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Monday, October 19, 2015

Dim Sum with JNN: Wallace Chan, ‘Everything In This World Is Alive’

Wallace Chan and an example of his famous Wallace Cut. Photo by Anthony DeMarco 

Wallace Chan, 59, moves quickly, smiling and eagerly greeting me as he enters his showroom in central Hong Kong on a recent Saturday morning. He’s dressed casually in an oversized grey cotton shirt and a flat cap. Beneath the cap his eyes are intense as he strokes his graying beard. With pride he says he lost about 30 pounds after learning that he was on the brink of getting diabetes. He took one prescribed pill and hated it. He decided instead to radically change his diet.

When Chan speaks he motions with his hands, sometimes pressing his thumb against his fingers to emphasize his words. He speaks in Cantonese for long periods about a variety of subjects, stressing certain words as he discusses how just about everything in the universe relates to the art of jewelry making.

Wallace Chan making a point. Photo by Anthony DeMarco

Cherry Rao, who serves as Chan’s writer, editor and translator, sits across the table from Chan staring directly at him, patiently listening. When he finishes she nods her head and not only translates but summarizes his thoughts.

For the past three years while attending the Hong Kong Jewellery & Gem Fair, I managed to spend some time with a Hong Kong-based jewelry designer. Last year it was Mayuri Vara, founder of Vara of London. A year earlier, I spoke with Dennis Chan, creative director and co-founder of luxury jewelry brand, Qeelin.

The "Fish Dream" brooch with pearls and colored gems. Photo by Anthony DeMarco

This year I hit the jackpot with Wallace Chan. He is arguably the world’s top living jewelry artist, known for many innovations, particularly the “Wallace Cut,” an unconventional carving technique that creates a multi-layered, 3D relief illustration in transparent materials. He is also known for his pioneering work with titanium, ground-breaking gem-setting techniques and for faceting and carving jade. He has exhibited at the past two Biennale des Antiquaires in Paris, a famed antiques and jewelry show. He is the only Asian jeweler to be given this honor. Those who attended those two events, whom I spoke with, marveled at how crowded his booth was throughout the exhibitions.

"Bright Star, Forever Dancing Series” brooch. Photo by Anthony DeMarco

I recently spoke with three jewelry specialists from two international auction houses about Chan and they describe him as if he inhibits his own space among the greatest living jewelry designers. They marvel at his original techniques (particularly his sculptural proficiency), his artistry and even his engineering skills.

His jewels, his thoughts and everything about him reflect his devotion to Buddhism. Something he took up when he was commissioned to create a stupa for the Fo Guang Shan Buddha Memorial Center in Kaohsiung, Taiwan. He spent two-and-a-half years on the project and did nothing else.

The world's largest purple sapphire, 164 carats. Photo by Anthony DeMarco

Maybe this Buddhist philosophy was the reason for Chan’s extremely generous and hospitable welcome. My meeting in his showroom/office unexpectedly lasted four hours, and included dim sum at a local restaurant.

For Chan, “Everything in this world is alive,” including gems.

The famous Wallace Cut.  Photo by Anthony DeMarco

“When he looks inside a gemstone, his mind goes inside it. The light, colors, reflections, he can hear its rhythm. It’s almost like being in utopia,” Rao translates.

Chan’s next statement is in a totally different direction. He talks about food, music, water and the lives of objects all around us and how it relates to his work.

Another look at the famous Wallace Cut.  Photo by Anthony DeMarco

“He loves ice cream, a lot. When ice cream melts on the tip of his tongue he imagines melting with the ice cream. Good music has the same feeling. Everything melts with ice cream and music. When he sees a gemstone he likes, he can communicate with it, like music and ice cream.”

Rao then translates his next thoughts of comparing gems to women and jewelry as his children.

“When he sees a gemstone, he has a real feel for it. It’s like a lady he really wants to impress. He is considerate like a lady. He really likes it when the gemstone likes him back…. He sees every piece of his jewelry creations as his own child.”

"Return of the King" bangle in white jade, diamond and titanium. Photo by Anthony DeMarco 

Classical and traditional Chinese music is very spiritual for him. He compares great jewels to great music. “When you look at it, it is giving you something for your soul.”

Finally, there’s this: “When he creates for the gemstone, he lives for the gemstone. He forgets his own existence…. He just doesn't want to let go of the moment.”

White jade and gold bracelet looks like sparkling snow. Photo by Anthony DeMarco 

One of his greatest feats, although he refuses to admit this, is “A Heritage in Bloom,” a necklace made of green and white jade, colored diamonds and 24 D-color, internally flawless diamonds. Hong Kong-based jewelry retailer Chow Tai Fook commissioned Chan to create a jewel from diamonds cut from the Cullinan Heritage, an exceptionally rare 507.55 carat Type IIa rough diamond. Released in September, one of the most amazing things about this necklace (among many amazing things) is that it can be worn 27 different ways.

A pendant necklace with a blue diamond by Wallace Chan. Photo by Anthony DeMarco  

Chan is in a position in his career where he can choose his clientele and he will refuse to do a piece if he feels the person isn’t ready to properly appreciate the work. He may tell some of his customers not to buy anything from him for a year.

“If they still miss this piece, still want it, we can talk about collecting it.”

Asymmetrical Pea Pod earrings. Photo by Anthony DeMarco  

Please join me on the Jewelry News Network Facebook Page, on Twitter @JewelryNewsNet and on the Forbes website

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