Wallace Chan’s jewellery is not only a reflection of his dedication to the jeweller’s art but also of his Zen Buddhist philosophy. His admiration of the natural world and patient attention to minute detail is immediately obvious in his work which combines a lightness of touch with technical expertise to create pieces that are as much works of art as they are jewels.
Chan was born in Fuzhou, South Eastern China, in 1956 moving to Hong Kong five years later. At 13 he was forced to drop out of school to start earning money to help support his family. He did a variety of odd jobs before becoming apprenticed as a gemstone carver and immediately realising he had found his future. Initially frustrated by his lack of skill, Chan devoted his evenings to intense practise, sometimes not leaving the workshop until gone midnight. So keen was he to attain the level of competence of his more experienced colleagues that he remembers, “After they went home, I would take their pieces and imitate the lines of their cuts for hours.” His tenacity paid off and at just 17 years old he founded his own gem carving workshop with the help of a small loan from his father which he used to purchase a carving machine.
Since that first machine, Chan has gone on to design and create many of his own carving tools which have allowed him to develop a range of unique techniques. The most famous of these is the Wallace Cut which he perfected in 1987 after years of work and refinement. The carving technique creates an illusion in transparent gem materials by combining faceting and intaglio to create a finely detailed three dimensional face or figure. Using a modified dentist drill, Chan carves each piece under water so as to disperse the heat caused by the high speed tool thereby protecting his valuable gems.
A meeting with Taiwanese art collector, Yih Shun Lin, proved to be a game changer for Chan. Mr Lin recognised his exceptional artistic creativity and became his patron and mentor, immediately commissioning him to make the Great Stupa, a metre high shrine in gold, crystal and rubies to house Buddha’s tooth for a temple in Taiwan. Provided with the financial support to experiment freely, Chan soon turned his attention to metallurgy, primarily to mastering the metal titanium in order to be able to utilise the strength, lightness and colour possibilities of the metal. After eight years of experiments in smelting, blending and casting the metal he succeeded in ‘taming’ titanium. This further facilitated his jewelled visions as he was now able to create strong, lightweight jewels akin to miniature sculptures that in any other metal would have proved difficult, if not impossible, to wear.
In 2012 Chan became the first Asian designer to be invited to exhibit his work at the prestigious Biennale des Antiquaires in Paris, a fair long associated with the world of high jewellery and dominated by celebrated French houses such as Cartier and Boucheron. Amongst his display of extraordinary pieces was the ‘Great Wall’ necklace which centred on an exquisite cabochon of imperial jadeite, it was sold during the show for 56 million Euros. Since then he has exhibited to great acclaim at both TEFAF in Maastricht and London’s Masterpiece Fair. In 2015 he presented his ‘Heritage in Bloom’ necklace that was hailed by The New York Times as the world’s most expensive necklace with a price of 200 million US dollars. It was created using twenty four D-colour internally flawless diamonds which were all cut from the same rough, the Cullinan Heritage, an exceptionally rare 507.55ct Type IIa rough diamond. Featuring motifs of butterflies which are representative of eternal love and bats for good luck, it is a spectacular jewel that was years in the making.
Chan has two workshops, one in Hong Kong and one in Macau where he employs a small group of highly skilled and dedicated craftsmen, some of whom have worked with him for 30 years. Between them they produce only a limited number of pieces of year, each one a manifestation of Chan’s bejewelled dreams. “Sometimes I have a dream of a design and I wake myself up and draw it,” he has said. “Painters use paint, musicians use notes, I use gemstones to create.”