Hardship is a part of life, but for the artisan seeking mastery, struggle and adversity are as essential as one’s dexterity and ingenuity. In fact, one of the world’s most revered jewellery artists finds that seeking perfection in his craft is not just a metaphor for spiritual enlightenment, it is literally an instrument on his journey towards it.
“I believe that all things in the world have their internal spirits. There is a spirit in everything in the world. There is a life in them. If you give out your love to an object or a living thing, you will get that in return,” says master jewellery artist Wallace Chan, the first Asian to exhibit at many of the world’s most exclusive shows, such as Biennale des Antiquaires in France, where he sparkled amidst Boucheron, Chaumet and Van Cleef & Arpels as one of greatest jewellers of all time.
“When I create, it’s a bit like I’m on a religious practice. I inject energy into my creation — I inject love into the pieces so that these pieces will make people feel joyful. They bring hope to people.”
Chan’s journey as an artisan — a saga as rich with internal lessons as external challenges — has refined him personally, cultivating spiritual gems along with his bejewelled masterpieces.
“We might say that we love heaven, we love the earth, but if we don’t understand pain or we don’t understand heartache, then we don’t have experiences that are profound enough to really grant us the wisdom,” he says. “We really need to have understanding of this side of the world, or this side of emotions, in order to have a much better appreciation and understanding of life.”
Humble, brave beginnings
Chan grew up in Taiwan and left school at age 13, working odd jobs, but worrying his family about his future. By age 16, at the urging of his uncle, the teenage Chan became a gemstone-carving apprentice.
“Working in the gemstone factory was meant to equip myself with a skill — if I can build a skill, then I would be able to survive and secure my own future,” says Chan. But even that early on, Chan was no simple student — an inborn path urged him forward, a calling only he could hear.
“When I was at the factory, I was not learning what I wanted to learn — I was just learning what other factory workers were doing,” Chan says. “After nine months, I left my master.” His parents and uncle, who had introduced him to the workshop, were deeply troubled and thought the teen had ruined his future.
“I consider myself a brave person, in the sense that I’m willing to work hard — I’m not afraid of hardship,” he says. “I wanted to explore the world out there.”
Despite his parents’ fears, they still believed in their son, and after two months of whittling down their wills, the future jewellery master convinced them to lend him 1,000 Hong Kong dollars (just over $150 CAD) to carry on carving. Chan bought two pieces of malachite and a few small tools, and at 17, he launched his carving career.
“In Buddhist thinking, they talk about the road or the path leading to the universe,” Chan says. “It’s important that when you want to really understand the universe, you need to first forget who you are. Forget your own existence so that you can become part of the universe — you can integrate. If we are too obsessed with our daily lives, what’s going on with the money, our own personal emotions, then we wouldn’t really be able to appreciate the universe. We wouldn’t be able to elevate ourselves to a different level.”
Chan clearly was following an invisible guide, one that he intuitively trusted, but also one that would take him through trials and tribulations, refining his character in tandem with his craft.
“I worked very hard for one and a half years after getting the funds from my parents,” Chan recalls. He was able to make a few thousand Hong Kong dollars selling his carvings. A new client came along, and bought one of his works. He convinced Chan that he had many friends that would adore his pieces, so the trusting young entrepreneur-artist gave him the rest of his works.
“He never paid, so I lost everything and all the money that I made,” Chan says.
It’s not an easy craft, Chan explains — the tests are endless. But a diamond isn’t made overnight, so he always forged on. He remembers one instance where he saved his earnings for a year and a half to buy a certain gemstone. After four months of work, Chan had come to the final stage.
“In the middle of the night, when I was polishing the stone at around 11:00 or 12:00, late in the evening, somehow the machine broke down and threw the gemstone out the window, and it landed on the ground, broken.”
Since Chan was constantly innovating new ways to make jewellery, carving tools were always a problem, which, from his positive life perspective, became opportunities for growth. On one unstable machine, for example, he broke his fingers. Because his livelihood depended on his dexterity, if he had been a lesser man, such troubles might have killed his will, and his career.
“There are all sorts of dangers involved in making jewellery pieces by hand or making tools, or even just using the machines,” Chan says. “These are all tough challenges from most people’s perspective, but when you look back, we would feel that actually it’s all these past experiences that have helped us become who we are today. Without them, we won’t be here. As long as we’re constantly making progress, that’s comforting to know.”
Despite his unrelenting optimism in the face of adversity, there’s one hardship that Chan never wants to face.
“For me, the most difficult part is not being able to create on a daily basis,” Chan says. “If I don’t create, I find it difficult.”
It’s that passion, that love to create, his true artisanal spirit, that has propelled Chan through the most difficult times in his life, which, looking back, were perfectly placed stepping stones on a path towards developing an uncanny understanding of gemstone carving.
“The arrangements of the crystal structure, how the temperature affects metal, the memory of the metal and the hardness of the metal — I believe you need to have a very high level of control of the materials and the techniques that you’re using in order to achieve what you want to achieve,” he says. “I was able to tell whether a carving knife was sharp enough by hearing the sound that was made when it was carving, so that I could decide on how hard or how much energy I needed to do the carving, or whether the carving was producing too much heat so that I needed to cool off the carving in water.”
Making the cut
Chan’s belief in the limitless nature of the universe was likely the quality that inspired him to achieve feats with gemstones other jewellers wouldn’t dare to attempt.
“I saw a photography exhibition many, many years ago,” Chan says. “I was very much fascinated by the result of multiple exposures on pictures — you can see multiple images of one person on one photo. At that time, I started to think if I could reproduce that kind of effect on gemstones, that would be wonderful.”
A few years later, at age 33, Chan was learning how to carve diamonds and gemstones, and he noticed that the light refracted through the gemstones, fascinating him.
“I was inspired to try this on a gemstone, using the refraction of light to create this effect,” he says. “I started with calculating the angles of faceting the cutting and then started to experiment.”
Defying physical laws and generations of craftsmanship before him were only the beginning of Chan’s problems. He was so broke he had to stretch 100 grams of rice over three days, and even slept on the roof for fresh air to avoid the extreme heat.
“Later I had a stroke, and I didn’t really have anyone next to me. All my assistants left, and no one was there to take care of me,” he says. “That was a very difficult time for me.”
Chan couldn’t afford to pay the electricity bill, but all he cared about and worked on was developing his patented, signature Wallace Cut. But to develop a new form of craftsmanship that would bend reality, Chan’s life philosophies would invigorate him.
“In Buddhist thinking, if you forget yourself but at the same time you love everything in this world, then you will be able to enter a state where you are minimal but the world is huge. You will be able to enter a world that is ever-enlarging, so that you can better understand the world and the universe,” he says. “When you come out of that world, you will be able to look at the relationship between yourself and the objects in the outside world, to analyze them from a more analytical point of view, to be more sensible when you look at them.”
For the Wallace Cut, Chan combined many techniques, such as intaglio, hollowing the gemstone, and cameo, carving a relief out of rock. By harmonizing these opposite techniques, Chan was able to carve a figure into the back of a transparent gem, which would then reflect multiple times as light shines through.
In 1987, Chan debuted his illusionary Wallace Cut to the amazement of the international high jewellery market, and praise poured in. The German Gemstone Museum named him the “Carving Prodigy from Asia,” and the acclaimed jewellery historian Vivienne Becker deemed the Wallace Cut one of the most important achievements in jewellery in the 20th century.
A quintessential example of the Wallace Cut’s beauty is the necklace Now and Always, depicting the Greek goddess Horae, whose madonna-like image is carved into an aquamarine, reflecting four times. Chan toiled on the piece for two years, using tools like a dentist’s drill, often carving blindly under water to cool the stone — a heightened experience of unity between artisan and stone that filled Chan with bliss, he says.
From 1996 to 2000, Chan worked regularly on large-scale sculptures for Buddhist monasteries, including one particularly life-changing project. In 2001, Chan was given the unique opportunity to create a shrine in Taiwan that would house the Buddha’s tooth — the Great Stupa, which the master jeweller adorned with gold, crystal and precious gemstones.
“The completion of that process actually allowed me to experience some changes, mentally, spiritually,” Chan says. “After the Great Stupa was made, I became a monk for about half a year. After that, I returned to Hong Kong to continue with my jewellery-making and carving. I became much more aware of the spiritual world, my internal world.”
Now equipped with deeper levels of wisdom, it only made sense that Chan focus on innovations for Asia’s most revered gemstone — jade.
“When it comes to the relationship between light and jade, it’s actually very important to remember that jade is a translucent gemstone,” Chan says. “The light travels through the jade or the jadeite. For example, it’s very important to look at the jade from different angles, and to shine the light on the jade from different angles — from the top, from the bottom. With the patented technology that I’ve created, I managed to understand how the light travels and then through the special cutting technique, I maintained the colour and the brightness in the jade.”
After Chan received the patent in 2002, Swiss watchmaker Corum commissioned the master jeweller to craft a pair of Buckingham Vision 18k Jadeite Wristwatches, which later sold for $1 million.
One of Chan’s favourite pieces, which encapsulates his advancements with jade, is also, appropriately, the Chinese symbol for rebirth — a cicada, a seemingly clear metaphor for the master artisan’s innovative spirit and ability to transcend any and all barriers in the world of jewellery-making. In his Stilled Life brooch, the winged being stands still but with so much life, vigor, and sunlight shining through its translucent jade wings — thanks to his patented technology — that it looks as if it’s about to take flight at any moment.
Its unlikely glow comes from the development of yet another invention, this one inspired by Ming Dynasty furniture. In this technique of “inner mortise and tenon setting method,” Chan specially cuts the various gemstones to fit perfectly together, minimizing any visibility of metal.
“It’s important at this stage to come back to the internal world as well, because we also have our internal light, which can be the light of your spirit, or the light of wisdom,” he says. “This allows us to make better judgment of what we are actually looking at in the outside world.”