Wallace Chan is the undisputed master of art jewellery, with waiting lists for his unique and pioneering pieces often stretching into years. But who is the man behind the jewels? At The Jewellery Cut Live last year, the Chinese jeweller hosted an intimate talk that delved into his past and his inspirations. In an edited extract from that lecture, here is a glimpse into the world of Wallace Chan, in his own words…
People often ask me if I have a favourite gemstone or metal. I don’t. As a creator, the more materials I have, the more materials I love, the freer I become. Besides, I believe the beauty is not in a single material, but in how we find harmony amongst different materials. It’s like music. Do you have a song with just one note in? Do you prefer a voice that is monotone? My guess is very few people prefer that. When you decorate a piece, it is very important to look at how things are related to one another.
I began as a gemstone carving apprentice in 1973. At the workshop, we worked mostly with malachite, jade and coral, and we worked mostly on imitating traditional Chinese motifs. It was a time when Chinese artefacts, even just a copy of them, were popular items in the western households. After nine months at the workshop, I quit. I decided I had an uncertain yearning in my heart. I didn’t know what that yearning was at that time. All I felt was that I could not spend years in the workshop doing repetitive tasks.
As a beginner in the gemstone carving industry, I had no access to any materials. I begged my parents to give me a loan of HK$1,000. I spent more than half of it on machines, and the rest on two pieces of malachite. I carved the two pieces of malachite into Chinese fairies. After I was done with the carving, I took the pieces with me and on a hot summer’s day I walked from street to street and knocked on many doors. After two days of long walks, someone bought the pieces from me out of kindness. With the few hundred dollars I got, I bought a few more stones to work on.
I grew up in an under privileged environment, my family struggled to make ends meet. My experiences as a child labourer taught me to be open to opportunities – everything was about survival. By saying yes to a new idea, a new material, I created a brand and a new world for myself. One day I got a call from this client saying, ‘Wallace you have to come to our shop now, come, as soon as possible’. I was sleeping in my car at that time, so I got the earliest, cheapest ferry ticket to Hong Kong. When I arrived, I saw all the cameos I had made, which my client had sold to Japan already, were returned to the shop. My heart dropped. They didn’t like my carving after all. But the strange thing was I felt very welcome at the shop. The staff got me pineapple buns and orange juice – to me it was a VIP treatment. It turned out that the Japanese client loved my pieces and asked me to sign my name on each of the pieces.
People kept telling me it was pointless to work with titanium. Gold would sell, they said; platinum would sell; but no one knew titanium, titanium would not sell. But I knew titanium. I knew what it could do for me. Because of its colour and structure, I could carve not only patterns, but it had a light path on it where the light could go in and linger. Because of its strength, I don’t need to use a lot of metal to execute structure. I could set bigger stones and elaborate my designs. Today, titanium is well loved by the jewellery industry.
I have collected a lot things over the years: gemstones, antiques, weapons, glasses, paintings, etchings and tea pots, lots of tea pots. I am a material person, but it is not the sense of ownership I crave, it is the possibilities to connect with the past that I desire. Through these so-called material things I can connect to their history and understand the time that they lived. They are my gateway to the grand, unknown past.
Every piece of creation is the work of a lifetime. It is a process that uses all kinds of emotions. It is difficult to pinpoint how long it takes to create a piece. Take a painting – it may only take a minute [to create], but years of thought process has gone into it.
Life is death and death is life. If we put a rigid definition to life it would be very difficult life for us to live. Success and failures are the same. If we are always living in the past, then we will never succeed again. If we dwell on the failures that we had yesterday, we will never succeed again. That’s my philosophy of creating. When I’m creating a piece of jewellery, or anything, if I don’t like it, even if it’s close to the final product, I will take it completely apart, because that is my pursuit of perfection – not to live in the past.
The Jewellery Cut Live will return to London on September 20th & 21st, 2020. Book your ticket to the show here