Interview: Chi Huynh of Galatea
Pearl-tipped petals move and stretch by themselves like a blossom opening in the sun. It’s as if metal has come alive on your hand. This riveting ring is the latest jewelry innovation from Chi Huynh for his company Galatea Jewelry by Artist.
The shape-shifting Blossom Ring is made from nitinol, an alloy of nickel and titanium that retains memory of its shape and moves back into it when warmed. Galatea’s new Blossom collection of shape memory jewelry made from nitinol will launch in January 2018.
This is not Huynh’s first jewelry innovation. Diamond in a Pearl. Queen Bead hand-carved cultured pearls. Galatea Pearls, carved to reveal a gemstone bead inside. The color-changing DavinChi Cut that reflects the colors of gems set underneath. Pearls with diamond drusy. The Momento Collection, pearl jewelry and engagement rings with an NFC chip inside that activates a voice message stored in an app on your phone. The list of patents grows every year. Huynh has also created ShopInde, a network for independent jewelers and their suppliers to promote online sales together and share in the revenue. I talked to him about his latest innovation and his long journey to jewelry innovation.
How did you find nitinol and what made you think it would be a good material for jewelry?
I found it while I was researching magnetic engines. When things interest me, I collect them and slowly they tell me what to do with them. Nitinol moves when you heat it, it contracts and expands. So I bought some wire and experimented with it for a long time before I figured out what to do with it.
Nitinol changes its personality and behaves differently depending on how you treat it. It’s like a person. It has two states and a transition point temperature between the two. You can train it by heating it and cooling it to get it to do what you want. It remembers its original shape and you can teach it to remember a second shape by doing it over and over. When you heat it to the transition point it will move and go to the original shape and when you cool it will move back to the second shape. You program it.
For this Blossom ring, the transition point is at 115 degrees so you can use a hair dryer or the hot water in your tea to get it to change shape. I like that you can control it. The wearer can play with the petals herself and heat it to return it to the original shape.
I could instead make this ring with the transition point around body temperature so it would change shape when you blow on it or put it on. But then it would always be open when you wear it. It will be interesting to see what people want. Do you want it to be alive or do you want to control the shape? What do you think?
I think it would be fun to have it be like a mood ring, opening when you are warm and closing when you are cold.
If you live somewhere where it is hot and cold, you could have that. People are fascinated with the way it moves. I posted a video of the Blossom ring opening by itself on Facebook and it went viral. People think it’s magic.
There are so many things I can do with this metal. I can do simple things like a heart that opens into a flower. It’s all in the execution. How do you make it beautiful? I’m researching origami shapes and folds.
It also has useful mechanical applications. I can design jewelry that’s as thin as a hair. When it bends out of shape you can heat it and it will go back into shape. I can do a bangle that will wrap itself around your wrist. I could make a ring that expands to go over your knuckle then contracts to fit your finger for people with arthritis. I could make a setting where you could open it and change the gem and heat it to lock it in place. I have lots of patents for these designs. I like to experiment with it and create data for myself. It’s like art and science.
How many jewelry patents do you have now?
I don’t know anymore. At least 20. But you can’t have too many products at a time. That’s my problem. I’d love to just invent stuff but I have responsibilities. I have to run my business here and my factory in Vietnam. I have 100 employees to think about.
How old were you when you left Vietnam? What happened?
I left when I was 12 years old. My father was a jeweler he was well-to-do for my town. One of my brothers was in the American Navy and one was in the Marines so when the north took over it didn’t look good for us. My father was in jail and he decided we should get out of Vietnam. I had eight brothers and sisters in the family so my father decided to send half of us in case one boat didn’t make it. We would go three different ways. My mother put me, my brother and two sisters on a boat. After a few hours on the ocean the engine froze, we were just floating for 18 days. We were hoping someone would save us but the first boat that found us was full of pirates who robbed us and left us again.
I had to tie knots in my shorts so they wouldn’t fall off my waist. We were out of water and then it rained. After a while, you stop hoping. We really thought we were going to die. There was a storm and the waves were so high you could only see the second wave. Sometimes it’s so beautiful, the water is blue and the fish are jumping. It was like Life of Pi, just like that. It’s the strangest feeling when you lose your fear of death. I decided to jump in the water and have fun. Finally a fisherman found us and towed us to Thailand.
Stepping on land, we kissed the dirt. It’s the most valuable thing I’ve ever seen in my life. All you need is dirt and air. Everything else is a bonus after that. That brings you a lot of happiness. We don’t complain anymore. You can drop everything that bothers you by remembering that day.
We were in the refugee camp in Thailand for six months before we went to the U.S. to live with my brother. I was the only person who spoke Vietnamese in my school. I was afraid to speak a lot of the time. I spent a lot of time in the corner with my book and pencil. My classmates were fascinated with my drawings. I sketched to communicate. My art was my communication.
How did you start your business?
I went to art school. I didn’t want to be a jeweler. My brother opened a jewelry store. He took me to JCK one year and I thought so much of the jewelry looked the same. I wanted to make something different. So I started making all the things no one else could make. My father and brother were the best hand fabricators. They could fold a sheet of metal into a signet ring. But if a customer wanted an animal, something sculpted, they couldn’t do it. I said let me try, give me some wax. I didn’t have enough money to start a business so I went around to all the jewelers and told them I would make anything that they couldn’t make, faces, animals. I was carving all the crazy things. After a while because there was so much detail in the waxes they started to ask me to cast and finish them too.
When did you start Diamond in a Pearl?
That was in 1998. I made the first one for my wife. For me it’s romantic, love isn’t just the easy things. It’s taking the grit and making a beautiful pearl. That was my first real line. It was different from anything else out there.
You also have a new ecommerce platform for independent retailers, ShopInde. How did that come about?
I’m not an ecommerce person, I’m not the one who should be doing this. But I’m doing it simply because someone needs to do it. Somebody needs to fix this problem. My retailers need this. Designers need it too. We need the whole community joining together. We need a way to sell online but also to support our retailer customers. When I see a problem I’m going to try to solve it.
Of all your inventions, which one is your favorite?
I think the Galatea Pearl. It’s very original. It was very difficult to do. It took me a long time. It was for love. It’s the simplest thing, growing a pearl around a gem, but it’s very meaningful to me.
That’s why I don’t make anything in my company that anyone else makes. If there’s no meaning, I’m wasting my time. My motive in jewelry is to contribute something new to the world.