Exclusive Interview with Jewelry Genius Wallace Chan

By Chiara Spagnoli Gabardi

Ceramics hold an ancestral fascination. Earthy, natural material comes to life through the hands of gifted artists, transforming something raw and brutal into a refined object of beauty. And no one does this quite as wonderfully as artist and jeweler Wallace Chan.

Chan was born in Fuzhou in 1956 and moved to Hong Kong at the age of 5, and left school when he was 13 to support his family. Three years later, he became an apprentice sculptor, but by 1974 he had set up his own sculpting workshop. During this time, Chan moved on from working on Buddhist sculptures to creating jewelry pieces.

His work has been tied to Buddhism from the beginning: in fact, he got his first break while working in Macau when Yih Shun Lin, a Taiwanese art collector, commissioned him to create a stupa for the Fo Guang Shan Buddha Memorial Center in Kaohsiung. From that point, his career has gone from strength to strength, and is much coveted by elite collectors – his Great Wall, necklace, for example, sold for $73.5 million in 2012. 

Wallace Chan sculpts with a delicacy of touch that defies boundaries and uses light as the leitmotif for his colourful, sensual jewels. His creations reflect his Zen philosophy, and reveal unique craftsmanship invented by his persistence in innovation.

Indeed, Chan is a talent like no other, and has gained worldwide recognition by becoming the first Chinese born jeweler to exhibit his works at prestigious art fairs like The European Fine Art Fair and Biennale des Antiquaires, to mention a few.

Innovations and Exhibitions

Chan’s curiosity and thirst for knowledge has led to the creation of numerous innovations combining art, science and alchemy. These include The Wallace Cut, an illusionary three-dimensional carving technique which he invented in 1987; the mastery of using titanium in jewelry making, and a patented jadeite luminosity-enhancing technology. Most recently, Chan has come up with The Wallace Chan Porcelain, a material five times stronger than steel.

His latest exhibit, The Multiverse of Wallace Chan, running from the 14th to the 17th of September 2019 at the Asia House in London, will trace the development of Chan’s practice over the last 45 years and will be the first time that The Wallace Chan Porcelain is seen by audiences in the UK.

The fine jewelry exhibition, which features seven new works, will display a series of twenty intricately designed pieces of jewellery alongside ten titanium sculptures, demonstrating Chan’s mastery of both materials.

Here, I was fortunate enough to interview the modern-day jewelry making legend about his techniques and inspiration, and discovered to my delight that the delicate beauty of Chan’s work is also reflected in his poetic speech and thought processes.

Exclusive Interview with Jewelry Genius Wallace Chan

Many of your objects are reproductions of natural objects, like flowers and insects. What are some of the most beautiful creations in nature for you? 

Nature, or should we say, the universe itself, is a source of endless beauty. As a curious person, I find beauty in the unknown. 

When I create, I carry a lot of questions in my mind. With my creations, I convey these questions. I am always asking people to look and see, to listen closely, and to dream.

For example, the butterfly – is it a butterfly? It looks like a butterfly, maybe. But butterflies fly. How does my butterfly fly? Where are the movements? Where is the life? 

If you look closely at a butterfly’s wings, there are mountains and water. Ups and downs. Light and music.

This is not a butterfly. As in René Magritte’s ‘The Treachery of Images,’ this is not a pipe. The word is not the thing. The map is not the territory. The references go on. This butterfly is not a reproduction, but a representation of butterflies – not one butterfly, but many; not just real butterflies, but those in my mind. 

If you look closely at a butterfly’s wings, there are mountains and water. Ups and downs. Light and music. If you look closely at the wings of my butterflies, you see the dreams of a carver. Each detail is a dream, a universe of its own. 

When I create, I hide my ideas of the universe in these details. I ask for patience and curiosity in my collectors and wait for them to discover the surprises I have hidden for them. These surprises are inlaid to inspire joy, day after day, year after year. 

That’s beautiful! And somehow philosophical. In which ways does your work connect with Zen philosophy? 

I think it is in the way that my work tries to be as universal as possible. The other day, I had a visitor at my gallery and he told me that when he looked at my pieces, he couldn’t figure out where I was from. this reaction is what I have been looking for. 

I never received a formal education, so I am not confined by a particular school of thought. When it comes to religion, I have experienced Christianity, Buddhism and Taoism in different stages of life, and to me, in the end, it is all about love. Love and empathy make us human. 

If my work can help people push through social or cultural boundaries and see beauty and humanity in life and find pure joy and inspiration, that is all I ask. 

How does light influence the way you sculpt your pieces? 

To create is to converse with yourself, with your materials, with the universe, and with that one thing that makes all that possible and visible – and that is light. 

Light fascinates me. It is always traveling back and forth on the spectrum of being observable and intangible; logical and unpredictable. It is a self-revising puzzle that is always changing, and I constantly find myself chasing after it, and looking for ways to alter its path, and to enhance its being while I am creating.

The Wallace Cut may be the best example to illustrate how by understanding light and altering its path, one can create illusions that are magical and beautiful. 

At 17 you were already an innovator, inventing a new carving technique, the Wallace Cut. Can you explain it in detail? 

At the age of 17, I had just left a gemstone carving workshop after nine months as an apprentice. I set up a folding table and two chairs by the fire escape of the building I lived in and called that my workshop. 

It wasn’t until 1987, when I was in my early 30s, that I invented the Wallace Cut – a carving technique that creates an illusion in transparent materials by combining faceting and 360-degree intaglio into three-dimensional engraving. 

Inspired by a photography technique called double exposure which I learned about in an exhibition, I began to wonder and fantasize what the technique would look like in a piece of gemstone. I challenged my understanding of gemstones, light and techniques, and made it my mission to carve one face in the back of the stone that would appear from the front as five faces through reflection. 

On the back of the gemstone, I bored a tiny hole right in the centre. This was the starting point which also came to be the nose of the face. I slowly widened the space from inside out. As it was done in reverse, every carve was an act of reverse thinking: left was right, deep was shallow, and the front was back. 

I often lost track of time, for it felt as if my mind, my hands and my tools were all moving as one. 

Through research and experiments, I realised that the tools on the market would not allow me to achieve the results I envisioned. Therefore, I chose to invent tools specifically for this creation. I apprenticed at a factory in order to learn the mechanics required to invent the proper tools. Six months into my time at the factory, I discovered that a modified dental drill could produce the effects I desired. But the drill rotated 36,000 times per minute, which was far too fast; the heat generated from the drill caused the stone to crack. 

In water, I found a solution. I began carving the stone underwater. After each stroke, I would take the stone out of the water, dry it, check it, and place it back in the water to make another carve. I often lost track of time, for it felt as if my mind, my hands and my tools were all moving as one. 

It took me two and a half years to invent and perfect the technique. 

You dedicated seven years to Wallace Chan Porcelain. What is it about working with ceramic that fascinates you the most? 

To me, porcelain is more than a material. It is memories, culture, history, freedom, and love. 

When I was a child, there was never enough food on the table, and my siblings and I had to take turns sharing a plastic spoon while we ate. The adults in the family used porcelain spoons. They looked so elegant and divine that they were almost untouchable in my eyes. But I longed to hold it and feel it. 

One day, my curiosity got the best of me, and I reached for the porcelain spoon. The moment I lifted it, my hand was caught by surprise by its weight, and it slipped from my fingers onto the floor, shattering into pieces. 

My curiosity never left and over time, porcelain came back in my life, time and again as a zisha teapot, as an antique art piece, and as a material that helped me in my titanium innovation. Slowly, I discovered the history of porcelain, its significance to Royal family at a time when I didn’t exist, its cultural meaning and stories.

For such a seemingly sturdy material, I thought, it deserved to be stronger, as strong as the centuries of history surrounding it, and I set out eight years ago to reshape porcelain. To reimagine it. To rebuild it. 

The Wallace Chan Porcelain is five times stronger than steel. How was this made possible? 

Traditional porcelain is fragile because the substances it is made of is not bonded well to one another. So the key became finding a way to unite the substances physically and make them one. For that, I had to align the melting points of different components that made up the porcelain powder.

For example, I would make alterations on the size of a particular substance in accordance to its melting point, so that all substances would melt and mix well together at a certain temperature. It took me seven years and countless trials and errors to solve this mystery.

And finally, The Wallace Chan Porcelain was born – a material five times stronger than steel, with rich colour, intense lustre, toughness and a contemporary spirit. 

Is your jewelry design these days more artistic or technical, would you say? 

I believe that a jewelry piece must be both artistic and practical. By being practical, I mean it has to be wearable and comfortable. That is also why I spent eight years researching titanium. I wanted a metal that could be light, colourful and biofriendly. Gold and platinum were already popular among jewelry lovers, but I needed a metal that could give me more freedom to create, and titanium was the answer.

Today, I have The Wallace Chan Porcelain. Together with titanium, it allows even more possibilities. By being so smooth and durable, my porcelain is a solution to many technical difficulties that are key to the artistic forms of my creations. 

If you look at my jewelry pieces, you will find that the technical parts are also there to serve artistic purposes. I try to combine functions and forms in all my creations so every part is both artistic and technical. 

Finally, what kind of life do you hope for your pieces, once they are sold? 

My creations are my children. I am always grateful for the fact that my collectors are also my friends, who promise to take care of my children in the best way they can.

Chiara Spagnoli Gabardi
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