Hong Kong jeweller Dickson Yewn: from Michelle Obama to taking on the fine art world
Hong Kong’s Dickson Yewn found global recognition when the US first lady wore one of his Lattice rings in 2011. Six years on, Yewn is going back to his fine-art roots, while still referencing Chinese culture in his creations
Hong Kong jeweller and artist Dickson Yewn is on a mission to show that the two disciplines are perfectly matched. The 47-year-old has just returned from Switzerland where he showcased his latest installation, No Man’s Land V, at Contemporary Art Zurich.
Five years in the making, it features a series of butterfly sculptures brought to life using jewellery manufacturing techniques and materials such as oil-painted wood and crystal. Available in limited editions of eight, there are plans to showcase a total of 60 species, with the last edition eventually being donated to a museum of natural history.
“I am campaigning to challenge the art world because they do not accept jewellery as fine art, much like photography wasn’t accepted 30 years ago. Jewellery takes so much discipline, but it’s easily dismissed because it’s wearable. Today no one can really define contemporary art, but for me it’s simple. Everything is art. Picasso and Damien Hirst have done jewellery, along with many talented artists of our time. Why should there be any boundaries?” he says.
Yewn started designing jewellery in 1995 and is known in Hong Kong for founding popular brands including Life of Circle and Yewn, both of which feature contemporary jewels inspired by Chinese culture. His real passions however are film and fine art.
“I studied fine art when I was younger but my first love was film. I started working in the industry after I graduated from school but it didn’t work out. I later got a full-time job in advertising, but I was always dabbling in fine arts such as painting and photography.
“Jewellery for me was more about convenience, as my mother was already in the industry. In 1995 I started to create bespoke pieces for society women to wear to high-profile events. It wasn’t until a few years after I studied at FIT [Fashion Institute of Technology] in New York that I decided to make jewellery a career,” he says.
Yewn later went on to launch a collection of conceptual silver jewellery (which would become Life of Circle) based around themes of Chinese mysticism, making him a pioneer of the contemporary Chinese jewellery movement. The brand became an instant success, thanks to designs such as Double Happiness, which at one point accounted for more than 50 per cent of the company’s turnover.
After selling the brand, he launched a new label, Yewn, in 2007 featuring fine or “haute” jewellery.
“Yewn to me is an encyclopaedia of Chinese culture and aesthetics using jewellery. I explore different facets of Chinese culture in my pieces, so there’s no single piece that doesn’t have a story. At this point I started developing a style and look which featured traditional Chinese workmanship mixed with modern aesthetics,” he says.
He went on to create iconic pieces including the Lattice ring collection inspired by the hand-carved windows in traditional Chinese buildings and homes. Michelle Obama was spotted wearing a Lattice ring in 2011.
Others explored heritage techniques such as cloisonné – an ancient metalworking technique using colourful enamel – which he used on a range of vintage-looking bangles, rings and earrings decorated with flowers such as camellias and peonies. The Imperial Amulet collection features bejewelled Qianlong sword pendants inspired by the Emperor Qianlong from the 18th century.
Yewn also incorporates unusual materials, such as different varieties of Chinese wood (which he collects) to add a modern look.
“Creating contemporary Chinese jewellery isn’t easy and I try to do something no one else has done. To do what I do, you need a relatively Chinese upbringing and you must love Chinese culture. It also takes persistence – many designers dabble in Chinoiserie because they think it’s trendy. To make it palatable, you need international exposure yourself first. I have this burden on my shoulder to expose the Chinese culture to the world. People come to me not necessarily for the value of my pieces but to understand my own culture,” he says.
Now that Yewn (the brand) is firmly established, the designer is taking this philosophy one step further by expanding his oeuvre to include more fine art projects under the label Dickson Yewn, as well as educating aspiring students and designers.
“I never saw myself as a jeweller or designer – jewellery is just one way of expressing my art or creativity. It’s important to teach students how to transfer cultural know-how into material culture. How can one translate the essence of culture into products? To me, designers are flat, but artists go much deeper. Designers are a tour of business or society – they take fashion trends and create what people want. Artists don’t give a s*** about what people want. You need a balance to be successful but once you have a sense of culture it’s an unshakeable shelf, a foundation. You can create without effort,” he says.
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Also on the cards is a secret project geared at millennials.
“I have been pigeonholed for years and the problem is as a human being I have a lust for change. For 20 years I have been trying to find one design or shape that pleases everyone. I have found it, but I can’t reveal it just yet. It’s an accessory and it can be a jewellery. It’s in the start-up stage so you have to wait and see,” he says.