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Style & Design

Magical metamorphosis


A new book focuses on jewelry designer Wallace Chan’s signature butterfly creations.

By Phyllis Schiller


Born in 1956 in Fuzhou, China, jewelry artist Wallace Chan is as well-known for his sculptural creations as for the tools and techniques he has developed to achieve his vision. Demonstrating both achievements, his signature bejeweled butterflies are the subject of a new book, Winged Beauty: The Butterfly Jewellery Art of Wallace Chan. In it, five jewelry experts discuss his technical advances as well as the artistry of these jeweled fantasies and Chan’s creative process. Illuminating the tome are color photos that bring the beauty of his pieces to life.

Humble beginnings

The book starts off with journalist and author Melanie Grant interviewing the Hong Kong-based Chan about his life and work philosophy. Chan recounts growing up in extreme poverty, working alongside his parents and siblings from the age of five. He quickly learned that the more he got done, the more money his family would make, and the more food there would be on the table. It was a lesson that served him well. “I am always working on something. I do not stop,” he tells Grant, who is luxury editor of The Economist’s sister publication 1843 magazine.

He began his creative journey as a gemstone carver in 1973 at the age of 16. However, he soon began his own research and has been creating and innovating for nearly 50 years. He became a monk for six months in the early 2000s, an experience he refers to as a “turning point.” Afterward, he says, he returned to his work with “a new level of respect for the materials…to me, within each stone resided a soul. My role was now to address their needs.”

Each of his pieces “has to be one of a kind,” Chan relates in the book, “but once I have mastered the idea, I want to move on. Seeking new challenge is the challenge. I love challenging myself.”

In another chapter of the book, jewelry historian Vanessa Cron, who specializes in provenance research and the history of jewelry design, connects the symbolism of butterflies to a fascination with nature. The change from “earthbound” caterpillar to the “blaze of spinning color and lightness” that is a butterfly lends the creature “an aura of mystery and magic,” Cron writes. Chan’s butterflies provide an entry to a fairy world, she says, evocative of dreams and childhood memories expressed in a “precious palette” of gemstones.

Spreading his wings

The gems that highlight Chan’s butterflies run a glorious gamut from diamonds, rubies and emeralds to amethyst, citrine, topaz, tsavorite garnet and others. To showcase them to maximum advantage, he utilizes techniques that have evolved over time.

In her discussion of Chan’s creative spirit, Juliet Weir-de La Rochefoucauld — author of several books on jewelry and a fellow of the Gemmological Association of Great Britain — highlights the many technical firsts Chan pioneered. “He learnt through his own observations, experimentation and perseverance,” she writes.

The impressive list begins in 1987, after two years of research, with the Wallace cut, an illusionary three-dimensional gemstone-carving technique. He achieved his mastery of employing titanium in jewelry — taking advantage of its lightness and colors — in 2007 after eight years of experimentation. In 2002, he patented a luminosity-enhancing jadeite technology. And then there are his gemstone-setting techniques, including a “gemstone-setting-gemstone” method and a mortise-and-tenon technique inspired by furniture. In 2018, he perfected his Wallace Chan porcelain after seven years of development, creating a material five times stronger than steel. The next year, his A New Generation gemstone ring in Wallace Chan porcelain became the first piece by a contemporary Chinese artist to be included in the British Museum’s collection.

Chan’s jewelry is notable for its “connections to the past,” according to Emily Stoehrer, the Rita J. Kaplan and Susan B. Kaplan curator of jewelry at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. “Interested in innovations in design, technique and material science, Chan looks at historical specimens with an eye toward placing the work within the zeitgeist it was created in,” she writes. She compares his process to that of 19th-century jewelers who drew on the natural world in their designs. She traces the butterfly as a source of inspiration back to ancient Egypt and to the “butterfly lovers” of Chinese literature who “live forever in the form of butterflies,” as well as to the fashion-forward designs of Elsa Schiaparelli. The “poetic way Chan interprets butterflies has much in common with the jewelers of the turn of the 20th century’s Art Nouveau movement” and the “dream worlds” of surrealism’s Salvador Dali, she says.

Finally, journalist and author Ming Liu — who writes about jewelry, watches and luxury — points to Chan’s dialogue with the past and future. She cites not only his own comments about his accomplishments, but the high regard his work has garnered among collectors and curators worldwide. As she writes, “his work transcends both Eastern and Western traditions and histories, belonging to neither while shattering perceptions of both.”

Winged Beauty: The Butterfly Jewellery Art of Wallace Chan will be published by ACC Art Books on September 29.

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