The Jeweler Wallace Chan: ‘The Stone Is Me’

HONG KONG — Wallace Chan, the Hong Kong jeweler behind the creation of what has been called the world’s most expensive diamond necklace, began working with his hands when he was 8 years old.

In the 1960s his family migrated from the impoverished Fujian Province to Hong Kong, where they made money from odd jobs. The boy was put to work on repetitive tasks best done by small hands, like spooling yarn or assembling cheap decorative goods.

“We made plastic flowers until our fingers bled,” he said, speaking in Cantonese during an interview at his studio. “We got 10 cents for every bag of plastic flowers. I still remember — and for 15 cents we could get two pineapple buns.”

Mr. Chan, 59, now works in an upstairs studio in Central Hong Kong, something of a fortress, with double electronically locked doors. A slight man with a long gray beard, wearing a plain black suit, he sat in a back room — a black cloth thrown over his desk, the shades drawn against the sunlight — and assessed bag after bag of uncut, unpolished stones, each one the size of a golf ball.

“The stone tricks the eye, so I have to outsmart it,” he said, peering at a lump of topaz with a flashlight. “I can see its flaws and angles. There are elements I want to hide and elements I want to bring out. I am chasing its light.”

In September, Mr. Chan unveiled A Heritage in Bloom, called the world’s most expensive diamond necklace, at an estimated cost of $200 million. Its 11,551 diamonds, with jade pieces to create the butterflies and bats that Mr. Chan loves, total 383 carats; the centerpiece diamond alone weighs 104 carats.

The project started in 2010 when Chow Tai Fook, a Hong Kong jewelry company, acquired an extremely rare, unpolished 507-carat diamond found in the Cullinan mine in South Africa. It commissioned Mr. Chan to craft the stone into a masterpiece that would become part of China’s long history of jewelry design.

“When I saw it, I felt my spirit leaving my body and returning,” Mr. Chan said. “I looked at that rock for three years before I touched it.” The final product took 47,000 hours of work from 22 craftsmen.

In late November, as part of the viewing period for its Dec. 1 gem auction, Christie’s Hong Kong opened an exhibition featuring 30 exceptionally technically difficult works by Mr. Chan, some of which had not been seen publicly before. The show, which didn’t include sales, coincided with the introduction of “Wallace Chan: Dream Light Water,” a 380-page book written by the jewelry expert Juliet W. de La Rochefoucauld and published by Rizzoli.

The $280 book will be available in the United States on Jan. 28, when Mr. Chan is scheduled to hold a talk and book signing at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York.

In his studio’s conference room, Mr. Chan carefully flipped through the exhibition version of the book, which is more than two feet long, and features close-ups of his detailed works.

His favorite pieces are playful, whimsical, even humorous. There are dangling blue earrings called Dancing Elf; a rainbow-colored lark with a diamond in its beak; and a fish with translucent fins blowing bubbles. Mr. Chan particularly loves butterflies, a motif that appears in works such as Fluttery-Painted Lady, patterned with grass and flowers, and Ragtime, with flamelike wings crafted from paper-thin sheets of mother of pearl.

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The Ragtime brooch includes tsavorite garnets and yellow diamond. CreditBilly H.C. Kwok for The New York Times

When an idea comes to him, he grabs a pencil and sketches, quickly and fluidly. During the interview, he dreamed up a horse’s head with a flowing mane, which turns into another horse’s head, that then drops down into a jeweled pendant.

Mr. Chan’s hands are small enough for him to try on his own ladies’ jewelry. He slid on a ring he called My Dreams, which is extraordinarily light and slimming to the fingers, considering that it is made of two large jeweled cubes.

Using both hands, he picked up a large flower brooch, called Vividity, that is an explosion of hot pink and bright green. It, too, is surprisingly light for its size, the result of Mr. Chan’s technique of using titanium, which has a fraction of the density of gold.

His two workshops — one in Hong Kong and one in Macau, employing artisans who have worked with Mr. Chan for 15 to 30 years — produce only about a dozen pieces of year. “I spend so much time with one piece that it becomes me,” he said. “The stone is me, and I am the stone.”

Mr. Chan became interested in precious stones when, at 16, he got a job at a workshop that carved Chinese religious icons. At 17, he begged his father for 1,000 Hong Kong dollars, now about $130, and used the money to buy a carving machine and a hunk of malachite and started selling small carvings door-to-door.

His family was pleased that he had found a steady job; but in his late 20s, he became restless.

“I wanted to be more than a workman,” he said. “I wanted to study art and watch films. I wanted to make things I loved. I wanted to make jewelry that dances with you, creations that have a story and a soul.”

So at the age of 28, against his family’s wishes, he moved to Macau, then still a Portuguese colony but already a free-wheeling gambling haven.

He became obsessed with the fact that a flaw could be reflected many times in a cut stone — creating an optical illusion similar to a double-exposure photograph. From 1985 to 1987, he developed the Wallace Cut, the technique that would bring him international fame.

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A Wallace Chan creation: The Vividity, a brooch made of elbaite tourmaline, green tourmaline, ruby, fancy colored diamond and pink sapphire. CreditBilly H.C. Kwok for The New York Times

The Wallace Cut involves drilling a hole into the back of a multifaceted stone and then carving and etching an image, in reverse. When viewed from the front, the image will be reflected multiple times.

He also developed a very small, very fast drill because the technique requires that the stone be drilled, cooled in water because of the friction caused by the head of the drill, dried and drilled again multiple times — using elements of centuries-old European techniques such as intaglio printmaking and cameo carving.

His most famous Wallace Cut was an homage to the Horae, the Greek goddesses of the seasons, in blue topaz. A German dealer took one look at Horae and told Mr. Chan that he had to take it to Europe. He showed it at the 1991 Intergem Fair and the Deutsches Edelstein Museum, both in Germany, and began to be known as a carving prodigy.

One of Mr. Chan’s largest and most unusual commissions came in the late ’90s, when a Taiwanese temple asked him to make a three-foot-high great stupa of gold, crystal and ruby to house a relic believed to be Buddha’s tooth. Mr. Chan worked for months to figure out how to encase the tooth in concentric crystal globes; the project, completed in 2001, took two years in all.

François Curiel, chairman of Christie’s Asia-Pacific, in an email called Mr. Chan a “Renaissance man in the best sense of the world — a scientist, designer, sculpture; but my best description of him is as a visionary.

“He has the curiosity, courage and, above all, the talents to push boundaries, artistically and geographically,” Mr. Curiel continued. “He is one of the first Chinese jewelry artists to make his name in the international arena.”

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Mr. Chan checking rough stones for flaws. CreditBilly H.C. Kwok for The New York Times

Mr. Chan finally broke through a glass ceiling in the jewelry world when, in 2012, he became the first Asian designer to be invited to exhibit at the Biennale des Antiquaires in Paris, the world’s premiere haute jewelry exhibition.

“The Path to Enlightenment — Art and Zen” had pieces that were entirely different from those by European designers: a swirling Chinese dragon, a jade-green cricket, a translucent swan and fighting scorpions. The Great Wall, Mr. Chan’s necklace of antique Chinese imperial jadeite and diamond-encrusted maple leaves, sold for 56 million euros, or $59.6 million.

Mr. Chan is said to sell works only to clients he likes — a practice he neither confirmed or denied.

“Let’s just say I don’t choose business just because of money,” he said. “Each work is from my heart, my hands. I suffer through each one. The buyer needs to understand that it is from my heart — that they are taking my child.”

“If someone just says, ‘I have money, I want it,’ and they don’t understand, then I don’t want to give it to them.”

Both Mr. Chan and his staff are extremely protective of customers, saying all sales are confidential. And auction reports on his pieces just note “private buyer.”

Mr. Chan lives simply. He wears no jewelry, drinks endless cups of plain Chinese tea and still resides in a quiet corner of Macau.

He doesn’t particularly want to discuss his eye-popping price tags or prominent clients.

“I want to leave a legacy,” he said. “Chinese jewelry has a history of 6,000 years, and I want to be part of it.”

 

Source: www.nytimes.com

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