MUCH HAS BEEN said about the high jewellery houses of Place Vendôme and Bond Street as they fly to our shores with their sparkling treasures. But very little is mentioned about the Hong Kong jewellers flying west with their own masterpieces to dazzle customers in Europe and America.
In September Wallace Chan became the first Chinese jeweller to participate in the prestigious Paris Biennale des Antiquaires, where his fantastical designs inspired by nature and the dragons of Chinese culture were showcased alongside the collections of Chanel, Chaumet, Piaget and Dior.
In July Michelle Ong of Carnet in was invited to exhibit some of her complex jewels in the "Brilliant" exhibition at Masterpiece London. Like Chan, her designs appeal to connoisseurs. She's always attracted international clients but exhibiting in Britain has raised her profile.
During the summer Dickson Yewn's delicate jewelled pieces started selling at Annoushka in London. His jewels have been selling in America for five years. Michelle Obama wore his white gold and jade Wish Fulfilling lattice ring on her visit to London last year, but this is his first foray into Europe. At Annoushka's boutique in Harrods, customers respond to the fragility of his designs, particularly his delicate latticework pieces. His fan-inspired designs sold out immediately.
It is early days for Chinese jewellers, but Annoushka Ducas who also retails the plump, opulent rings of Wendy Yue, believes customers in the West are becoming increasingly fascinated by the Chinese culture, particularly areas such as Chinese furniture and contemporary art. "They are interested in what was once unattainable," she says. "I'm educating customers in something that is different, and Dickson's and Wendy's works have a feminine feeling and movement."
Carol Woolton, the jewellery writer and curator of the "Brilliant" exhibition, shares Ducas' interest: "Chinese designers have a strong influence on design at the moment," she says. "They are making ancient motifs and rituals like dragons and peonies so contemporary." It is this she believes that is appealing to western tastes.
An admirer, she likens Ong's work to that of the reclusive master jewellerJoel Arthur Rosenthal, also known as JAR. "Michelle brings a lovely new contemporary vision and delicacy to jewellery, working her stones like painting a watercolour."
Of course these are tiny steps; as Yewn points out it is not easy to find distributors overseas, but it demonstrates that in Hong Kong and the mainland there is a rich pool of creativity waiting to be tapped.
Qeelin was one of the first to venture into Europe, opening a shop in Paris in 2004, then the US and London, selling contemporary diamond jewellery inspired by Chinese motifs that are sleek and often playful. Fei Liu, the Chinese-born jeweller, established his fine jewellery business in Britain before opening a store in Beijing - his designs fuse East and West. There are other Chinese jewellers based in London as well, such as Daisy Choi who works with silicon and precious metals.
High jewellery draws the attention, but the Oriental influence is being felt on the more accessible rungs of the jewellery hierarchy such as the collaboration between Yi Zhou, a Chinese sculptor and multimedia artist based in Paris and Shanghai, and Gripoix, the French couture jewellery maison. It is the first time the artist has designed jewellery. "It shows, from China's creative point of view, that we are not just manufacturers; nor Chinese artists painting Mao Zedong, CocoCola [bottles], or laughing faces, we can actually say something and bring a new language as creative minds," Zhou says.
MICHELLE ONG, CARNET
London's respected jewellery commentator Vivienne Becker describes Michelle Ong as one of only a handful of individual, elite jewellers who are shaping contemporary design. "She is perfectly poised between East and West and was fusing the two influences long before the current wave," Becker says. "There are [in her jewels] powerful Asian cultural layers and references, with a European sensibility." Ong, who joined Avi Nagar to launch Carnet in Hong Kong in 1985. "I would never pigeonhole my designs as either Western or Chinese, since my inspiration comes from the world." An illustration of this is her mouth-watering diamond and sapphire bracelet watch inspired by the marvellous hues of the Aegean, but then there are also the earrings inspired by blue and white porcelain. "A good designer is a good designer, no matter the point of origin," Ong says. "That said, as the focus on China grows, there is a growing excitement about both the potential clients and jewellers based there."
Emerald and Diamond Delight earrings and Le Jardin brooch by Michelle Ong for Carnet
Wallace Chan may only make 60 pieces a year, but the craftsmanship of his jewels is exceptional. At his base in Macau, Chan talks about how nature is a huge inspiration. "The earth gives us so many beautiful things and it is my responsibility to create beautiful jewels inspired by it," he says. His work is sculptural combining realism with a Zen-like touch, resulting in jewels such as a sapphire butterfly with lapis lazuli set on icy jadeite wings, on display in Paris. A humble and deeply philosophical man, Chan is self taught as a jeweller, studying anatomy, creating ergonomic designs, and setting himself huge technological challenges. He has set precious stones onto semi-precious stones and devised the Wallace Cut in which he combines medieval cameo and intaglio techniques into 3-D engraving creating pictures in precious stones.
His dazzling crafted jewels have been selling to connoisseurs in the US since 2009, but Europe is in his sights. "I want to sell there, but people have to get to know me and my work first."
Creations by Wallace Chan include the Whimsical Blue (left), made up of tanzanites, diamonds, jadeite, lapis lazuli and sapphire; and the Eyes of Infinity parure (right) which features two scorpions embellished with precious gem stones
DICKSON YEWN DIK-SUM
"Dickson Yewn combines real craft structure with an incredibly feminine feeling," says Ducas. "His Chinese heritage is in pretty much everything he does, but his work is very delicate. His lattice lacework is exceptionally fine."
Yewn's bond with Chinese arts and culture was formed during his childhood spent studying fine art and philosophy. He started work originally as a filmmaker, but only discovered his vocation when he did a jewellery course at the F.I.T. in New York and subsequently launched Life of Circle in Hong Kong in 1999. It was an immediate success. Annoushka Ducas, who at the time owned Links of London, had a store next to his in Hong Kong and they got to know each other.
Yewn has a different profile to the Life of Circle business. What fascinates the jeweller is not the value of the precious gems. "It is the culture of jewellery," he says. "Yewn is about generations of Chinese heritage, mysticism and culture. Basically I would like to have been an imperial jeweller. The problem is we don't have such a thing any more."
An 18K white gold, diamond and jade Wish Fulfilling lattice ring (left) for Annoushka; and Cloud Lattice ring (right) by jeweller Dickson Yewn
The fact that Yi Zhou is not a jeweller did not concern Marie Keslassy, creative director of French maison Gripoix. Keslassy was interested in Zhou's creative skills for a four-capsule collections project. Zhou is a cocktail of cultures, having spent time on the mainland and in Rome, Paris and London. "She has a different eye from someone born and raised in China," Keslassy says. "She is an artist, and
I like to share her different point of view."
Gripoix was founded in 1868 where it created a unique method of making costume jewellery from semi-precious metals and an intricate glass-casting process called paté de verre. Zhou has been collecting its vintage jewels for years. Gripoix has worked with all the great couture houses, nevertheless Keslassy arrived to revitalise the maison. "I started by focusing on the DNA of the brand, but now I am free to have some collaborations with artists." Zhou is her second.
Pineapple's Secret is a dainty and fun capsule collection of earrings, cuffs, necklaces and a tiara inspired by a dinner in Shanghai where rice was served in a pineapple.
"I suddenly saw the whole concept come together - everything that I wanted to convey in different pieces of jewellery," Zhou says.
"This was purely driven from a creative point of view. I am an artist with a vision for shapes and working with Marie is enriching, because I have no jewellery background."
Pieces from Zhou's Pineapple's Secret collection for Gripoix.