The tastemaker: Wallace Chan

The brilliant Chinese jewellery designer on the inspiration behind his pioneering creations, how he came to develop his signature Wallace Cut — and his upcoming exhibition at Christie’s in Hong Kong

‘I express my life through gemstones,’ says Hong Kong-based jewellery designer Wallace Chan. ‘It’s about a pursuit of freedom.’ Born in 1956 in Fujian, China, Chan found his artistic calling early, fashioning flowers out of plastic at the age of eight. At 16 he began an apprenticeship with a sculptor in a traditional workshop, but left after nine months to hone his skills in carving raised intaglio and sunken cameo reliefs. In the subsequent decades, Chan has experimented with a wide spectrum of techniques and materials.

From 12-14 January, 2019, Christie’s Gallery in Central, Hong Kong, will host Shapeshifter – The Multi-Verse of Wallace Chan, his first-ever public exhibition in Hong Kong. The show will feature over 80 pieces of contemporary sculpture, wearable works of art, and products of the artist’s innovations over the past 45 years. 

Early in his career, Chan's pieces often drew on traditional Chinese iconography. But he was equally inspired by the sculptures of Michelangelo, particularly the play of light on their surfaces. ‘I always take light into account,’ says the designer, who explains that he keeps searching 'until I find that particular point where light can penetrate’.

A multi-gem brooch, by Wallace Chan. Sold for HK$3,220,000 on 28 November 2017 at Christies Hong Kong

A multi-gem brooch, by Wallace Chan. Sold for HK$3,220,000 on 28 November 2017 at Christie's Hong Kong

With time, key themes began to emerge in Chan's production: nature, philosophy and sculpture. His butterflies and flowers are Fauvist and opulent; his sculptural forms are classically Romantic.

Chan is not only a sublime artist, but also a world-class innovator. Over the course of two and a half years he invented a technique known as the ‘Wallace Cut’, which takes advantage of a gemstone’s internal properties to produce designs with a three-dimensional effect.

A green-yellow diamond and multi-gem ring. Sold for HK$450,000; A multi-gem ring. Sold for HK$750,000. Both by Wallace Chan. Offered on 28 November 2017 at Christies Hong Kong

A green-yellow diamond and multi-gem ring. Sold for HK$450,000; A multi-gem ring. Sold for HK$750,000. Both by Wallace Chan. Offered on 28 November 2017 at Christie's Hong Kong

‘When I started learning about gem-cutting,’ says Chan, I saw how the light entered the stone’s body through its surface, and how light interacts inside it.’ Inspired by the use of multiple exposure in photography, Chan began to explore how to use the concept to create cameos and other designs that could feel almost lifelike.

‘When I carve an image at the back of a gemstone,’ he explains, ‘that image is visible on the front. But, thanks to the stone's own reflective properties, the design appears four additional times. When viewed from the front, the result seems almost three-dimensional.’

Wallace Chan in his studio

Wallace Chan in his studio

In addition to the Wallace Cut, Chan has developed new methods of cutting and setting to minimise the visibility of metal between precious stones. He has also pioneered a technology to enhance the luminosity of jadeite

Chan seeks to marry the aesthetics of Asia and the West, and was the first Chinese jewellery designer to exhibit at TEFAF New York (2016) and Maastricht (2017), and at the Biennale des Antiquaires in Paris (2012, 2014).

A multi-gem ‘Pride’ brooch, by Wallace Chan. Estimate HK$1,025,000 on 28 November 2017 at Christies Hong Kong

A multi-gem ‘Pride’ brooch, by Wallace Chan. Estimate: HK$1,025,000 on 28 November 2017 at Christie's Hong Kong

‘To me, jewellery is an art form,’ says Chan. ‘Ornamentation means little unless it amalgamates with the human body. I want my creations to trigger a provocative dialogue between form and function; between the individual and the universe; and between the past and the future. Many of my pieces also explore the eternal interdependence of life and death.

‘I am very excited to curate this exhibition at Christie’s, which encompasses not only the most enchanting pieces over my four-decade career, but also defines the essence of my creative journey as I evolved from my early days as sculptor to becoming a painter and now a jewellery artist.’

Above all, though, Chan wants his gems to take on a life of their own: ‘I hope that when my creations part with me, they will be transcendent and become symbols of this generation.’