flowers in Snow

“As I was carving in water it meant I could not see the details so I was doing the carving stroke by stroke,” he told the audience. “I had to carve one line and then I had to take it out of the water and check it to see if it is okay. I put it back down into the water to do another stroke. It was a long process but I entered a stage where my eyes, my heart my hands were moving as one. By that time I could carve in the water for two or three minutes without looking or checking.

“It was the craziest period in my life. At that time I was completely lost in the magic of light and shadow.”

A full view of the Fluttery Ragtime Brooch

Chan’s reputation transcends jewels and goes into art. He is a sculptor by training and still creates many traditional works of sculpture as well as large glass etchings. Sarah Coffin, a curator at Cooper Hewitt who led the lecture, asked Chan about his artistic approach to his jewelry designs.

“Painters use paint, musicians use notes and I use gemstones to create,” Chan said. “Jewelry is the same as paintings or music. It is a form of expression in art. For more than four decades gemstones have been the most important language I use to communicate with nature and the universe. The carvings, sculptured gemstone cuttings or jewelry creations use gemstones as my medium … and through creation I become one with nature.”

Heart in Bloom brooch

The book, Wallace Chan Dream Light Water,” published by Rizzoli, is co-written by Juliet de La Rochefoucauld, a gemologist, jewelry historian, author and lecturer. The 380-page 11-in. by 15-in. book contains 260 color photographs and illustrations. It retails for $280. Demand has already proven to be strong as the allotment at the Cooper-Hewitt museum sold out during Chan’s lecture Thursday.

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