Gem Dancer: A Conversation with Wallace Chan
Wallace Chan is a sculptor of light. He began his career as a gem carver, inventing a new style of reverse intaglios within gems that use reflections to complete the image. In his inventive jewelry designs, gems and metal merge into an organic whole. Brilliantly colored, dramatically scaled, impossibly light: these dream-like pieces are always utterly one-of-a-kind.
When I sat with him in his booth at TEFAF to talk jewelry, gems, designs, sound and vision, he took me down a rabbit hole of zen koans and playful contradictions that was almost as magical as seeing and touching his work. As we talked, he showed me piece after piece, each more intricately constructed than the last. As I photographed the pieces, he talked about his thinking behind each design. Follow me into Wonderland for a glimpse into the mind of a modern jewelry master.
CK: When you have a ring like this does the gem come first, does the design come first? How does it come about in your mind?
WC: In my experience, you don’t follow yourself. You must follow the universe. If you have a stone, you have a feeling, you can communicate with the material. It talks to you. The stone is full of life. With this ring I started to think of a beautiful lady in a red dress at a beautiful party. I started to think about the situation. And then I started to think about form. Then I started to think about what color, what shape, what material will complement the main stone.
Did you find the ruby first? Was it already this shape?
I didn’t search for this stone. If you are looking for a stone, then you are still thinking first of yourself. I always talk about the non-existence of myself. Some stones come to you: they are full of language. Then I think about how to acquire them. If they are too expensive I have to find a collector who likes them very much. Then I start to create the piece.
When you have the main stone, some of the other stones might not suit your creation, so then I will recut every piece according to my feeling. In this ring, all the side stones have been recut. But the important thing in this ring is that there is no glue, no prong, there is no claw. The center stone is held only by tension. If there were a claw, it wouldn’t be my style. A claw would have been easier to execute. But I challenged the technique. That means I challenged myself.
Had you ever done this kind of setting before?
It’s the first time. Every piece is the first time for me. Every day I create. Is it comfortable?
People look at a design like that and think it would be hard to wear but it is actually very easy.
Does every piece have innovation in it? Is it important to push every time?
Design and innovation are two different concepts. Some designers design for the market, they make things that will sell. Some designers design for themselves. They design something they want to wear. Innovation is to do something that did not exist before. You need to have a very good command of craftsmanship, materials, color, and also understand economics and you need to combine them all to be able to innovate.
A lot of people think I am nuts. Some people think I don’t care too much about making money, I’m not doing things the proper way. The funny thing is when you don’t care about certain things, they can come naturally to you.
Is trying things on and seeing how it feels on the body part of your process?
It’s a constantly changing process, it’s very important. I’m very lucky because my ring size is 6.5 American size. I’m very lucky: God was very kind to me, I can try everything on and it’s very comfortable. It fits me perfectly.
This Paraiba ring has layers: is it made to be seen from the side as well as the front?
The inspiration for this ring is architecture: I love architecture because a ring lives on a human being. And human beings live in architecture. Houses are designed for humans to live in. Jewelry is created for a person’s body as well.
So jewelry that isn’t comfortable is like a house that doesn’t feel like home?
The height of the ceiling in a house and the design of a house all have to be considered carefully to suit our needs. As technology advances, fashion and jewelry design need to bring comfort to human beings.
Tell me about the ruby parure, the most spectacular pieces that you’re showing here. The suite of rubies is magnificent. Most jewelers would set it very simply but you haven’t chosen to do that. What was the inspiration?
I see pendants and necklaces being worn. But when you wear them, they don’t move when you move. So I thought that’s a bit strange because we move all the time. And we also have a heartbeat, which you can see as waves on a screen. So I thought why not connect this with a creation, why not show that. Especially with ruby, the red color makes you feel excited, quickens your pulse. It’s full of passion. You can see at the back of the rubies I’ve used a blue-green opal so you have the combination of passion with tranquility. Because when there is movement, there will be the yin & yang, the positive and negative. You have to have both. Animals with quicker heartbeats react much more quickly, for example, birds in the sky have a quick heartbeat. Animals that walk on the ground are much calmer and have much less volatility in their heartbeat. In order to act quickly and think quickly we need a much more rapid heartbeat. So for four years I kept thinking about this. I was inspired by the pacing of heartbeats.
So you’ve been thinking of this design for five years. Did the rubies find you?
These rubies came from a collector who collected them 20 years ago. He came to me with them. The lapis you can’t find this quality anymore.
For the necklace, I cut some rubies in the same shape. I tested. I tried and failed many times. But success comes from failure.
So you cut rubies the same shape and size to see how they would look?
I need to know how to calibrate the machine and the tools. Every time when I create it’s like walking on a tightrope. Some tight ropes are 10 meters, others 100 meters, some maybe 1000 meters.
Many of the spectacular designs this year have an aquatic quality. They are sea creatures. Do you snorkel or dive? Why does the sea inspire you?
I once dove very deep into the sea and I hurt my ears. But that experience allowed me to hear my own heartbeat deep in the sea. Right at that moment you couldn’t hear anything else but your own heartbeat. When I was in the sea, I saw things floating above, like they were in the sky. When I create the nature-themed pieces I try to incorporate different ideas. In the fish brooch, for example, the eyes of the fish are made with five layers of gemstones. These five layers correspond to the five elements that make up the universe in Chinese culture: wood, metal, fire, earth and water. For the Chinese, the eye correspond to different organs so you can see whether you are healthy by looking at your eyes. The traditional Chinese music has five notes that constitute melody, they can bring happiness and joy to people’s hearts. In that piece, the five elements are meant to convey that when we look at the world it’s not just one single element that we see but five. And through these five elements we explore the world.
Different people look at the sea and can come up with different ideas. A designer, a poet, a scientist, when they look at the sea they see different things and get different inspiration.
The jellyfish earrings have a mysterious quality, with unusual optical effects. Where did the inspiration for these earrings come from? Do you think that they express a different kind of beauty than people expect with representational jewelry?
When I see jellyfish, I don’t think I am looking at jellyfish. I feel like I am watching a dancer dancing in the sky. And I also try to perceive the sounds created by the dance, even if it’s not perceptible. And when the jellyfish is dancing you can see its tentacles interacting with the water and that would certainly create sound so to me that’s very much like a musician playing a piano. So I try to appreciate the sound with my heart. So when I immerse myself in that world and I come up with ideas. So my creation is not necessarily a representation of the physical world. It’s inspired by a different level. When you first met me I was a gemstone sculptor. Do you feel that I am still a gemstone sculptor now or something else?
A musician of gems?
I like that. Also gemstone dancer. My heart is dancing on the stone. And I become the stone. When you know the music, you don’t only use your ear to hear it. You can use your skin to feel it. When you are singing or when you are speaking you can feel the vibrations. We can use our bodies to catch the song and the feeling.
But sound and dance are about movement. And stones can’t move.
I don’t think so. When light goes through the stone, the light is dancing in the stone. In the microworld, you will see the light is moving. And stones keep the sound of the light inside.
Many years ago a friend asked me to drill a conch pearl for him. So simple! I didn’t want to do that. But he told me that when people try to drill them, they always break. I like a challenge, so I told him I would do it. He gave me a large conch pearl, very valuable. So I used water and I found a good frequency for the drill. I found the right place and the right diamond tool. I thought it would be perfect. I started to drill, it was very fast! Five minutes. It was so easy! I called my friend and told him I had done it. Then after two days I went to my friend’s office and when he opened the box, it was broken. I had to apologize. I had to try again to save my reputation. I couldn’t understand what happened. So the next one, I drilled only 10 percent. Then I put the conch pearl in a kiln: 10 degrees Celsius for 10 minutes. Then I drilled again a little bit, back in the kiln. Then at the end I put it in the kiln for half an hour. So then I kept it for two days to make sure. That’s when I knew that I understood. Because when you drill you always have sound inside the piece, it’s always vibrating and reflecting around inside for a long time. That’s why it breaks. The sound. Every material has sound inside. When people chant into beads, the sound stays inside.
Your first collection was titanium. Still today, you haven’t exhausted the possibilities of titanium. What is it about this metal that inspires you?
I talked about this in my recent lecture at Harvard. Traditional precious metals like gold, silver and platinum are used to make jewelry. But I don’t want to stay in the past. And also my pieces are big. In traditional metals they would be too heavy to wear. So I was looking for a new material and that is titanium.
Titanium is a space-age metal that embodies the spirit of our times. It is a symbol of technology and innovation. I decided that it could be the bones that support the flesh and blood of my jewelry.
Titanium is not easy to tame though. It is a very stubborn metal. When you bend it, it bounces back. When you heat it up to its smelting point, 1668 degrees C, it appears as a solid until you give it the slightest push, then it falls apart rewarding you with powder everywhere. It took me eight years to master titanium. It is a magical metal, as magical as love.
With titanium, impossibilities are made possible. With enough will and persistence you can turn titanium into silk.