The Wallace Chan talk at Central Saint Martins


WALLACE’S WORLD: The artist-jeweler Wallace Chan revealed details of his hardscrabble childhood and lifelong obsessions during a discussion with Anne Smith, dean of Central Saint Martins, in London this week.

The self-taught, Hong Kong-based Chan is known for his intricate designs and craftsmanship, his one-off pieces that sell for millions of dollars, and for the Wallace Cut, or intricate 3-D engravings inside transparent gemstones. The original idea, he said, came from photography.

In the Eighties, he became intrigued with the technique of double exposure after seeing a photography exhibition, which led him to develop the Wallace Cut. He also spoke about jade, and his methods of refining and brightening it, and his work with white jade, which he said Chinese people prefer.

“Traditionally, jade has always been a symbol of virtue and rare jade pieces can be passed through generations within families.” Chan said he was inspired in particular by the tradition of parents giving jade pendants to their children, and began working on sets of jade gems, polished and reinforced with titanium.

Although he may create precious works meant to pass through generations, his own childhood was one of deprivation and isolation. At age five, he moved to Hong Kong from Fuzhou province in China with his family, but they struggled to integrate.

“I couldn’t speak Cantonese when I was growing up and my parents couldn’t speak either so they couldn’t find jobs,” said Chan. “My pronunciation was poor and my academic performance was poor. My teachers didn’t really like me.”

He worked odd jobs before and after school, and when he was 13, he started working full time as a child laborer, in textiles, as a deliveryman and a street vendor.

He said the turning point came when he was 16 and working as an apprentice at a jewel stone workshop. He said he became fascinated watching the changing colors and patterns of gems, as the artisans worked.

“Jewel stone creation has become part of my habit, part of my life,” said Chan who, following the talk, was headed to Maastricht, the Netherlands to showcase 40 pieces of his jewelry at the TEFAF fair for art, antiques and design.

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